I thought it important to take a few moments and talk about addiction. This way, when it comes up in the news, it would not be so mystifying. Once you remove the scary stigma part, you can treat it like any other disease with one major difference which I will discuss in a moment.
Until the opioid crisis, addiction followed a predictable path 90% of the time. Someone had a mental illness and the “gene” for addiction. Early on, I was 10 years of age, they would choose to self-medicate the mental illness. Depending on what they were self-medicating, would help in determining what drug they would try.
Please notice two things. There is no real choice in the “first use”. There’s too much noise or pain inside your head and you try to get rid of it. If stigma is really heavy in your family, you never admit to the pain or noise.
Please also notice there is no such thing as a “gateway drug.” Kids who use weed first out of convenience switch up because weed is not strong enough. Kids who suffer from mania like I do switch up because weed goes in the wrong direction. Weed did not open some magic door. In reality, it was not strong enough or was not the right medicine to solve our problem.
Once addicted, the drug of choice starts making all our decisions. We become liars, thieves, and cheats. At this point, nobody is using to “get high”. Why?? Unless we mix in a new drug to change things up, we don’t get high. That drunk/stoned/wired feeling is our new normal and we chase it. We will manipulate anyone or anything in pursuit of feeling what we call normal.
One other thing has started to happen. Our bodies are adjusting to the presence of the drug. Our livers get used to the sugar, heroin addicts will tell you their arms miss the heat of the drug going through their system, cocaine addicts’ mouths are always dry. For some, especially the cocaine crew, this is an inconvenience. For alcoholics and especially heroin addicts, missing the drug will result in unbearable illness. In both cases, death is possible.
This is why you can always spot alcoholics in early morning bars. It is also why when a brand of heroin kills somebody, it immediately sells out. The addict figures, “Well, if I just adjust the dose, that won’t happen to me.”
Again, no one is trying to get high but they are trying to avoid fear and shame. Begging for money, stealing, engaging in prostitution of various forms all create shame. If you can find a type of drug or dose that keeps the sickness, the fewer shameful acts you will have to engage in. Everyone gets really good at keeping time. They also get good at chemistry.
Please note that the Hollywood image of the strung out heroin junkie is a myth. People who are missing their heroin roll up in a ball and throw up a lot. That is about it. The dangerous time is when they realize there might be a way to avoid the same that comes with what needs to be done to make the money for their dose. Addicts who need a fix are very inventive.
In the modern era, something new has developed. Instead of being mentally ill, many addicts arrive via pain management. Through no fault of their own, they fall down or life something to heavy or get in a car accident. They are prescribed an opioid. At first everything is fine.
However, over time, the body adjusts. The usual does does not work. The prescription cannot be refilled anyway. Before the computer era, such people would try to steal ‘Script pads and address their issue that way. For a while, there was Oxycontin. Now most of them graduate directly to heroin.
Once they get there, they engage in behaviors they never would have imagined. The shame cycle begins again.
As a community, we need to recognize that we already had plenty of alcoholism as well as meth and crack addiction on our streets before the heroin problem showed up. Political leaders need to be able to say the words. In an ironic way, I have to handle this problem daily so it makes it easier for me to address.
The next thing we must do in Oneida County is get people into treatment faster. In calendar year 2016, 6 people told me they wanted help only to die before getting treatment. I have addressed this issue with the hospital design team and will continue to do so.
Lastly, we must learn to treat not only the whole person but the family afterwards. This is where addiction is different from other diseases. Cancer might bankrupt a family. Seldom does bronchitis cause someone to drive into a parked car and kill people. Very few people with Leukemia decided to commit identity theft against their parents and in turn, put the family home in danger of foreclosure. Not many people with high cholesterol try to take their own lives and in doing so take others with them.
Earlier this year, some members of the County Legislature tried to put legislation together so addicts and alcoholics would be assigned a “Navigator” once in treatment. When someone “hits bottom”, usually their whole life is in tatters by this point. They need someone not only to get them treatment, but to put their lives back together. The family of the addict/alcoholic also should be offered at least support if not treatment.
Sadly, this effort did not come to fruition. Sadly, some in government thought the “2-1-1 system was actually a solution”. This could not be farther from the truth. When I discovered that had occurred, I wrote to the County Executive’s Chief of Staff Al Candido. You can read that letter here:
The response has been positive. I have had several productive conversations with Mental Health Commissioner Robin O’Brien. Mr. Candido has said he will set up meetings with his addiction issue experts. I will continue to work on making our recovery process that much more streamlined and productive.
Addiction is like everything else in Oneida County. First, we should take care of each other. When we do, we can show off what we have to offer to the world. Everyone I bring here is amazed by the culture, the food, the scenic beauty, the pace. If we all work hard at the same goal, other communities will want to copy what we have done. I ask for your prayers and support while we do the work. If elected as the Legislator from the 22nd District, I promise that addiction and, more importantly, recovery will always be a focus of my legislative agenda.