It’s a miracle I’m alive.
By Erin Khar
Original Source: self.com
As I settled in to watch HBO’s new documentary on the opioid crisis, Warning: This Drug May Kill You, I prepared myself. It’s never easy to witness someone in the throes of active addiction. What I didn’t expect is how emotional and nauseated I would feel within even the first five minutes.
Warning: This Drug May Kill You opens with a series of clips that capture various individuals mid-overdose. In between these harrowing moments, the documentary intersperses facts about the skyrocketing opioid crisis. The numbers are startling: Overdose-related deaths have almost tripled between 1999 and 2014.
The clip that made my stomach drop, the one I wasn’t ready for, showed a despondent toddler, trying to get her overdosing mother off the floor of a store aisle.
As I fought the lump in my throat and the tears that followed, what kept running through my mind was: That could have been me.
The first time I tried heroin was a week after my 13th birthday.
I had already been stealing pills when, shortly after my 13th birthday, I lost my virginity and shot heroin for the first time. I asked the boy I was with if he had any Vicodin. He said no, but he did have heroin, and that was that.
I continued to use off and on until I got pregnant with my son at age 28. For the first 10 years, I hid that addiction from my friends, my parents, boyfriends—nearly everyone in my life. Growing up in an affluent suburb of Los Angeles, I excelled in school, had a lot of friends, was a cheerleader, competitive equestrian, and volleyball player. I didn’t “look” like a heroin addict to anyone around me.
Things took a turn when I was 23. I began using again, and my habit swelled. My fiancé at the time caught me, and I went to rehab for the first time. To say that those closest to me were shocked would be an understatement. For the next five years, I found myself in a cycle of recovery and relapse, punctuated by severe bouts of mental health issues. I believed that my life would continue this way until I overdosed or killed myself.
That first trip to rehab was nearly 20 years ago. At that time, the opioid epidemic had yet to fully take off. The question that everyone kept asking me—from the nurses in the detox ward to my parents and loved ones—was one that was also repeated in this film: “Why would you do this to yourself?”
From the outside, it seemed baffling to people, even to other addicts I met in rehab: “I just don’t get putting a needle in your arm,” they’d say to me. Or, “Heroin is the one drug I would NEVER touch.” The truth is popping 10, 20, 30 Vicodin or Oxy a day is no different than sticking a needle in your arm. And many who start on pills, like those featured in the documentary, turn to heroin use as a cheaper, more efficient means to keep up with their growing opioid tolerance.
Our nation’s problem with drugs has spiraled out of control, and today, the number one cause of accidental death in the U.S. is drug overdose. Most of those are opioid-related, and HBO’s new documentary wants to illuminate the problem.
Warning: This Drug May Kill You rightfully shows that no amount of privilege—like the kind I grew up with—can insulate anyone against the turmoil and death that accompany opioid addiction. However, in doing so, it keeps the focus on middle-class and upper-middle-class white America, which is only a small part of the picture. Although the majority of people who die from opioid overdose deaths are white, this crisis affects communities of color, too. There’s also much to be said about how the government’s response to drug addiction varies based on the race of the people in question and what they’re addicted to; while today we talk about the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis, the “war on drugs” from the past few decades horrifically impacted incarceration rates within the black community specifically, even though white people are just as likely to use illegal drugs, and even more likely to deal them.
When we talk about heroin and other opioids, we talk about getting high. But for me, I was never chasing a high; I was chasing a low. It was about getting underneath the pain, the past trauma from sexual abuse when I was young, the depression that was likely linked to my assault, the feelings I couldn’t control. It was about smothering all of my emotions until they were unrecognizable. For most, relapse is inevitable if what lies beneath the surface is not addressed.
One of the addicts featured in the film, Stephany Gay, began abusing prescription painkillers that were prescribed to her in her teens for severe and chronic kidney stones. She shared the pills with her sister Ashley, and both young women became addicted, eventually turning to heroin. Sadly, Ashley overdosed and died. During one of her interviews, Stephany explained that the pills numbed her feelings and made everything feel “fine.” Far beyond the physical addiction, emotional pain is what’s driving this epidemic.
When Stephany relapsed during filming, her mother took custody of Stephany’s daughter, Audrey. In one scene, Stephany’s mom reviews with Audrey how to administer Narcan (the brand name for naloxone), which is used to reverse an opioid overdose. As the young Audrey repeats the steps of what to do if her mom overdoses, I could no longer hold back the tears and mix of emotions that came with them.
My heart breaks for that little girl, my heart breaks for that grandmother, and my heart breaks for Stephany, who I am certain carries boulders of shame and guilt for all of this. And once again, I thought, that could have been me.
When I was pregnant with my son, I was unsure that I would be able to stay clean, unsure if I could really be his mom.
My parents had contingency plans in place for when, not if, I relapsed. But the moment I saw my son, some switch inside me flipped.
Instantly, I loved him more than I hated myself.
Why did something click for me then? Why didn’t it click for Stephany or for the scores of other parents who are still in the throes of active addiction or have died? Part of it may be luck. I have often described escaping addiction like winning the lottery. But there is more to it.
It wasn’t just that one moment of seeing my son for the first time. Yes, that was the catalyst for permanent change, but it took a lot of work on my part, work I had been unwilling or incapable of doing before. It took facing my longtime battle with mental health issues. It took talk therapy and spiritual work and cognitive behavioral work and, eventually, a mood stabilizer.
The truth is, yes I worked really hard. But I also had access to those options because I have certain privileges that many do not, like detox, rehab, and mental health services. My hope is that these continue to become available to a wider group of people, because these are preventable deaths. This is preventable destruction that affects families and friends and future generations.
The other component that was essential to my recovery, and was mentioned by many of the grieving loved ones in the documentary, is moving past my shame. Shame is what drives the vicious relapse cycles that addicts get stuck in. People are ashamed to talk about it, to admit it. This is especially true when it comes to heroin.
Shame is a gatekeeper that prevents people from seeking help.
I liken my addiction story to being in a room on fire. I tried every which way to save myself from that fire—to extinguish it, to avoid it, to pretend it wasn’t there. It wasn’t until I surrendered and walked out the door, straight through it, that I began to feel free.
If you had told me 15 years ago that I would be a happily married mother, living in New York City, doing what she loves for a living, expecting my second child, I would have laughed.
If you told me I would be free of the shame, free of the addiction, that I would be happy, I never would have believed you.
That’s why I write about my past and my addiction with complete transparency and openness. Being able to face the past and face our mistakes and what we perceive as our weaknesses alleviates the shame. I can say with absolute certainty that there is no part of my past of which I am ashamed. Does that mean I wouldn’t do things differently if I could back in time? No. But it does mean I can look at myself in the mirror. I can look you in the eye and tell you with unflinching honesty about who I am and where I have been in life.
What that honesty and willingness to talk about it and write about it have given me is freedom.
My hope is that more conversations, like the ones in Warning: This Drug May Kill You, continue to happen, publicly and privately. My hope is that we see the rate of opioid addictions and opioid-related deaths decline. That we shatter the stigma. That we stop the shame cycle. That more of us are able to walk out of that room on fire, right out the door.
Erin Khar lives, loves, and writes in New York City and sometimes other cities, too. She was the recipient of a 2012 Eric Hoffer Editor’s Choice Prize for her story, “Last House at the End of the Street,” which was published in the Best New Writing 2012 anthology. Her work has appeared many places, includingMarie Claire, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, The Manifest-Station, Cosmonauts Avenue, and in a column for Ravishly. She is currently working on her first book, a memoir.
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