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Roller Derby. Little Rose Magazine
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House of Addiction : A Personal Account of the Opioid Epidemic. UCLA's Westwind Journal, Fall 2018
Stained-glass windows depict saints muted in color, the grayness outside stripping them of their vibrancy. Below the heavenly figures inside St. John’s Catholic Church in Bangor, Maine were subtle reminders of a country in crisis. Alongside rosaries and holy water sat pamphlets about opioid addiction. I reflect that these things were not included in the church where my father had his funeral nearly two decades ago. The memento mori of the morning’s proceedings that stood out amongst the talismans of the Christian faithful was the funeral card of Sean Michael Yankowsky. It displayed the picture of a young man, 21 years old with a smiling cherub face against a backdrop of trees. I had read about Yankowsky in the local paper. Second son to die of an overdose, it read. Parents made the brave move to include that information in the obituary, some noted. I think to myself that no one spoke of my father’s history of addiction during the public rituals of grief.
Looking at the funeral card in the empty church, I felt a doubling of time; the heavy energy of sorrow and the agonizing silence when the parade of mourners left. It was a feeling I was well acquainted with. During my stay in Bangor, I would wander the dark places of my childhood and explore the epidemic that has been ravaging the country.
I came to Maine via Los Angeles, California happy to be free of the endless stream of cars and distracted glances of my fellow Angelenos. Upon my arrival to Bangor, I was surrounded by impressions of things that go bump in the night. The city is most famous for being the backdrop to stories of killer clowns and wendigo felines as depicted in Stephen King novels. The author lives in the city, taking residence in a mansion replete with wrought iron bats and dragons sitting atop a gate surrounding his home.
King’s macabre stories acted as my compass in finding my way to the New England state. His tales of the unlucky who return home to literally face their childhood demons, whether it be a cymbal clanging toy monkey or giant spider, became my lullabies. But I also came to Bangor to explore what lay beyond King’s fictional worlds.
The skyline in downtown is dotted with church spires, and from certain angles you can see a bloated white cylindrical tower looming atop a hill. The Thomas Hill Standpipe has been storing the town’s water supply since the late nineteenth century. Down below, the Kenduskeag Stream empties into the Penobscot River which, on hot days, looks like a blanket of blue silk. This pastoral setting contrasts with some of the gatherings at Pickering Square, a stone’s throw from the river. Many of the people in the square have the weathered expressions of a hard life of sleeping out on the streets or wear dazed looks and sit motionless under the sunshine. One in particular likes to accost walking tour groups.
Passing by the square with a tour, a curly haired man stampeded over zeroing in on an attendee. He flicked his fingers just inches from the man’s face like he was flicking away darting fly’s. “FUCK YOU!” he roared “I bet you’re a fucking democrat!” The political antagonist soon left with no further incident and the consensus of the group was that he was on drugs. Or had mental health issues. Or both. “This feels like home,” I joked to the group. Nervous laughter was the reply but what the group didn’t know was that a joke intended to break the tension, had a double meaning. My private world growing up in a house of addiction felt like it had extended into the public realm.
Beginning in the late ‘90s, doctors started treating pain as a vital sign and began over-prescribing opioid medication that pharmaceutical companies falsely marketed as safe and effective. Many patients became addicted and when they were cut off from the drugs or could no longer afford them, they began abusing heroin or the synthetic drug fentanyl, both cheaper and deadlier options. Twenty years later, the U.S. is experiencing an opioid epidemic that has spread across the nation like a phantom spider’s web.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) drug overdose deaths nearly tripled from 1999-2014. In 2016, over 60 percent of overdose deaths resulted from opioid drugs. Maine has been hit harder than many states and is only getting worse. According to the Maine Attorney General’s office 418 people died of drug-induced deaths in 2017: an 11 percent increase from 2016. Most of the deaths were caused by opioids. The epidemic in Maine has been fraught with issues affecting rural areas and the working class.
Physical labor and chronic pain tend to combine within the wellspring of self-sufficiency and hard work. Bruce Campbell, the clinical director at Bangor Area Recovery Network, an organization that provides recovery support for addiction, points out that an aging working-class population, many of whom engaged in physically demanding jobs such as on lobster boats or on farms, experienced chronic pain later in life. This converged with over-prescribing practices and poverty. Out of desperation, some patients began selling their prescriptions to pay their mortgages thus contributing to an already existing supply and demand chain of drugs. “The relationship between poverty, pain and prescribing practices all contributed” to the opioid epidemic in Maine, Campbell states. Adding, “We need to address issues of poverty”.
Americans are struggling as income inequality has increased nationwide. Stagnant wages and rising housing costs, coupled with a corporate America that invests massive government tax cuts into executive pay and stocks rather than investing in jobs, is the triptych of American greed. And we’re suffering for it. A recent survey conducted by the Federal Reserve found that almost half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. 40 percent said they would not be able to pay their bills if they had a $400 emergency.
Poverty and financial struggles are not the only causes of addiction. What we experience in childhood can foreshadow drug abuse as adults. Courtney Allen, co-founder of James’ Place which is located in Maine and provides housing for those in recovery, illustrates the direct link between drug abuse and trauma. “The adults who are seeking drugs as a way to cope with pain, have almost always experienced some sort of traumatic event as a child.” She goes on to say, “I think our systems are currently serving the children that we failed”. There is evidence to back up Allen’s claim. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study found that for each traumatic event a child experienced, they were two to four times more likely to grow up and become an addict.
I have come to understand that a traumatic childhood and economic challenges had a major impact on my father’s road to addiction. Drugs were not solely to blame for his downward spiral into drug and alcohol abuse. As a witness to his addiction, I understood from a young age that drugs didn’t flip a switch that caused my father’s anguish and erratic behavior. Those things existed before the pills.
We successfully navigated the tombstones and made our way to the weathered stone staircase cut into a hill. The steps were uneven and jagged and walking up them felt akin to ascending a flight of stairs of a medieval church to get a better view of the gargoyles. We sat overlooking Mount Hope Cemetery. The cemetery, erected in Bangor in the early nineteenth century, was one of the first garden cemeteries in the country. Park-like in appearance with trees, ponds and trails to walk on, this place was built for the living and the dead. Because this part of the world is known as Stephen King country, I was reminded of the story of the hope-sick father carrying the limp body of his dead son up those very stairs to resurrect him at the pet sematary. And so it goes that this was a good place to talk about fear.
Clutching a bloated juice-sized box of red wine, I mention to a friend I made in downtown that I’m working on a piece about the opioid epidemic. “Why that subject?” I take a sip of my juice box. “Addiction runs on both sides of my family,” I say. “My father overdosed when I was a child.” I tell him, “I was there when it happened”.
My father told me that his stomach had been pumped due to an adverse reaction to Tylenol. By age 11, however, I knew the difference between an over the counter bottle and a prescription one. When my brother and I saw his 6-foot 200-pound body slumped on the floor 25 years ago, I didn’t understand at the time what was happening. But I knew it wasn’t a good sign that before we found his unconscious body, I saw him sitting on the edge of his bed holding a prescription bottle.
The D.A.R.E programs I had in school encouraging kids to “just say no” to drugs did not provide instruction on how to deal with a parent who had just overdosed on opioid prescription drugs. It didn’t tell me how to deal with his erratic behavior when mixing pills and booze. It didn’t tell me how to deal with my father's demons that he tried to quiet with substance abuse. I couldn’t tell my father to “just say no” to his addiction as he was slumped on the floor. He wouldn’t have heard me anyway even if I had. Instead, I ran to the kitchen and filled a glass of water to pour over his face to wake him up. The only reply I got back was a flutter of eyelids.
In the twenty-five years since my father’s overdose, America has been engaging in ever increasing acts of self-harm. . According to the CDC, life expectancy in the U.S. dropped in 2017 due to a rise in drug overdoses and suicides. Concurrently, there has been an increase in social isolation.
At a time when we should be addressing the societal ills of self-harm, childhood trauma and rising income inequality, we’ve become more isolated from one another. Real world communities have been largely replaced by the cyber-shrines of our past selves: selfies, tweets and pictures of half-eaten meals. Loneliness has become an epidemic and the response is capitalist enterprise. Companies now exist where you can rent emotional connections, such as a “friend” for a day.
Addiction is a way to adapt to the despairs of the modern age, argues renowned Canadian psychologist Dr. Bruce Alexander. Dr. Alexander is best known for his Rat Park experiment which showed that when rats were given the option of receiving doses of morphine versus a community of their rodent counterparts, food and games, the rats overwhelmingly chose social interaction over drugs. They ingested less than 5 milligrams of morphine per day compared to rats isolated alone in cages that ingested a whopping 25 milligrams per day. Another study in the U.S. had similar findings to Dr. Alexander’s research. A U.S. government study conducted under the Nixon administration found that 15 percent of soldiers serving in Vietnam were addicted to heroin. These soldiers stayed in Vietnam until they got clean. Upon returning home to America, astonishingly only 5 percent relapsed. Once the soldiers were taken out of a violent and unpredictable environment, they stopped using heroin. These studies prove that isolation and environmental stressors impact responses to drugs use. These stressors are due to a breakdown of the modern age and the psychological impact has been devastating.
Dr. Alexander surmised in a speech given this year that we are afflicted by what he calls the “mass dislocation of individuals”. “Dislocation,” he tells us is the “individual psychological consequences that follow from societal fragmentation”. This fragmentation, he explains, can lead to deficits in belonging, identity and purpose. While he is quick to point out that risk factors such as poverty, childhood trauma, and depression can increase the likelihood of addiction, the main culprit is a fragmented society. This “generates misery in the form of anxiety, suicide, depression, disorientation, hopeless and resentful violence”. Addiction he concludes “is a common way of adapting to dislocation.”
The dislocated modern day looks like a damaged utopia where too many believe that fierce individualism, competitiveness, and loss of community, will create happiness and fulfillment. Instead too many of us are struggling to pay rent, lacking real human connection, and suffering badly because of it. This dislocation is causing psychological anguish which is physically evident in our bodies. Studies show that emotional pain hits the same receptors as physical pain. We’re engaging in national self-flagellation. Opioids are providing a mass numbing for an America that is badly hurting.
I never believed the drugs and alcohol were the cause of my father’s miseries, which he regularly lashed out onto my brother and me. His addiction worsened when he quit his security guard job and went on disability due to a heart condition. But it was his childhood that, statistically speaking, provided the road map to addiction. I don’t know much about his childhood, but I was told that his father was an abusive alcoholic. This abuse was projected onto the following generation. At times, my home life resembled the grotesqueness of fun house mirrors with ever shifting reflections: the uncertainty of what terrifying image would appear next. The day my father overdosed was the day I traded in terror for safety and comfort. My mother kidnapped my brother and I and gained sole custody. My father ultimately survived his overdose and lived another 7 years, dying of a heart attack at the age of 52.
The nightmare lullabies of Stephen King’s horrorscapes grew in pitch during my time in Bangor. Listening closely, these cradle-songs taught me that my story is not unique and downright benign compared to so many others. The opioid epidemic is one that transcends generations, crossing into the boundaries of childhood trauma, isolation and a country that is suffering because of economic disparity and the favoring of individual pursuits over the well-being of one another.
Sitting at St. John’s on that gray day, I thought a lot about my father. Most importantly I thought of the others who have been affected by addiction. I took Sean Michael Yankowsky’s funeral card with me when I left the church. All I know of Yankowsky is from his obituary. That he loved to cook and loved to fish. That he was funny and giving. That he was suffering from depression since his brother died of a drug overdose. I carry the card in my notebook as a reminder that there are countless others who have suffered most profoundly.
 Hari, Johann. “Chasing the Scream: The first and Last Days of the War on Drugs”. p.160.
 Hari, Johann. Chasing the Scream.