It’s never too late. Until it is.
Words from my husband in quotations.
“The game has changed.”
Fentanyl has changed the opioid epidemic. We are now facing an overdose epidemic with devastating and deadly reach. The potency of fentanyl creates through-the-roof tolerances, and intensifies the brains dependence on dope. It’s also a killer.
“In the year of 2017 I didn’t pick up”.
Word on the street is that once the batch has enough fentanyl to drop a body (overdose), the corner starts popping and business booms. As we prepare to enter 2018 with an opioid epidemic raging, I look back at the dope of 2017. It has mutated into a primeval beast. The instinctual lower brain response to harm and death is fight or flight. To escape danger. We know opiates create black-out effects to the frontal cortex impairing a persons ability to engage in thinking skills that drive decision making, choice, and weighing of rewards and consequences. But with fentanyl, the addiction twists the brain so maliciously that it seems to defy even the most primitive of human behaviors, replacing them with atypical reflexes. The natural response of the addict who chases the fentanyl-heroin mix that delivers overdoses is no doubt a frighteningly maladaptive reflex. “To run full force towards death. Not away from it.”
“Back to the the hashtag dirtyjerz.”
We are experiencing extreme cold all over the country. Arctic chill, the weatherman said on the news this morning, or maybe he said blast. In northern New Jersey, a fresh coating of snow covers the grimy ground. Getting out of the car, frigid air smacks us hard in the face. We cross the busy street to the funeral home, faces buried in collar jackets to try to protect ourselves. It’s futile though, we are not protected. It is as if the cloudy heavens just vomited all over the shitty world. The drab grey sky hangs low, smashing us and our hearts into brown city streets. Through the parking lot, we walk around the dirty melted snow puddles, but we are unable to avoid the salt, dumped from the backs of city trucks, from staining our fancy shoes. It crunches, the salt, below the soles of my thigh high boots trekking on unforgiving pavement. We are on our way to say the eternal goodbye to one of my husband’s best friends. He was thirty six. This is wake number two this holiday weekend.
Laid out in open casket, black rosary beads folded around waxy fingers, his mother manages to remain standing beside him. The line to pay respects is long in the low-lit, low-ceiling room, hushed tears and voices questioning why did he go and do this to himself? Why? When was doing so well? Heads nod in disbelief and painful wonder. With the long hugs come the loud, body wracking sobs. This community stood in line yesterday to say goodbye to another young man lost to overdose. One woman describes herself as numb.
There are at least a hundred photographs of him on mounted poster boards, smiling eyes and faces looking out to the camera. Life shines from glossy paper but in this dark and flower-filled room, it is death that is laid out before us.
They found him cold, on hands and knees over vomit, exactly where his brother left him to wrap Christmas gifts for his son. Sons words to his grandmother on Christmas morning: I think daddy’s dead.
He came up from Florida 3 days before his death with what my husband calls a “tune up.” Sober for a couple weeks, maybe months, off dope, on juice (steroids), fresh and feeling invincible. We imagine the trigger seed planted in his mind day one when he arrived in Jersey. He spent days with his family, brother, mother, father, 8 year old son. He called an old girlfriend and talked about moving back up north, getting his shit together. He was looking good, eating pizza, visiting old friends and coworkers, posting it all proudly on Facebook. By day three, the infant seed, watered, fed, placed by window in sunlight, grew into a tree; cared for by an addicts rationalizing love. On hands and knees he fixed his last fentanyl-laced heroin shot in the old childhood room of his mother’s home. It was not meant to be his last, just turned out that way. He was alone when he died. He was alone when he lived too. As so many addicts are. Showing a brave clean face, but battling disease in isolation.
“That hurts me so much. Probably smoked crack and shot heroin”.
There is a lot of clean time in the room, 8 years, 3 years, 2 years, my husband just over one year. But faces of soldiers still out on the battlefield peer at us from pinned pupils. My husband is devastated to see an old friend of his who used to be a cop. Jim says that he appears “tuned-up”, high, with a red and puffy face, worn and beaten down by drug use, rapid speech flowing from cracked dry lips. (Later in a text, he writes that he has overdosed 8 times, and that he is clean). In the room with a casket housing vacated body, I gaze upon just one of the communities warring against this epidemic.
“A bittersweet reunion.”
Back in our cheap hotel room the next morning, I spoon my husband’s warm body and listen to him share. This was his first trip back since he got clean. The worry he felt about facing the old Jersey streets and reuniting with the friends he had isolated himself from when he was using has dissolved into relief. Burnt bridges rebuilt amidst loss, mourning, and recovery.
“He was a good kid”.
His friend will be cremated today. With his scattered ashes, fragments of our hearts are thrown into the wind. As my husband speaks to me in bed, I also listen with gratitude to his heart beating rhythmically. His heart is no better than the heart of his friend lost to overdose, it is no more pure or righteous. But it remains a living heart, by the grace of God, to pulse oxygenated sustenance through his warm body.
My life is not superior to any other, it is not worth more, and my heart is not more virtuous. For anyone who harbors judgement against the addict, your heart is not mightier than your neighbor suffering. I hope, though they may not be unblemished, my heart and yours can be bigger than this world.
It’s never too late. Until it is.
Let us work together to end the opioid epidemic in 2018.
“In 2018, like in 2017, I won’t pick up.”
Happy New Year everyone.
M & J