It’s a Saturday evening, the day before Mother’s Day. My husband and I are having dinner and watching a movie on television. The phone rings and my husband answers. I can hear the voice breaking on the other end of the line: “Trav’s passed, he’s gone.”
My husband seems confused. But my heart immediately sinks deeper into the abyss of grief and shock I now know so well. We’ve lost a second adult child to an apparent fentanyl-involved overdose.
Travis, my stepson, was 39. He had recently made the decision to begin using Suboxone while figuring out what recovery needed to look like for him, as his substance use was adversely affecting his life. My husband had been connecting with him much more frequently than before, and was encouraging him in his efforts while also discussing the dangers of the street supply.
Travis seemed to be doing well. He was working out of state, and was trying to stay on track. He and my husband would exchange song quotes and jokes via text almost daily.
A funny, bright, handsome young man, loved by so many including his two young children, is gone forever.
From what we’ve learned, Travis had come back to his family home in California to visit for the Mother’s Day weekend. He’d been hanging out with two of his brothers on the Friday night, and at some point, they all decided to go to bed.
His brothers found him in the bedroom the next day. Travis was unresponsive, and it was too late for any efforts at resuscitation.
A funny, bright, handsome young man, loved by so many including his two young children, is now gone forever.
Perhaps some of you read my recent article, “They Call Me a Drug Seeker,” in which I related the death last year of my daughter, Desiree. In it, I outlined how the response to the overdose crisis by governments and medical providers, to both chronic pain patients like me and people who use unregulated drugs, is tearing apart the lives of families like mine all across the nation.
I’ve received a lot of positive feedback. But I can’t help but feel that my words mean little to those living this in the abstract. Many people can’t comprehend the devastation happening in the lives of strangers they read about in a newspaper or online, or when they hear the latest statistics on “opioid deaths.” Not when local personalities are sounding the alarm on the evening news, painting fentanyl as a deadly scourge while leaving out the part about how prohibition policies are fueling drug-related deaths.
On the Daily Remedy podcast, I was asked if I thought some who read my article might think I was being dramatic about the trauma that the “opioid response” has inflicted on me and my family. It’s hard to say, but based on some interactions with the public since my article was published, I’d wager many do think it’s an exaggeration.
It’s a challenge to bring someone into the reality of untreated or even undertreated chronic pain, of the constant battle that life becomes. If you don’t experience unending pain or illness first-hand, or face the barriers that now exist in obtaining care and medicine to treat these conditions, it’s almost impossible to appreciate how it ravages the body after days and months, years and decades. Chronic pain wears on one’s mind and spirit, too. Your world becomes smaller and smaller as your ability to participate in family and community events evaporates. You become a ghost in your own life.
If you have buried or cremated your own child, I don’t have to tell you about the trauma. If you haven’t, count yourself blessed, at least for now.
What’s hard for me to imagine, although I believe it, is that anyone could think I’m being dramatic about the loss of, now, two of our children—my daughter only 35, and now my stepson. It’s hard for me to fathom that there are people who can’t at least feel empathy for those losing loved ones, or who are not outraged at how legislators and leaders keep doubling down on policies that are fueling ever more suffering and death.
If you have buried or cremated your own child, then I don’t have to tell you about the kind of trauma we’re living through in our home right now. If you haven’t, count yourself blessed, at least for now.
But understand that most parents who lose their children to fentanyl-involved overdose will tell you that they didn’t see it coming—many never thought this would happen in their family. They may even tell you that they had “the talk” about the dangers of the street supply, about test kits, about never using drugs alone, about naloxone. Yet in the end, despite every effort, their child, or loved one, is no longer alive.
Some might find this article triggering. Yet how do we change course unless we speak openly and honestly about the stark, horrific reality of what’s happening? How do we break through to people before this devastation happens to them? How do we have honest conversations if people are unwilling to believe those telling the stories of lived experience? Or worse, if they judge what they view as “bad choices” made by the people who are dying—with the implication, often unspoken, that they are somehow getting what they deserve?
Unless enough people wake up, we will have more of the same. Right now, the very agencies shaping national drug policies, the same agencies cracking down on prescribing and prescribers, are telling the public not to take pills that don’t come from a doctor—a directive that falsely suggests people can actually get the drugs they seek or need from a doctor.
As the overdose crisis swelled, the government started by targeting prescribed opioids, which has continued—despite the facts that have come to light about conflated data falsely blaming prescribed medications. And now it has morphed into restrictions and law enforcement surveillance on other prescribed drugs. These include stimulants like Adderall, and benzodiazepines—for which my daughter, who lived with PTSD and panic disorder, was denied the prescription she needed, before she died due to fentanyl toxicity after taking a counterfeit “Xanax.” Apparently, policymakers have never heard of the Iron Law of Prohibition.
How to start the conversations with people who are still unconvinced of the cause-and-effect? Maybe with the fact that many people in America don’t have access to health insurance, often the very people referred to as being in the crosshairs of “social determinants” of health. Many, contrary to popular belief, are working and don’t qualify for government assistance, yet still can’t afford the “affordable care” on offer. What do they do to manage health issues like pain, anxiety, PTSD, depression, ADHD or substance use disorders? People have always been forced to self-medicate with nonprescribed drugs.
Someone once actually said to me of fentanyl-involved deaths: “When people play stupid games, they win stupid prizes.”
What about the sentiments of those who say that everyone has the ability to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”? There are too many people who don’t even have boots, and that particular colloquialism rings so hollow when we’re talking about fellow human beings who are marginalized, stigmatized and facing hardships beyond the speaker’s grasp.
That feeds into the challenging discussion of addiction. In my own life, I’ve watched how chaotic substance use can seemingly cloud a person’s ability to make rational choices. But questions of choice and agency get discussed without any reference to the person’s circumstances—physical, economic, social, psychological. Circumstances which, if only they were acknowledged and understood, would make the chaotic use—when immediate suffering is the consequence of not using—make much more sense. Instead, addiction gets reduced to “bad choices.”
We can turn from there to drug experimentation, which is a very normal human behavior. Someone once actually said to me of fentanyl-involved deaths: “When people play stupid games, they win stupid prizes.”
This offensive notion of a death sentence being warranted for either substance use disorder or experimentation persists, even among those who won’t say it out loud—undermining equity and care, and further empowering the architects of this disaster.
We are watching leaders make bad decision after bad decision on drug and prescribing policies. With more deaths attributed to fentanyl, they’ve just passed a bill through the House to permanently classify its analogs under Schedule I, increasing the criminalization of possession and sales of fentanyl-related substances. Under these pressures, it’s easy to predict new drugs ultimately taking the place of fentanyl, leading to even more deaths.
Perhaps if leaders do start listening, they can avoid making more “bad choices.”
And what about those living the consequences of failed policies? Families like mine losing loved ones? What about those battling pain and illness, including those with substance use issues, who are having their ability to function and quality of life stripped from them?
We aren’t seeing things improve. What we’re witnessing is more generational trauma happening in real time, despite the tireless advocacy efforts of so many. As the overdose crisis keeps taking more and more lives, what is it going to take for legislators to start listening to those of us who have boots on the ground, who are actually living this nightmare?
Perhaps if leaders do start listening, they can avoid making more “bad choices,” and we can get down to the real business of actually saving lives with health care, harm reduction and drastic drug policy change.
If saving lives is the goal. Because truth be told, many of us losing family and friends are wondering at this point what the goal really is.