We lost another promising young life this week. To be honest, I am at a loss for words.
I have been shouting from the rooftops for months that we need to find a way to stop this plague, but while we have seen some improvements, we buried a beautiful 22-year-old this week. Clearly, whatever we are doing just isn’t enough. Because 22-year-olds are not supposed to die. Their parents are supposed to be thinking about escorting them to the chuppah, not accompanying them to their graves.
But here we are again.
This week, I want to try something different. I want to shine the spotlight on the similarities between the more than 55 deaths from drug overdoses that we have seen this year in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, we can save a life.
There is a lot of emphasis on getting people who abuse drugs into rehab, but after that the positive momentum fizzles out. People who have cancer undergo extensive treatment and go into remission, but the story doesn’t end there. Their physicians monitor them regularly to make sure that they don’t relapse.
If only we had the same kind of stick-to-it-iveness for those who suffer from addiction. We send them to rehab and pronounce them cured, not realizing that addiction is a lifelong battle. Getting an addict sober is just one step in a very long journey, and it takes the concerted efforts of family and friends to make sure they stay sober, even when life throws them curveballs.
In the case of the 55+ deaths we have seen this year, they have occurred in people who have been through rehab and gotten sober. So what happened? What leads to relapse and why is relapse so dangerous?
There are many factors that contribute to why a relapse is especially dangerous for an addict. One thing to understand is that when someone develops a dependency on drugs, their body builds up a tolerance. As a result, they need to up their dosage to get the same high. After treatment like rehab and a period of abstinence, their body reverts to a healthier state; this amounts to a reduction in tolerance. If a relapse into using occurs, things turn deadly. When they slip back into their unhealthy behaviors, they generally do so at their most recent, higher dose. Their brains do not process or realize that their bodies are physically incapable of handling that dosage.
Another significant factor is distress and hopelessness. When addicts invest in a process of recovery, they have to put their whole heart into it. Their life and their hopes ride on staying clean and getting better. They build friendships with other sober and clean friends and everyone around them is proud and grateful that they made it. Then, when a relapse occurs, it can feel like their whole life has fallen apart, they have disappointed everyone who loves them and they can’t imagine facing their loved ones and friends. This despondency, mixed with a natural impulse for more, creates a dangerous situation. When addicts, or anyone, for that matter, lose hope in life they will take risks, especially if it means a few moments of peace. In these situations, addicts don’t realize they are putting their lives in danger, or even want to; they simply don’t care.
It is critical for all to understand that these people did not choose to die or intentionally choose to put their lives in danger, or even decide to become addicts in the first place. They are suffering and they need our help and our continuous support. Addiction is a sickness. In some cases, people become addicted as they try to cope with a history of abuse or trauma. In other instances, people who started taking painkillers after an accident find themselves unable to live without them. Most times there are many factors that lead a person to addiction.
What can be done to prevent these tragic deaths?
We need to make sure addicts and their families realize that relapse is an unfortunate reality. Long-term sustainable recovery is possible, but sometimes relapse happens before you get there.
Addicts need to know it’s not okay to relapse, but they will never be judged, shamed or shunned for having a relapse. They need to be welcomed back with love and acceptance, as long as they are serious about getting back up. And if not, they still need to be loved and accepted, only perhaps with some distance or boundaries.
More information needs to be provided to addicts in recovery about relapse: that if they or their friends in recovery ever slip back they must be careful about dosage and amounts; that their life literally depends on it.
Addicts must understand that the first 48 hours after a relapse is the most dangerous time in the life of an addict.
We need to encourage recovering addicts to attend support meetings on a regular basis and to maintain close relationships with healthy supports; to reach out if they are feeling urges and especially to reach out if a relapse has happened.
We need to be there for those who suffer from addiction when they falter, and avoid putting temptation in their path. No one should ever offer a recovering alcoholic a shot of alcohol at a kiddush so that they can make a l’chaim. That l’chaim can take them all the way back to square one.
As a community, we need to be honest with ourselves and realize that this problem is in our midst. We have to give up the ridiculous notion that we shouldn’t send those with addictions to rehab because “someone might find out.” I promise you, when someone dies because they didn’t get the help they needed, everyone finds out.
It’s not enough just to get people sober — we need to keep them sober.
It’s not enough just to keep people sober — we need to give them a reason to live.
It’s not enough just to give people a reason to live — we need to give their lives meaning.
And maybe, just maybe, if we can do that, this epidemic will finally stop.