Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death in 2014 put a face on heroin addiction. But what if the most powerful face of the disease, at least to you, is your own son’s?
Our oldest son, Richie, became addicted to painkillers at 21 after he broke his wrist skateboarding. He moved from OxyContin to heroin when the former became too expensive and the latter was seen as a cheap substitute.
Richie became an addict over the span of a few short months in 2013. As soon as we discovered his addiction, he went to drug rehab and sought help. Home for the holidays, happy and clean, he was contacted by his old drug dealer, and in a moment of weakness, he relapsed and died at our home, literally in my arms, from a heroin overdose.
He is not alone.A hundred Americans die every day from drug overdose. Drug use currently affects 7 percent of the population, or about 16 million people, with youths now exhibiting a higher incidence of drug use than adults. Studies suggest that some 38,900 deaths occur annually from drug overdose.
Who can deny that this scourge is a profoundly moral issue? Instead of recognizing it for what it is and seeking national healing, many of us have called it “sin,” turning victims into perpetrators who are punished rather than treated as having a disease.
I wonder how much my own evangelical Christian faith has to do with this 30-year trend of retributive rather than restorative justice, something that should prompt some soul-searching and repentance. After all, it was the Republican victories in 1980, powered by the Christian Right, followed by Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, that sent us down the path of “three strikes you’re out” penalties, and an incarceration rate now seen for what it is — racist and deeply shameful.
I supported the so-called drug war, until I realized that a “war,” as someone once put it, required an “us vs. them” mentality. There is no “them,” only us. We need to stop this madness and begin to treat heroin and other drug users as victims that need help, not criminals deserving lengthy jail sentences.
As psychotherapist Anne Wilson Schaef once put it, society shows all the signs of classic addiction beginning with denial. The great cultural lie — in the white community and especially in conservative religious circles — is that this problem is to be found on “the other side of the tracks,” the inner city or any place other than one’s own hometown. Certainly not in one’s own family.
I know the fallacy of this reality. It’s a gut-wrenching experience. But nothing like the disease itself. Entitled “Drowning,” these powerful words, written by my son struggling to free himself from heroin addiction, are raw, real and profound:
This is my darkest hour because I was once living in madness.
If only the others who’ll judge me knew how it can control you and that old person isn’t me.
A sickness so strong it can eat your soul, no matter how hard you fight to keep control.
It will change you into a skinny pale creature of the night, make you so different others won’t recognize you at first sight.
I’m so ashamed of who I’ve become, it seems impossible for the outcome to be undone.
But this isn’t really true so I pray for the strength and wisdom to make it through.
I hope one day this will all be a story to be told to keep others from stumbling and falling as well.
So don’t go into the devils playground like me
This is no game you see, once he has both hands on you it will take a lifetime to get free.
Now you know why I must stop others from drowning. Like me.
When the death of a young person occurs from a drug overdose, it’s like an IED (improvised explosive device) exploding, wounding and maiming family and friends forever. You never get over it. You just learn to live with it. You learn to put your pain on the shelf to be taken off when you can handle the emotions. You pray every day for strength and healing.
Just as we have had to shift our entire way of thinking about prevention of nuclear war, we need to change our way of thinking about the “war on drugs” and addiction. If you don’t think it can happen to you, let me say as a father who lost a 23-year-old son, it can happen to anyone.
Four bills aimed at reducing heroin deaths were introduced at the current session of the Virginia General Assembly. Three bills were passed, but lawmakers rejected a bill to increase punishment for dealers who give fatal doses of illegal drugs. (This is what happened to our son.)
At least a dozen young people have died from drug overdoses in my hometown of Fredericksburg, Va., in the past year. These are not the “usual suspects,” or those in perpetual trouble with the law or authorities. Unlike alcoholism, which permits many prior warnings with opportunities to change, one wrong choice to use heroin can lead to death.
If we want to begin to address heroin addiction, we should start by adding new contemporary educational prevention campaigns, increase treatment for the more than 60 percent of addicts who don’t receive treatment and end the legal war against the victims of addiction.
The perceived stigma of “shame” associated with seeking substance-abuse treatment along with the corresponding desire to remain anonymous, has to change. The pain and cost to families and society of not dealing honestly, publicly and compassionately with heroin and other addictions, is the real shame.
Richard Cizik is president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. CBS will air Richie Cizik’s story, as well as an interview with drug czar Michael Botticelli,on “Faith, Hope and the Burden of Addiction” on April 19 on WUSA at 6:30 a.m.