by Cassandra Stedham
Addiction. What thoughts and images does this word evoke? Sunken eyes, pallid complexion, grinding teeth, fingernails gnawed down to the quick? The bland uniformity of a hospital waiting room? Spoons, flames, lines, tinfoil, smoke, needles. Junkies on their hands and knees searching frantically for an infinitesimal piece of black tar. An uncompromisingly vicious cycle of abuse, regret, and attempts to climb back up out of a dark well with no ladder.
For me, it is all of these. But more notably, it is my brother, born 22 months before me, withered in a hospital bed with tubes and needles growing out of his fragile frame. It is the image of my father resuscitating his blue-faced son, whose heart has stopped beating. It is my mother’s face and voice as she comes running upstairs to wake up my little sister and I, saying in a desperate voice, “We have to go. Something’s wrong.” It is my brother sitting in a jail cell as I dislodge glass shards with my bare, bleeding hands from a sticky pool of Heineken on his girlfriend’s kitchen floor, while she takes care of the baby. It is years of disappointment followed by hope followed by disappointment and so on.
Today, I am working through some of this turmoil by sharing my brother’s story, my story. In creating a space for it, I hope not only that my family and I will experience a kind of catharsis, but that our story will inspire and empower other families who have struggled with addiction – at the very least, to let them know they are not alone.
My brother, 23, has a genius IQ, and there was a real possibility of him going on to play Major League baseball before opiates became his priority. He consumes books with the voracity with which most Americans consume television and can recount with astonishing accuracy a myriad of historical events, scientific curiosities, and philosophical hypotheses. He excelled in Marine boot camp, though he was discharged when he came back from his 10-day leave with a dirty urinalysis. Growing up, I thought I would always be in his shadow.
After our parents divorced during our early adolescence, we suddenly came to a crucial point at which we had to decide whether our grief would make or break us. We both struggled to cope, but where I turned my pain inward and eventually used it to my benefit, my brother began to rely on drugs to make his problems disappear for a while.
Heroin crept into my life six years ago. At the time, no one could begin to comprehend the havoc it would wreak on all of us. In my little town of Battle Ground, WA – a suburb of Vancouver known for its large Apostolic Christian community and more recently, its number of addicted youth – it has claimed the lives of a handful of our young people and incarcerated the rest. Sometimes when I drive through town I am reminded of the grim Simon & Garfunkel lyrics that have come to be so poignant for me: “Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town.”
“It may come as a surprise that addiction is not the most prominent in the slums and the lower classes. It’s becoming more and more rampant in the middle to upper-middle classes. It’s becoming a major problem of white suburbia,” says my brother. Indeed, the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence estimates that nearly 90 percent of heroin-addicted teens are white.
When I was 15, I began dating someone a year older than me knowing full well that he messed around with drugs. I thought it would be OK and used the assumption that they were not very hard drugs to justify it to myself. He and his friends started smoking “opium” off of tinfoil in his garage as I sat and watched, never touching it, never wanting to. I purchased my Halloween costume that year with drug money my boyfriend had so generously shared with me.
Everyone soon found out that what they were smoking was actually heroin, at which point several people who swore they would never shoot anything intravenously started doing just that – my brother included. I found the limit of my tolerance and ended the relationship.
My dad once said that if there were one drug we should never touch, it would be heroin. When he found out that my brother was using, he broke down and cried. That was only the beginning.
Though most of the people I know personally who have battled heroin addiction are males, I asked my brother what he has seen with regard to females and addiction, curious to know how the sexes compare. He responded, “The percentage of females addicted to drugs is rising, and right now there are more addicted females than males. A lot of girls trade themselves for drugs to Mexican cartels. They accept females as payment.”
In the midst of all of the chaos and heartache that goes along with addiction of a family member, it is easy to forget the true nature of heroin addiction: chemical dependency. Sometimes I lose patience and have to remind myself how difficult it is to come back from that kind of addiction. Even if someone wants to stop using, they face excruciating withdrawal.
“It’s a never-ending cycle. You lose all sight of who you really are. You’ll do anything to get your drugs, whatever it takes. It doesn’t matter who you hurt, it doesn’t matter how many times. Even after you realize it’s not a sustainable lifestyle, the drive is continuous, and it’s for the rest of your life,” my brother explains. “Drugs take you to Heaven, but they also take you to Hell.”
Current studies estimate that there are 23.5 million Americans addicted to alcohol or drugs, and only about 10 percent of them receive any kind of treatment. A study published by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in June 2012 states that most medical professionals who should be providing treatment are not sufficiently trained to diagnose or treat addiction. Those providing treatment are ill-equipped, and the evidence-based tools that are available are underutilized.
My brother has weathered many stints of ineffective treatment. One treatment center said that he simply needed more help than they could offer. This is likely because, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse states, “To be effective, treatment must address the individual’s drug abuse and any associated medical, psychological, social, vocational, and legal problems.” One size does not fit all when it comes to treatment of chemical dependency.
Due to an increase in prescription drug abuse, heroin addiction continues to rise. An article published by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence claims that young people who become addicted to prescription drugs switch to heroin because it is less expensive and easier to obtain. It can be about six times cheaper than prescription drugs. My brother’s tale of addiction began when he discovered prescription pain pills after being injured in football at age 12. Between 1999 and 2009, the number of youth between ages 15 and 24 who have died of a heroin overdose almost tripled, up to 510 deaths. This number has certainly grown, since a few have died in my town alone.
Today, my brother is living in a sober house in the San Fernando Valley, enjoying the healing effects of the California sunshine. No one knows how his story will progress, but he is optimistic. With an estimated 150,000 new heroin addicts each year, I hope that everyone will share this story and help increase awareness of the dangers of addiction. Even by trying heroin once, you could be signing your life away. People need to fully grasp the gravity of that decision – that it is not worth that risk. No parent should have to resuscitate their child from a drug overdose, and no sister should have to clean her brother’s blood off of the bathroom ceiling.
About the Author: Cassandra Stedham is The WIP’s editorial intern. She earned her BA in English Language and Literature at the University of Washington in Seattle and is currently working on her MA in International Policy Studies at Monterey Institute of International Studies. Her passion for language, writing, politics, and culture has led her to pursue a career in international journalism. You can visit her personal blog, Talk to a Stranger.