My brother was born a musician. His fingers were at home on the keys and he could feel the rhythm of music in his bones. Our mother says that he was born fists first, with an eagerness to experience the edges of life to the fullest from his very first moment. He seemed fearless in many ways, except when he experienced loss. Loss of love, loss of friendship, loss of pets, loss of a favorite possession, like a hat or CD, was excruciating for him. He was rarely satisfied in stillness, sometimes uncomfortable in his own skin, but also driven by an intensity, a passion to explore and experience. He filled any space that he was in, pulling others into his vortex. When he felt happy, you were happy, when he was in pain, you were in pain, when he was angry, he made sure that you were angry too. The ones he was closest to experienced this the most intensely. They were hurt by him the deepest and received the depth of his sweetness. It’s hard to say if some of these traits were symptoms of his addiction or underlying depression, if they became intensified through the traumas that he faced throughout his life, or if, perhaps, they were encoded in his genetics—predisposed traits that seem to have led to addictions for so many in my family.
I have been a helper all my life, holding the deep belief that people have an incredible ability to change and grow and overcome tremendous obstacles, understanding that we don’t always know what the secret ingredients are that allow that change to happen. As a psychologist, I was trained with theories and techniques that are evidence-based, proven effective in helping so many people, a gold standard. Yet, even then, if there is not readiness, if there is not access to the right care at the right time, if there is not trust, rarely will change happen.
I remember vividly the day that I came face to face with this realization and the understanding that I could not change my brother. He was in withdrawal and drug-seeking, pulling out every card he could possibly play to find money. First, by trying to charm us with lies about why he needed money. He wanted to buy a gift for his son or pay back a buddy for gas money. Then he tried desperation, telling us “I’ll die without it. Just one last time. I’ll get treatment.” There was anger and aggression. “I hate you,” he told me. “You’re not my sister. I will never forgive you.” There was absolutely nothing I could do in that moment to get through to him, to help him. His addiction was all-consuming. His sense of shame, loneliness, and fear in those moments made it impossible for him to consider outside help. I knew that I had to come to acceptance, as they say in 12 Step Programs, with what I can and cannot control. I knew that it would take more than what the people who loved him could give.
We never stopped loving him, my mother and father and me. We never stopped giving him whatever support we could, getting him treatment and resources and seeing him through many ups and downs.
My brother died five years ago from a drug overdose. He was recently out of detox after a relapse triggered by his grief over the death of a mentor. After being asked to leave a sober living house, he moved into in a motel in Florida, waiting for his spot in a residential program. His friends told us that he wanted to use “just one last time” before kicking it again in residential. That might have been the turning point for him. It might have been the moment when he was ready to live a different life. It might have been the time he would stick with his treatment. We will never know. His drugs that night contained fentanyl without his awareness, more than his body could handle.
My brother’s story is not unique. The number of people struggling with addictions continues to rise and the number of deaths rises with it. My brother was one of nearly 30,000 people who died of synthetic opioid overdoses (primarily fentanyl) in 2017. This number has more than doubled in the past five years.
In Colorado, the recreational use of fentanyl and other opioids has reached crisis levels, resulting in addictions and overdoses that have devastated families like mine. Fentanyl, originally developed for the treatment of pain in the 1960’s, is 50 times more potent than heroine, and by the early 2000s, misuse became common. It then made its way to recreational drug users, often being sold as heroine, leading to a dramatic climb in overdose deaths in the US. In 2020, Coloradans suffered 540 fentanyl-related deaths, an increase of 143% from 2019. In 2021, over 800 fentanyl-related deaths increased that percentage to 260% from 2019. While some seek out and intentionally use fentanyl, it is often ingested unknowingly, combined with other substances, leading to higher risk of overdose.
To combat the opioid crisis, Colorado lawmakers are working with mental health organizations around the state to improve access to treatment and recovery services. This includes:
- Increased access to telehealth treatment services, like Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), especially in rural areas.
- Tailor new models for medical withdrawal management that are specific to synthetic opioids.
- Focusing on stabilization rather than abstinence with treatment.
- Increase availability of MAT inductions in housing programs.
- Expand MAT in jails and prisons and require the facilities to put in place withdrawal protocols. People recently released from incarceration are over 40 times likely to die from opioid overdose.
- Implement realistic, evidence-based programs to educate teens about drug use and harm reduction.
There are no simple solutions to combat the complex nature of substance use and addiction. And yet, there are so many tools that could make a difference. From harm reduction, treatment, or stable housing, to providing a safe environment, social connection and love, and reducing shame and stigma, the right tool at the right time can save someone’s life.
Battling stigma encourages raw honesty about the heavy burden that addiction places on the individual and the family, and it also compels us to see the individual as more than the addiction, to recognize and appreciate the whole complex person that we love. My thoughts and memories of my brother used to be consumed by his addiction and the darkness that it created. But now, I think of him first as a sensitive, loving, and talented man. The more I share my story with others, the more stories are shared back with me—stories of brothers or sisters, sons and daughters, parents who were lost to addiction, or people who are in the midst of their own battle. There are also stories of recovery, though even those in recovery are often scarred with the tremendous losses they have faced along the way. And yet, they offer hope. There have been so many people in recovery who have shared insights and hope and kindness and love with me throughout my journey. And through them, I know that living through addiction is possible, that recovery is possible. Those same beliefs that I held from so long ago, that people have the power to overcome tremendous obstacles, are strengthened by the bravery of those who share their stories.
You are not alone. Whether you are struggling with an addiction or love someone who is. Don’t hesitate to reach out, connect, and ask for help. Call Jefferson Center at 303-425-0300 to learn more about our substance use treatment services. Families who struggle with substance use can find more help below, and both children and adults who are grieving the loss of a loved one who struggled with substance use can also find help with the links below.
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