More of us must advocate more vocally for those who fall into the trap of opioid addiction, often due to undiagnosed mental health issues, over use of prescribed opioids or self-medicating.
AS I add my voice to the ongoing conversation about this region’s opioid pandemic, mine are not just the words of a concerned citizen, watching lives and families being slowly destroyed. Mine are not just the words of someone who cares about his community, bearing witness to the tremendous toll this scourge is wreaking on our collective psyche. Mine are not just the words of a retired human-resources professional who has seen productivity in our workplaces suffer because of addiction. Mine are the words of a heroin addict, 19 years in recovery.
I’m sharing my story in the hope that it might shed a different light on the destructive and devastating nature of addiction.
For nearly a generation, my addiction took me through the streets of Seattle, the halls of graduate school and the corridors of the corporate world. Starting with the addictive pharmaceutical narcotic Demerol, and finally heroin, I veered sharply from my prescribed path, yet appeared to function fully in society. Holding a demanding job at one of our region’s major employers, I maintained a high level of functioning and productivity despite my struggles. I had good health insurance and financial resources, which are not available to many addicts.
However, I was fearful about accessing help through my employer due to the stigma of being a “junkie” and the anticipated backlash. This led to extended shame and fear for far too long.
And so I believe that more of us must advocate more vocally for those who fall into the trap of opioid addiction — often due to undiagnosed mental-health issues — overuse of prescribed opioids or self-medicating. We must not only have an honest, unvarnished dialogue about these issues in our community, we must embrace bold and creative solutions being proposed to address them. We must do so now, whether it is offering our full support for the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, led by King County Executive Dow Constantine, or suspending our primal fears about ”Community Health Engagement Locations” — safe injection sites proposed by the task force for people struggling with addiction.
For some, a place to start, perhaps, is by simply educating themselves about the opioid epidemic, seeking out literature or documentaries on the subject. Others may volunteer at needle exchanges or overnight shelters or support local community behavioral-health centers, which are increasingly struggling to adjust to the growing epidemic. Whatever people in our community choose to do, I believe they must do something, anything, to combat this growing community-health concern.
I achieved release from my addiction at the age of 52. After 19 years of freedom, I openly acknowledge my history of addiction, feeling compelled, not only as a former opioid abuser, but as an engaged community member, to speak out due to the enormity of this problem in our community. This means that, from the dining room table all the way to the board room, we all need to have honest, painful, truthful and compassionate conversations about addiction.
We need to expand society’s understanding that opiate addiction is a medical condition and that people living with addiction do matter and are worthy of our efforts to help them. We cannot sweep this under the rug due to ignorance or shame. It is important to raise awareness, and people should emerge from the shadows with personal stories to help combat this crisis. I’m proud, and relieved, to finally share my experiences and perspective.