I just wanted to tell you something. I think it’s time that I did.
I’m 37 when I write this.
I’ve known a lot of people who have died.
I’ve never been to war.
I don’t live in a prolific crime area.
I don’t work in a hospice. I don’t spend time in places where one would expect the end result to be death. Yet I have known a lot of people who have died.
“Get a suit. You are going to go to a lot of weddings and a lot of funerals.” Someone said this to me in 2011 when I admitted I had a problem with drugs and alcohol and wanted a different path. I spend time in places where one would hope the end result to be extension of life. Yet, I know a lot of people who have died.
What’s more is I have known a lot of people who have died recently. Their families are still reeling, recounting lost moments, angry conversations, desperate pleas, wishing they had done things differently. Their friends are still tearing up with the thought, “I can’t believe you are gone.” Their voice still hangs in the part of the brain where one can swear they JUST HEARD IT. It’s fresh grief because they just died last month, even the last week of the last month. It is likely going to happen today where I live that someone who is attempting to alleviate the endless aching of deep, deep soul pain will use the solution that always worked before and this time it will kill them.
This is nothing new. As long as there has been access to life threatening mind-altering drugs, people have used them and people have died. There is nothing new under the sun. Yet, I can still hear their laugh and their intention to stop as they wished for something better so I think I need to tell you a few things that will make me feel really vulnerable. I do feel vulnerable in this writing, but I also feel called so, here it goes…
I was different in my faith tradition and spiritual practice when I was younger. I was a super, uber born-again, biblical literalism Christian as a teen with values of complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol. I took myself to church when my friends were taking themselves to parties. I was scared of drugs and alcohol. I had lived experience of addiction from adults in my life since I was very young and I desperately wanted a life where none of that existed. I sought after a life where none of that existed.Though my values and my attempts at daily living were to walk away from any situation where drugs and alcohol were involved, there was also a deep aching for me where my sexuality and gender identity were concerned. Since this did not match the teachings and beliefs the broader church that I subscribed to at the time held, I very much felt intense shame and pain, constant preparation for rejection, a feeling of otherness at a level that sometimes relegated me to exist alone and isolated in my room, feeling desperate for love. It also led me to thinking of dying nearly all the time until I was 21. I am a queer person and transgender and this pain is a common story. My story is one of so many.
This pain accompanied me. One day, I tried alcohol. Hello, sweet relief! No pain, no worry, no fear. And the people I drank with did not care one bit that being a girl and female didn’t ever fit for me, but I was super glad it fit for them: “Hey girl, how you doing? Come here often?” I could tell the truth about the person I was and they did not reject me. With that first drink, my internal and external world had congruency. So I sought that moment over the next many years, again and again and again. Richard Rohr poses that the only reason we do something again is that the last time we did it, it wasn’t entirely satisfying. We were left wanting. The alcohol that flowed into places never touched before and met a need I never knew could be met before, awakened a wanting that would never leave. I wanted to feel that way forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I also did not want that addiction thing I grew up despising. The loss of control for me was gradual. I had dreams, I had wishes, I had hopes and even though I found sweet surrender in alcohol, it took some time for that to become my focus. It was gradual, seductive and debilitating. Without too many details, this ebb and flow of trying to be in the world and follow dreams, live values, be authentic, seek spirit while also trying to meet this ever growing need that took me further away from everything that was life-giving became a tsunami of pain, loss and certain death. I expedited this when I discovered opiates.
People often die when they combine opiates and alcohol. This combination is one of the deadliest in the world. They may not die the first time, often not the second, but if it continues, they will die at a higher rate than either alone. I know that. The reason I know that is that when all of this was happening in my life, I worked professionally as someone trying to help people who were in addiction and asking for help. It is my craft and my career. Those words, on paper, in front of me now, seem ridiculous. I was drowning trying to help those drowning. Here’s the thing, though, I didn’t know I was drowning. That’s the trickiness of this whole painful disease: you often don’t know you have it until it nearly kills you. And I thought I was breathing fine as the tsunami overtook me.
I knew if I took these pills and I drank, I could die. I didn’t consciously want to die. I had developed a lot to live for. There was incredible pain deep within that beckoned me to consider death, but I wasn’t aware of it most days. I drank and I took those pills. A few things led me to ask for help. We got that alcohol thing in check. That just freed me, though, to really start taking those pills. And I was addicted to opiates in nearly no time at all.
There are stages of addiction. It is a deadly disease, once activated, it often ends in death, but along the way, it separates the sufferer from experiencing anything loving and life-giving at all. It depletes the world from light; darkness overtakes everything in its final stages. What’s so awful, though, what’s so incredible soul wrenching, is when it started, I felt like I had finally found light. Isn’t that the worst thing ever? I finally felt peace. Ease. I felt equanimity, truly. I feel sacrilegious for that statement since there is nothing I know more soul stealing than addiction, but it finally gave me that “We are meant to love and be loved” awareness that overtook everything bad. And then it immediately started killing me.
Opiate addiction is its own animal in so many ways. I have a teacher in my life, Dr. Wen Cai, an expert in the field, who gives an amazing talk about opiate addiction I have listened to a number of times. One of the things he talks about is viewing this as the disease that it is. He describes opiate addiction as the cancer of addiction. People are dying at an alarming rate if it is not interrupted. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that every day in the United States 44 people die from prescription opioid overdose. Add another 21 people who die every day due to heroin overdose. Put another way to help us fully understand this magnitude, there are now more deaths from opiate overdose than all motor vehicle accidents and the numbers are growing. And how do we fare in Arizona? Arizona is ranked in the top 10 states struggling with this epidemic.
When someone activates the disease of addiction with their first use, opiates commonly administered the first time in pill form, they are stepping into a life and death situation. It’s a gamble every time a person uses. That alone is awful. You know what makes it even worse? The person putting that pill to their lips for the first time is often a teenager wondering what this thing their loved one has been taking feels like. And they just activated a disease that could have them dead before they ever have a chance to live.
I’m 37 when I write this and I have a full life expectancy because my disease, for all intents and purposes, is in remission due to the work I do daily to maintain recovery. If I were to use again, I would be back in the gamble of life and death.
I have known a lot of people who have died and I desperately want that reality to change. It is the work of the church with extravagant welcome to consider our role in addressing what the CDC has described as the worst outbreak of opiate and heroin addiction in the history of the world. This submission to you is just a start for a conversation I hope will be very much ongoing.
I just wanted to tell you something. I have the disease of addiction and I have hope.