On a rainy October afternoon, I am sitting with my cousin Jess in her Southbury suburban home. Her one-year-old daughter Julianna, just waking from a nap, wiggles in my lap. Her brown eyes stare at me as Jess and I discuss speed balling. Two years ago, her brother Matt died while speed balling. This is when you do cocaine and heroin at the same time, and what makes it so dangerous, is that you lose the perception of knowing how much of each you are taking. A high so intense, users frequently overdose.
“I’m worried for the day I’m going to have to tell Julianna what happened to her Uncle Matt,” Jess says, her voice shaking.
At the age of fourteen Matt started with drinking and doing the occasional party drugs. Over the next two years, his drug use increased, and progressed into a dangerous lifestyle. Deciding to drop out of high school at the age of sixteen, he found himself living place-to-place, riding this constant roller-coaster of recovery.
“It was like a cycle. He would go to rehab towards the winter time because it was cold and he was tired of living in his car or whatever, he would go to rehab and be better and everything would be fine. Then spring would come around and he would be hanging out with us again.’’ Jess takes a sip of white wine. “Then around summer time he would start using again and then things would go bad and he would lose his job and lose his car… it was bad.”
Julianna lets out a little scream and only the low hum of the TV can be heard. Taking a deep breath, Jess almost chuckles when saying, “Matt had told my dad that the first time, he was too scared to do the needle himself, so this guy he knew did it for him . . . it’s fucked up.”
Jess closes her eyes and takes another deep breathe, reflecting two years back about how much one poor decision, one bad interaction, can change an entire life.
In September of 2017 I lost another family member from heroin addiction. In this instance, we didn’t know what he, and his parents were struggling with until he was gone. Angered by the shame and stigma that comes along with heroin addiction, it drove me to find, why aren’t we talking about it, and how many lives is it affecting?
Drug abuse is responsible for nearly 64,000 deaths per year, and heroin specifically is the cause for 20,000 of those deaths. But what about the survivors? We focus so much on the deaths that we aren’t counting the survivors and advocates of this life destroying addiction.
At CCSU, I set out to put the statistic on heroin addiction to the test by asking 100 students if they know someone who uses, is in recovery, or knows someone whose life was taken by the usage of heroin. The results were shocking.
Out of 100 CCSU students, sixty-seven students admitted to knowing someone who has used heroin. Out of the sixty-seven who have used, forty-three of them have passed away due to an overdose, with the average age under thirty-five. For the rest of the students, they have either lost contact with the addict, or the addict is in recovery, or is still using.
With these statistics, at one university, in the small state of Connecticut, in the even smaller city of New Britain, it can’t help but make you wonder if this many lives are being destroyed by addiction in a small population, just how many lives is it affecting in other states, and at other universities in the U.S. and why are we not talking about it?
When we got the phone call of my late cousin’s passing back in September, it took me days to comprehend what happened, and my brain was flooded with questions of how and why was he gone? It wasn’t until the day of his wake, all of the pieces started to fall into place. My aunt crumbled in the arms of my mother, and shared her best-kept secret, the story of her twenty-four year old son’s addiction to heroin. For the past three years, he was struggling with addiction. With months spent in rehab, no one knew. Little lies building up, they continued to hide their everyday struggle from the world. It was at his funeral my aunt felt relief from telling his story to my mother, my uncle on the other hand, still refuses to speak of it.
Jess’s father, Sam, is one of the strong individuals ready to stand up and fight for those struggling with addiction. As I asked Jess’s about her father’s efforts to honor Matt, I saw a glow come to her face.
In September of this year Sam participated in his first ever Iron Man in honor of his late son. He ran, biked and swam, all for one cause, to act as an advocate and raise money and awareness for those who are struggling with drug addiction. Sam alone, raised $40,000 dollars for the Shatterproof organization.
Much like Sam, the founder of Shatterproof organization, Gary Mendell, built the organization around his own personal grievances, with the sole purpose of ending the stigma that surrounds addiction.
Jess recalled a conversation Sam had with a young couple at a local bar. On the day President Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, and he heard the young man sitting a few seats away comment, “It would be better if all of these drug addicts would die, that will be what solves the problem.” Without fear, or hesitation, Sam told the young couple the story of his late son Matt.
“He told the couple, ‘My son wasn’t a thief, he didn’t have a terrible life, he just made a bad decision and couldn’t recover from it. Not all drug addicts are sewer creatures, some just are struggling to make sense of the world. That’s what happened to my son.’ The young lady thanked Sam for putting her boyfriend in his place.”
Jess won’t have to worry for a few more years about telling Julianna about the man in the photo on their living room mantle, but without fear, or hesitation, Jess will tell her the courageous story of her Uncle Matt. By taking that step, and not fearing the problem, she is breaking the stigma behind heroin addiction.