Disease

January is for Homecomings & Anniversaries

Seven years ago, I was boarding a flight in Fort Lauderdale, Florida bound for Bradley Airport in Hartford, Connecticut. Bound for home. I had been in Florida for five months, two weeks and four days. I was about three months sober after a one time use in Florida, and I was more than ready to come home. What I wasn’t ready for, was to be sober, at home.

I had a connection in Charlotte and I waited anxiously for my next flight to board. Of course, it was delayed. It wasn’t the first time I made this round trip, and I remember distinctly sitting in my seat, stretched out across the empty row, thinking to myself that this would be the last time I would make this flight for this reason.

So far, I’ve been right.

What I wasn’t right about was that I could stay sober on my own. I arrived in Hartford to snow on the ground, which I could not have been more thrilled about. I love the snow, and I had missed several good storms while I was in Delray. We stopped home briefly for me to switch out my bathing suits and tank tops for snow boots and hoodies, and left again for my new home.

I arrived at the sober house in New Haven, which was inside of an old, partially restored mansion. My room was on the third floor, of course, and I never quite got used to those old, creaky, narrow stairs. I made it a few days in the sober house before I realized how to get what I really wanted, which was to use. I had started taking the bus in Florida, but had never ridden it here at home.

The system was completely different, but it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I could ride the bus for an hour and wind up right in the center of my universe, which at that time was Brooklyn, deep in the sick cesspool that is Waterbury, CT.

I knocked on my drug dealer’s door and there she was, right where I left her. She had a new phone number which I didn’t have since I had been gone, and there was no way for her to contact me because my mother had changed my phone number while I was in rehab. Phone numbers aside, I happened to know where she lived, which I guess no one accounted for. I was back in business.

Even though I had suffered a near fatal overdose before I left for Florida, that didn’t stop me from jumping back in with both feet. I made an early habit in the sober house of using in the bathroom prior to taking a shower, so no one was likely to bother me or see me nodding out. It wasn’t long before I hit my first speed bump and got arrested for possession.

When I got kicked out of the sober house for all of my many indiscretions, I went back home. My mother didn’t know what to do. Another failed attempt at rehab, and I was back to actively using. It was as a last resort that I agreed to get on the methadone program and give recovery another try.

I didn’t want to live that way, and I didn’t want to die that way either.

I was court ordered into an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), and I chose to complete it at the closest facility to home which was the APT Foundation on State Street. That’s where I became exposed to the methadone program and chose to get on board. It was the best decision I believe I have ever made in my entire life.

Within a few months, I had completed IOP and I started to give clean urines. Not everytime, mind you, but some of the time. I had made a friend, who turned out to become my best friend to this day. Years later, I would meet my partner and love of my life in those very same group rooms.

I kept coming, and let the methadone do it’s job, while the program supported me and gave me the time to get my head screwed on straight. They didn’t expect me to get sober overnight, and I didn’t. It would be two whole years from the day that plane touched down to the day I got truly sober. I’m not even sure what day that was, I just know it was sometime in mid January.

This month, I will celebrate four years in long term recovery from heroin.

I still work hard at it every single day. I still think about using all the time, but today I am strong enough to resist that urge. My addiction doesn’t run my life anymore, it inspires it.

It inspires me to speak to students and share my story to help them make better choices. It inspires me to sit on the Substance Abuse Action Council in my town and inform policy and procedure as it relates to substance abuse. It inspires me to work hard at my job and continue to take on new projects and responsibilities.

Today I am dependable, I am collected, and I am sober. I walk through the world as a woman who has faced her own death and come out the other side. I am strong, I am powerful, and I am capable. There is nothing I can’t do or figure out today.

If it wasn’t for my family, none of this would be possible. If someone you love is in active addiction, I implore you not to give up. I implore you to support them each and every attempt they make at sobriety, because you never know when it’s going to be the attempt that actually works. We don’t recover easily, but we do recover.

I am literal living proof.

©Copyright 2019 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

An Open Letter to the Parents of Addicts

From the very first moment you found out that you would be parents, you imagined the life your child would lead. You painted a nursery and assembled a crib and you dreamed of the milestones to come. You stood behind your fearless kindergartener on the first day of school, barely holding it together as they ran off into the world, for the first time, without you.

You sat in the cold ice rink at five in the morning, watching your little one take on the hard, cold ice, covered head to toe in so many pads that they could barely move their little feet. You stood in the blistering heat on the soccer field, trying not to laugh as your four year old tripped over the ball that would eventually become an extension of their foot. You put bandaids on skinned knees which gave way to broken hearts. You laced up ballet slippers which gave way to high heels. You painted cartoon characters on their bedroom wall which gave way to black pleather curtains and posters for bands with names that you couldn’t even pronounce.

You got through the terrible twos which gave way to terrible teens. You watched that fearless kindergartener give way to an anxious adolescent, and maybe you thought the worst was over. You looked at colleges and helped them get their first car. You raised a happy, competent, capable young adult and then you watched in horror as your child became lost.

You didn’t know what was wrong at first, just that something was wrong. You find out your child is doing drugs, and you think maybe they’re just experimenting. You think it’s a phase and it will pass. They’re out partying until all hours and you think they’re just kids being kids.

Then the partying gives way to solitude. Good friends from childhood are replaced by shady characters you don’t recognize, whose parents you’ve never met. The upward trajectory of your child’s life is suddenly stalled out, and like a standard car stopped at the top of a very intimidating hill, your child starts slowly rolling backward.

They roll and they roll and they pick up speed and suddenly they’re flying at 100 miles per hour, backward, in the wrong direction.

They’ve lost control of the car and no matter how badly you want to intervene and grab that steering wheel, or stomp as hard as you possibly can on the brakes, there’s nothing you can do because you’re not the one driving the car.

You watch in horror as your little fearless kindergartener becomes a fearful, dulled down version of themselves. You watch them fight and you watch them stumble and you watch them fall. You do your best to pick them back up, only to become exasperated as they fall again. You get tired and you get angry and you get upset but most of all you get hurt.

You wage war beside them and try your best to help them, but you don’t know how. You would give your own life to see them live theirs, but it just doesn’t work that way. You have small victories and big setbacks. You spend a lot of time praying, a lot of time crying, a lot of time remembering those days when the most danger your fearless kindergartner was in was from a pair of safety scissors.

You pray and you make devil’s bargains, willing to give up anything or pay any price to save your child’s life.

You take a second mortgage on your home to send them to a world renowned treatment center. You lock your purse in your car and wear the keys around your neck. You start checking your child’s breathing in their sleep.

If your child gets sober, you wait with baited breath for the other shoe to drop. Maybe your child is in jail, and you are surprised to find yourself relieved because at least you know where they are and that they’ll likely still be alive tomorrow morning. Maybe you’re living the very real nightmare in which you’ve buried your child.

No matter what chapter of the story you’re currently living in, it’s likely the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life. You’re watching your child die of a chronic, progressive, often fatal disease while the world scoffs at you and tells you it’s your fault. People ask “Where were the parents?” like you haven’t been standing beside your child this whole time, since the day they were born, fighting for them.

Addiction is a family disease, and for every active addict out there, countless others are affected. For every addict out there, there is a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, a husband, a wife, a son, a daughter, a friend. Every single addict was once a fearless kindergartner, taking their first steps into the world.

Nobody could ever imagine the pain and anguish that an addict goes through, except maybe their parents. Because they watch it, helplessly. They feel it in their bones. There’s nothing in this world more painful than loving an addict, except losing one.

As the dialogue shifts and the world begins to display a little compassion for those afflicted with this deadly disease, it’s important that we remember that none of us can win this war alone. It’s important that we acknowledge those who have walked beside us in our struggles, who have wiped our brow when we were tired and when we were truly broken, they carried us.

Our parents carry us as infants, and they don’t expect to be carrying us as adults. But they do it without hesitation, over and over again, until we learn to walk again or until our battle ends. They carry us through the hardest times of our lives, and though they may get weary, they are stronger than any of us could ever imagine.

They are the parents of addicts, and they deserve our respect, admiration, and compassion.

They are the parents of addicts, and they are the unsung heroes of this epidemic.

©Copyright 2018 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

Theft In Addiction: We’re ALL Guilty

Theft is a huge piece of the puzzle that is addiction. The vast majority of addicts, especially opiate addicts, have stolen something from someone or somewhere at some point in their active addiction. Whether it’s a few dollars from a parent or spouse’s wallet, a pawned piece of jewelry, or an old laptop, most of us are guilty of stealing at one point or another. When we think about theft in addiction, we typically think about the taking of a physical object that does not belong to us. However, that isn’t the only kind of stealing that we do in our addictions.

I recently had an experience with an addict who felt that she was better than the rest of us because as she put it, “I don’t steal”. Apparently she was independently wealthy, or able to maintain employment during her addiction and somehow was able to support her own habit. This is extremely rare, as even the wealthiest of celebrity addicts have used themselves broke in very short order. So this particular addict felt above those of us who have stolen during our addiction.

My father, who generally doesn’t have much to do with the deep and dirty details of my addiction and recovery, is the one who actually put the true nature of theft during addiction into perspective for me some years ago. Even though I never “stole” any money from my dad, unlike the countless dollar taken from my mother’s wallet and endless amounts of her jewelry that I pawned, my dad still felt violated and that he had been stolen from.

He explained that any money he had given me for spending money, bills, or other expenses that I in turn spent on drugs, was money stolen from him. He gave me that money for a specific purpose, and that purpose was NOT to buy drugs. To him, every dollar that I spent on drugs that came from his wallet, even though he had willingly given it to me, was money stolen.

But what about the things that money cannot buy? What about the time that is lost while using? I bet my mom would say that I stole what adds up to years worth of time that we could’ve spent together. She would say that I stole many nights of peaceful sleep from her. I stole her peace of mind. I stole her sanity.

These are all intangible things, things that can’t be measured in dollars and cents, but they are just as real and just as valuable, if not more, than any amount of money that I stole.

Worse still, I stole something more valuable than all of that from not only my mom and dad, but my brother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my friends, and anyone who knew me. I stole their TRUST. Trust can be easy to gain, and even implied among family members. However, once it is gone, it can be impossible to regain it.

I was banned from the homes of family members for years, because I stole that trust from them. I was not allowed to carry cash by my parents for years, because I stole that trust from them. Everywhere I went, everything I did, every word I said, had to be questioned. Even months into sobriety, I couldn’t be trusted to do something as simple as drive to pick up the Chinese food from around the corner. The theft of that trust is the most valuable thing I ever stole, and I took it from more people than I can count.

We steal so much in our addictions that can’t be measured.

Time, friendship, relationships, and trust are just a few of the non-monetary things we steal during our addictions. Money, electronics, cars, jewelry, all of those physical things can be replaced, and in some cases quite easily. The real theft is the emotional toll we put on those around us. There isn’t a single one of us who lived through an addiction that didn’t steal some sanity from the people who love and care about us.

So to any addict out there who feels “better than” because they’ve never been in a pawn shop or lifted a few bills from someone else’s wallet, just remember that the things you stole are just as real, and just as valuable. And until you understand and own that, you’ll never be able to repair the damage and you’ll never truly live life in recovery.

©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

I’m Still Here: Treatment for Long Term Sobriety

I often talk about changes on this blog. Changes that are happening, and changes that need to happen. There is an endless list of things wrong in the sphere of addiction. From the problems with the way the police and justice system deal with addicts, to the stigma we deal with in the general population, and even on the front lines in the treatment world.

There are many different kinds of treatment out there. There is a lot of treatment available to someone who is in the very beginning stages of sobriety. We have the highest levels of care in detoxes, which then typically lead to an inpatient or Partial Hospitalization Program (referred to as PHPs). The level of care after that is generally Intensive Outpatient Programs (referred to as IOPs). There are no rules to the order in which someone engages in treatment, except that most programs do require someone who is actively using to have completed a supervised medical detox before enrolling them in treatment. Some people jump right into an IOP without having gone through an inpatient program.

The problem with any kind of outpatient treatment is that is allows the client to still engage in addict behavior while enrolled in treatment. Whether it is actively using, or other shady behaviors, it can be challenging to break those habits and that lifestyle while only engaged in treatment a few hours a week.

This is a problem that not only outpatient treatment programs deal with, but that is common in the rooms of twelve step programs as well. Everyone who has ever been in treatment or in the rooms has been told to “stick with the winners”, meaning that you shouldn’t hang around with people who are struggling to live a clean and sober life.

This philosophy can be difficult to adhere to, however, when those with good clean time are mixed into a group session at the treatment center with those who are still struggling to stay clean.

This issue basically stems from the major problem with treatment in general, which is that there is little treatment available for those in long term sobriety.

Once you have over a year of good clean time, your life generally changes in very significant ways. For most of us, our legal problems have been resolved. We are no longer on probation, and if we are on a long term probation that has extended multiple years, we are no longer worried about violating our probation in our daily lives. We don’t worry about giving dirty urines. We don’t have open cases with DCF and we don’t worry about losing custody of our children. If we have lost custody in the past, we have regained it or are in the process of regaining it. We don’t associate with people who are actively using, even if it’s only occasional slipping. We no longer frequent places like pawn shops, or spend time hanging out in the streets. We have realized major changes in the three areas I talk about that indicate true recovery: Behavior, Mindset, and Intent.

For these reasons, I generally avoid attending groups or twelve step meetings. I don’t want to spend time talking about those early recovery issues, because for me personally, it puts me in a negative mindset.

It is extremely triggering for me, personally, to be put back into a room full of people who have a totally different set of behaviors, a completely different mindset, and a dangerous intent.

Keep in mind, AS ALWAYS, we are all unique in our experience. For some people, they call it “keeping it green”, which means being reminded of those bad times so that they remember not to fall back into those old routines. For those people who find that kind of group experience to be beneficial, they should continue to utilize it as part of their program of recovery. However, for myself and many others, we prefer to stay moving forwards.

Yesterday I made the mistake of attending a group at my treatment center. I typically only attend one group, which is an aftercare group for those of us who have completed IOP and are succeeding in recovery. There is only one of these groups available, and all the rest are open to everyone, regardless of their level of recovery. Don’t get me wrong, these people need groups, and they should be welcome to attend them. The problem for someone like me, with multiple years, is that we need a different level of group care.

This group was completely out of control from the minute it started, which was ten minutes late. The topics of discussion were all things that are typical problems for people who are still using. Custody issues, probation violations, arrests from pawning stolen items, you name it. The individuals who were talking dominated the entire group, and became agitated every time the counselor tried to reign them in. The topic of the group was supposed to be “Coping Skills”, which is something we all need to work on. No one on this earth has perfect coping skills. However, there is a big difference between coping with the early days of sobriety and coping with the problems that arise for us later on.

The treatment industry needs to take steps to address the needs of those who are living in recovery long term. I am proud that my treatment center does offer the one aftercare group that I truly benefit from, but we need more. We need to make it a common practice in treatment centers to offer groups to those who have a history of clean urines and whose counselors can approve them to attend based on their time in recovery and what they have accomplished during that time.

The problems that generally arise stem from trying to ascertain what qualifies someone to attend what we might call an “advanced” group. For me it always comes down to the three qualifiers of Behavior, Mindset, and Intent. Is this person engaging in any negative behavior? Is their mindset focused on living life in recovery? What are their intentions in their daily life? These are observations that a counselor should be able to make regarding each of their clients, and determine who has come to a point in their recovery where their daily challenges have changed from those faced by someone who has less progress.

My daily challenges have drastically changed from the ones I dealt with three years ago, or even one year ago. This is why I struggle to sit through a group with people who are still navigating those early struggles.

We need to break down the recovery process further than simply clean vs. dirty.

Progressive treatment centers need to find ways to cater to clients in every stage of recovery. Someone who has been in recovery for ten years probably has much different challenges from someone who has been clean for three years. Someone who has been clean for six months is in a totally different place for someone who is still counting their first thirty days.

Everyone who desires a life in recovery deserves to have their unique needs addressed by their treatment center. When we talk about opiate withdrawal, the Post Acute Withdrawal process can last up to two years, but the average treatment center provides no more than eight weeks of care to clients enrolled in an IOP. What happens after that? Where is the follow up care? We need to do a better job with the follow through process when it comes to continued care.

A diabetic doesn’t get prescribed insulin, spend a few weeks getting monitored, and then get sent on their way. They continue to report to their doctor and talk about what is working and what is not working for as long as necessary to keep their condition under control. A cancer patient doesn’t go into remission and then never see their doctor again. They go back for testing for years to ensure that the cancer doesn’t return, and if it does, it is caught early BECAUSE of the continued regular monitoring.

Addiction is an all consuming disease that totally alters every single facet of our lives, and it typically goes on for months or years. When we talk about weight loss, we always hear that it took so long to put the weight on, so it’s going to take just as long to lose it. We need to treat addiction and recovery the same way. Changing your behavior, mindset, and intent amounts to changing your entire perspective on life. These changes cannot be made overnight. We spent years building these negative habits, and it can take years to fully break them and replace them with our new way of life.

This is just one of many changes we need to see moving forward in the treatment of addiction. The list of steps towards progress is endless, and it’s going to take time to implement new strategies of care as we change the way we look at and treat this deadly disease. The good news is that there ARE progressive treatment centers who are looking beyond the twelve step model to see what else is out there and what other ways people can get into and stay in recovery. What changes would you like to see in the treatment of addiction? Let me know in the comments!

©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

Liar, Liar: When You’re High Functioning & Mentally Ill

There are few people out there as open about their addiction and mental health as I am. Anybody who knows me knows that I have some long term issues that I have been dealing with my entire life. The problem is that actions speak louder than words. Even though I am very vocal about my problems, people don’t often see them in action, so they believe they aren’t really there, or are not as severe as they are.

When someone is more high functioning in their mental illness, the way I am, people often think that we’re making up our symptoms or that our diagnosis isn’t real. Because we present as articulate, educated, or in any way “normal”, people think that our mental illness is made up or in some way not serious.

There have been times that I’ve explained to people that I am disabled, and receive disability assistance. I cannot tell you how many times the person has said some form of “You’re so lucky! I wish I was disabled!” No one would ever dream of saying that to a person who had lost a limb, or someone suffering from a serious physical illness. What possess a person to think that being mentally disabled is something to be desired?

What people don’t see is what happens in private. Classmates notice that I miss a lot of school, but when I’m there, it doesn’t seem like anything is wrong. I have always done an excellent job of blending in, acting normal, and keeping the crazy to myself. Even close friends who I have known for years don’t know the extent of my mental illness. I have been able to work a variety of jobs during certain points in my life, and have even owned my own business. On the outside, it seems like I’m just a normal person, maybe with just a few quirks.

The first thing to understand is that I am very medication compliant. I have grown out of the phase where being manic on purpose sounds like fun, so I generally always take the medication that is prescribed to me. However, sometimes the disorder outsmarts the medication. I do suffer from break out episodes from time to time, including some that are very severe and others that are less so.

Bipolar I is the most severe form of Bipolar disorder. It is characterized by extreme highs and lows, which isn’t a very illustrative way to describe the symptoms. People often mistakenly believe that the bipolar high just means a person is very happy. This is simply not the case. The manic high can be just as risky and dangerous as the depressive lows.

Mania is characterized by rapid speech, sometimes so fast that people cannot even understand what I’m saying. Additionally, the thoughts being expressed flow so quickly that people cannot keep up with what I’m trying to say. In my brain, thoughts are cycling a mile a minute. It is difficult to stay on task, because I am prone to jump from one thing to the next without completing any of the tasks at hand. People who are in a manic episode are also prone to risky behaviors outside of their regular character. Common behaviors are shoplifting, wild spending and buying things that you do not need, including multiples of items you already own, excessive drinking or drug use, promiscuity and risky sexual activity, and risky or dangerous activity in general.

During a manic episode, people are prone to grandiose thoughts and behaviors. They believe they are capable of things that they normally would not consider possible. The paranoia is also very real. It’s easy to start believing that people are talking about you, ignoring you, or conspiring against you.

You start to get in arguments and debates inside your own head.

Irritability is another common symptom of mania. Snapping at people, losing your patience very quickly, and having a low tolerance for anything that isn’t going exactly your way are all common attributes of someone dealing with a manic episode. It’s very contrary to the mistaken idea that a manic person is happy. A lot of irritability for me in mania comes from people not keeping up with my crazy train of thoughts and ideas. I start to feel like everyone around me is a complete moron for not being able to make sense of my delusional thought process. It can feel so frustrating, and make me feel so powerless, that often times I dissolve into tears and the whole episode of frustration and irritability to the point of break down happens so fast that people around me are just completely confused as to what in the hell is going on.

Mania can turn into psychosis in some people, myself included. This can be as simple as hearing things that aren’t there, or thinking you saw something that wasn’t real. It can progress into losing track of time and space, being unsure about how you got somewhere or not knowing where you are. It can be very frightening and disorienting.

On the other end, individuals suffering from Bipolar I can suffer from depression that is just as crippling as those with typical clinical depression. It starts with being withdrawn, pulling away from people and things you care about. You feel overwhelmed by life in general, and simple daily tasks become too difficult to even consider.

There are times when I don’t shower, brush my teeth, or even eat, for days at a time.

When you are incapable of basic grooming, the thought of going to school or work is simply out of the question. It feels like the world is coming down around you, like you’re drowning in your own despair. It also manifests physically, making it something that you can’t just snap out of. I get a lot of headaches that make me so dizzy I am unable to drive, or even sit up in a chair. I have no choice but to lay down until it passes. Muscles and joints become sore, so much so that even if I could motivate myself to shower it is physically impossible to hold the blow dryer to dry my hair.

Deep depression is also very disorienting. You become confused about time and dates, losing track of where you’re supposed to be and when. You can become extremely forgetful, and even the most intelligent and capable person can start to feel, and act, like an idiot. You can forget how to do basic tasks that you’ve done a thousand times before.

There are also episodes that we refer to as a “mixed state”, where elements of both mania and depression manifest at the same time. There are some theories out there that Bipolar patterns will change after the introduction of psychiatric medications. I personally think there may be some truth in this. When I was young, my patterns were very easy to detect and follow. Now, after fifteen years of treatment with medications, I experience many more mixed episodes and a much less discernable pattern to the highs and lows. This can also be attributed to the disease changing as I get older.

Living with Bipolar I is a lot harder than people think, because so many of us who struggle with it are very good at hiding its symptoms. Many brilliant people in history are suspected to have been Bipolar, because so much creativity can flow from the episodes. This makes it even harder for people to understand that just because I may seem smart, or put together, does not mean that I am not mentally ill at the same time.

For those of us who have substance abuse issues as well, it is even harder for us to get and stay sober.

When our mental illness takes us from our ability to make rational and logical decisions, we are prone to relapse even when we have been enjoying long term sobriety. Many of us suffer from extreme episodes during early recovery, when all the chemicals are going crazy in our brains. It makes it very challenging to let go of the safety net of regular drug use.

Anyone who knows anything about SSI and SSDI (the two government programs for disability insurance), knows how challenging it is to get accepted. People apply over and over, some with very serious disabilities, and are denied time and again. Getting approved on your first application is almost unheard of. When I presented my history to Social Security, not only was I approved on my first application but in record time. I did not have an attorney or someone to help me navigate the system. I did not have any advantages in any way. All I had was a fifteen year history of severe mental illness, complete with multiple hospitalizations. Not even the government could deny the reality of my situation, even while people around me routinely do.

Despite the severity of my mental illness, no one really knows the true depths of the insanity besides my mother. Even my father, who has been around this entire time, does not fully understand the severity of my condition. He thinks disability is a temporary situation, and that I will finish school and get a full time job. The likelihood of this happening is slim to none. I have never done anything for 40 hours a week with any kind of regularity. I have not been able to complete a full 30 hour school week yet, up to this point. Every time I try to take on more than about 20 hours of commitment, whether to a job or school, I wind up dissolving into a complete break down. Forget school or work, I find myself unable to take care of my basic human needs. I just cannot handle it.

Just like with my father, people who have known me for many years still don’t get it. Whether it’s friends or family, they just don’t understand how severe and far reaching my mental illness truly is. They don’t realize that what they have seen is just the tip of the ice berg.

They have never seen the true extent of my issues, and because of that they have expectations for me that are beyond unrealistic.

The government awards disability to people on the assumption that their situation is permanent, or very long term. I have been dealing with this disorder for over fifteen years. My track record is pretty solid. What gives anyone the idea that I’m suddenly going to morph into this healthy, “normal” person is beyond me.

If it wasn’t for my family and the support they have given me, I would likely be living in some kind of home for disabled adults. I have been working very hard to shift the financial responsibilities of my life and well being off of my parents and on to the programs that are available to me. My parents won’t be able to support me forever, and it’s important that I find a way to survive in this world without their constant attention, supervision, and finances.

The point of this blog is not to garner sympathy. It’s to bring awareness to the fact that none of us know what the people around us are going through in private. Even when someone is as open as I am, the people around us still don’t know the true depths of our issues.

I want people to understand what living with a severe mental illness is really like, the way it affects our daily lives, and to know that what they see on the outside may not be a true reflection of what’s going on inside.

Even those of us who share a diagnosis do not share the same level of disorder. Some of us are more functional than others. Some of us are very good at hiding our dysfunction. Bipolar Disorder is characterized by episodes that come and go, leaving us somewhat “normal” in between. That’s why people think we are better off than we really are, because they aren’t seeing the extent of the illness at its worst.

As an advocate, it’s my job to draw attention to the issues that addicts and mentally ill people face every day. I choose to be honest about my own struggles because I firmly believe the only way to reduce stigma is for those of us who are dealing with these issues to be honest about what we face and what our struggles are.

If I wasn’t honest with school administrators, I would’ve never graduated high school. I needed accommodations then, and continue to need them now. I’ve needed them at every job I’ve ever had. The point is that the help is out there for those of us dealing with mental illness to still succeed in life. If we advocate for ourselves and the assistance we need, we can still do things that “normal” people do like go to school or hold a job. We need to illustrate that many of us do present as “normal” people sometimes, so that those around us understand that it is possible to be crippled by symptoms one week and be highly functioning the next. We need to help people around us understand our strengths and our limitations, so they can be more sensitive to our needs the way they would be with a physically disabled person.

It is also important to remember that mental illness can be fatal. When untreated, and even sometimes when it is treated, those of us suffering from mental illness can become suicidal. We are also at risk of injury or death from risky or dangerous behavior during episodes. The times in my life when I have felt this way have been largely from feeling misunderstood and incapable of keeping up with the world around me. Feeling like a failure at life, a failure at doing the most basic things that “normal” people do, like working a normal 40 hour work week or graduating from high school, can make someone suffering from a mental illness feel completely invalidated and useless. I have often felt like a burden on my parents, and have at times convinced myself their lives would be easier and better if I wasn’t around.

When we are honest with ourselves, and in turn honest with those around us, we can set ourselves up for a more successful life. We can seek special accommodations from school or work, to help us succeed when we otherwise might not be able to. I have tried a lot of things, and have had many failures along the way. Sometimes special accommodations can make an impossible thing possible. Sometimes we still fail, and that’s okay too. It can be very difficult to not feel as though people are looking at you like a faker. Part of that is paranoia from the disorder, and part of that is factual. I just try to remember that the people who matter most know the truth. My doctors know the truth, the government knows the truth, and my mother knows the truth. If people think I’m fabricating something or exaggerating, that’s on them. Luckily, the government protects me and others dealing with mental illness from discrimination under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to continue to advocate for ourselves.

Many people are dealing with mental illness in secret, due to the shame and stigma that surrounds the topic. I encourage you to be honest with yourself, and get honest with at least one person in your life who doesn’t know or understand your situation. Challenge yourself to be honest, and challenge them to learn about your disorder and stand by you despite it. You never know, that person may be dealing with their own issues and you could start a dialogue. You’ll never know until you take that leap, and get honest, about who you really are and what you’re really capable of.

©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

No Stigma, Know More

Those of us who have lived through an addiction, or are currently dealing with one, know what our biggest enemy is, and that is stigma. We talk about it all the time. We complain about the way people judge us, the way those on the outside don’t understand addiction, and the lack of support from everyone from our families and friends to the government. We are angered by the perceptions people have about us and our family members who are in active addiction or recovery. They don’t know who we really are, that we are good people from good families and that this can happen to anyone. But then we feed it.

We feed it by whispering among ourselves. We feed it by hiding our status or our loved one’s status as an addict once we get established in recovery. We don’t tell people about our history, like it never happened. Parents don’t talk to other parents, unless their kids are also affected. We stay isolated among ourselves and we feed this stigma that we then complain about.

We cannot wait for others to one day wake up and change their minds about how they perceive addicts. The only way people’s perceptions change is when they come into contact with someone who alters their reality surrounding addiction. We have to be those people.

It’s our job to advocate for a change in the way the world views us. When someone loses their battle, and succumbs to a fatal overdose, it is their family’s job to honor their battle by being honest about how they died. When we say a 23 year old with a known drug problem “died suddenly” with no explanation, the world knows what happened and they know you are hiding. That tells people that you are ashamed of your child and how they died, whether that is true or not. That is the message you are sending. That is the perception you give people when you fail to tell the truth. If they died of any other disease, you would acknowledge it. Obituaries are a way for us to acknowledge the fight, and how powerful addiction is when we lose that fight. They are also a way for us to draw attention and donations to organizations that may have served us during our struggle.

Once you or your child gets established in long term recovery, this is an ideal time to wave your addict flag. Because this is the time where you are showcasing an addict at their best. You are showing what can happen when recovery is realized. You are showing people that there is hope, and that this disease can be treated and can be overcome. When you decide the bury the struggle you and your family have just conquered, how are you helping the next family? How are you reducing the stigma that you are so upset about?

When your child is out there in their addiction, and people ask you about them, tell the truth. When you are embarrassed of your child and their truth, what does that say to your child? That you are ashamed. That you are hiding them and their addiction. If they had cancer, how different would the situation be? You would be seeking the best treatment you could find, you would be asking everyone you knew for their thoughts and prayers, and the people in your life would rally around you with concern and support.

People don’t know how to act in these situations because when we are hiding, we are sending the message to the people in our life that we are ashamed and we don’t want to acknowledge what is going on. It can be scary to come out with the truth, because people don’t know how to act or respond. It’s our job to teach them. Then they can teach others. Eventually, we begin to change how people regard addiction and we begin to reduce the stigma. If the people in your life are too caught up in their own ideas about addiction, and they can’t bring themselves to support you, then you should seriously consider their role in your family’s life. It may take some time, and some education, to help bring them around, and that is okay. Don’t complain that they don’t understand, because it is our job to teach them and educate them so that they can come to at least appreciate what you’re going through, even if they never truly “understand”.

We need to be vocal about our struggles and proud of our accomplishments.

We need to teach the world around us about this disease, and how to support us while we’re going through it. When we ask an addict not to talk about their disease, especially when they are in early recovery, we are invalidating them as a person because their disease becomes their entire life at that stage. If they have just come from treatment, if they are fresh in recovery, their recovery is their WHOLE LIFE right now. For some of us, even years later, it remains a significant part of our lives. When we are asked not to acknowledge it, we are being asked to hide. No one would ever ask a cancer patient not to talk about their disease, their treatment, and their recovery. The disease of addiction is just as pervasive, just as all consuming, and just as fatal as cancer.

When a classmate of mine was battling cancer a few years ago, he told me something I will never forget. He said that he wouldn’t trade places with me, because he couldn’t imagine being blamed for the disease that was trying to kill him.

When it comes to the stigma surrounding addiction, those of us who are affected are on the front lines. We need to be proud of who we are, and what we deal with. If we want there to be a change in the public perception, then we need to get loud and get proud about our circumstances. You are your best advocate. If you want to see a change, BE that change. If you want there to be no stigma, then we need to teach people to know more about us and the war we are fighting each and every day.

©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

Great Expectations: The Risk of Pregnancy In Early Recovery

There are a lot of hot button issues that get talked about in the recovery community. We talk about medical maintenance, we talk about Twelve Step programs. We discuss the pros and cons of psychiatric medications. We debate the differences between enabling and helping an addict. We talk about the dangers of romantic relationships in early recovery. As far as I’m concerned, there’s a huge elephant in the room that we are not talking about that we desperately need to be, and that is pregnancy in early recovery.

I have met countless women in treatment who are absolutely convinced that they cannot get pregnant because there is something wrong with their bodies. They will tell you up and down how they have been having unprotected sex with their significant other for years now and they just don’t get pregnant. Then in the first few months of recovery, they find themselves with child.

These women are right, there is something wrong with their bodies, and in many cases the bodies of their partner. What’s wrong is that they are literally dying from their drug addiction.

The human body is a marvel of biology and is an amazingly intelligent machine. The human body wants to procreate by nature. However, when someone is sick and dying, they are much less likely to conceive a child. How often does someone dying of cancer get pregnant? Yes, it happens, but not very often. People with chronic diseases often struggle to conceive. Women who are overweight, even slightly, are typically told to lose weight in order to increase their chances of getting pregnant. That goes for women who smoke cigarettes as well. When the body is being damaged, it is not a hospitable place to grow another human being.

When a woman is using, her cycle can become irregular, infrequent, and she often loses her period all together. If a woman is not ovulating, she cannot become pregnant. Furthermore, women who do get pregnant often miscarry very early on. They sometimes don’t even realize it’s happening because they attribute the symptoms of the miscarriage to being just another odd period issue. Babies need a healthy body to grow, and that is why women who are addicted to drugs often believe they have fertility issues.

On the male side of the equation, it’s all about sperm count and strength. A dying man is not producing the best quality sperm. Do sick men impregnate women? Of course. It happens. But once again, it is a challenge that many couples deal with when they are trying to conceive on purpose. When a man gets clean, his body also wants to get back to its intended purpose of procreating.

When people get clean, some systems in the body get well faster than others. One of the first things that happens to many women is their period comes back or becomes more regular again. The human body’s main purpose in life is to reproduce more humans. It wants to get back to work on that as soon as possible.

Even though methadone is an opiate, the body gets much healthier once someone becomes established on methadone maintenance. Women in methadone clinics get pregnant very early on in their treatment because their body is becoming healthier and is ready to get back to its purpose of reproduction. The reason this is bad is not because methadone is bad for the baby. While it is certainly not ideal, many women on methadone give birth to perfectly healthy babies. Depending on the dose the mother is on, some babies go through little to no withdrawal symptoms at all. Those who do are treated medically and often remain very comfortable until the issue is resolved. Pregnancy on methadone is a topic for another blog. The reason I’m addressing it here is in the interest of a woman getting pregnant in early sobriety and the issues that brings.

When I talk about early sobriety I’m typically talking about the first year or so. When you are working to overcome an opiate addiction, the first year is no joke. You go through many huge changes and challenges while getting sober. The body goes through tremendous changes. The brain is turned upside down and inside out while it tries to recover. Those with mental health issues are typically getting back on psychiatric medications and dealing with the ups and downs of that, which can take up to a year to get right. Those who choose to utilize methadone spend the first six months or so getting stabilized on the right dose.

Lots of undiagnosed health problems can rise to the surface in the first year. People realize they have liver or kidney issues. Some people find out that they are diabetic. All kinds of health problems that were ignored during the person’s using career can come to light once the body starts getting back to its normal state of being. These issues need to be dealt with and can make an unplanned pregnancy that much more difficult or even dangerous.

There are also the social issues we encounter in the first year. Many people are homeless, living in sober houses, or shelters. People struggle to find a job, and often the first job they get is some kind of “starter job”, just to get them back in the swing of working again. Many people don’t have a car, and if they do, it isn’t very reliable. There’s also the issue of health insurance, which many addicts do not have.

Many of us have a great deal of debt to deal with in early recovery. If we’re not in debt, most of us are dead broke. Raising a child costs a lot of money, and most of us can’t even pay our own bills in the first year.

The first year is not the right time for 99% of addicts in recovery to be starting a family. It is a tumultuous, unpredictable, and erratic time in our lives. We don’t know who we are in sobriety, and we are trying to figure that out. Our lives are unstable, and we often don’t know what our plans are for our futures right away. Our support systems are busy trying to help us stay sober, if we are fortunate enough to even have a support system. It’s not fair to them to have to help us support and raise a baby because we aren’t in a position to support one ourselves.

Many addicts are not even stable enough in their life to even get a job right away, or live on their own, or simply exist as an independent human being. The first year is all about figuring out who you are in sobriety, and who you want to be. You should be able to support yourself, both emotionally and financially, before you take the step to start a family.

The idea that having a baby will help you to stay sober is just as much of a myth as the idea that having a baby will save a relationship or marriage.

Babies don’t fix problems, they exacerbate them. If babies kept people sober, then thousands of grandparents wouldn’t be raising their grandchildren and millions of kids would not be caught up in the foster system. A baby is not going to fix you, and it will not fix your partner.

It truly blows my mind that no one ever talks about this extremely important topic in the addiction and recovery field. Many addicts have never ever heard of this issue of increased chance of conception in early recovery, even those who it has happened to don’t realize the reason behind it. People are extremely fertile in early recovery and it is the worst possible time for that to be happening! I encourage all of my clients to pay close attention to this issue and not only to use birth control, but to double up on your methods.

This goes for the partners of addicts as well. I recently spoke with a woman who herself is not an addict, and whose husband got sober, they got pregnant, and within a month he was out using again. Now she is raising her beautiful daughter on her own. Would she give up her daughter for anything is this world? Of course not. But is the situation ideal? Far from it.

Two women I know have similar stories where they got pregnant in the first month of recovery, not once, but TWICE. No one ever explained to them that they are so fertile in early recovery, and even after it happened the first time they didn’t make the connection. They thought it was a fluke. It’s not a fluke!

There are so many children out there who are growing up without their parents because they can’t stay sober. There are children who are watching their parents die in front of them, and those who have had to bury their parents before they are even old enough to understand what death is. This is not the life you want for your child. There are more stories than I care to remember of terrible situations related to women getting pregnant in early recovery and not being able to stay sober in the long term. Everyone thinks that it won’t happen to them, that they are different, that they can do it, that they can change. I’m telling you that it can happen to you, you are not different, and it will not help you stay sober. Just trust me on this one. In rare circumstances, it probably has helped some people. In rare circumstances, it may have changed some people’s lives for the better. These are not the norm, they are the literal unicorns of the addiction world. No one wants to admit that they wish their child hadn’t been born. It’s a terrible thing to think. But I assure you, I have met MANY women who feel that way. I have met MANY women who are out on the streets, with their child growing up without them, because they got pregnant during a short stretch of sobriety by accident.

Please take this warning and share it with those you know in early recovery. Please understand how real the risk of pregnancy in early recovery is, whether it is the man or women or both partners who are getting sober. It just doesn’t matter. Your past history doesn’t matter. This happens every single day and it’s a source of stress you just don’t need in early recovery. Focus on you and your recovery. Focus on your mental and physical health. Build yourself a life you love and become the person you are proud of. Get your finances in order and pay your debts.

If you need help getting on birth control, please contact your local Planned Parenthood. If you want to help women in recovery prevent unplanned pregnancies, consider donating to our fundraiser. It is part of our mission to educate and advocate on this issue and to scholarship birth control for women in early recovery who cannot afford it on their own.

©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

She Will Be Loved: My Heroin Anthem

Music plays a big role in many of our lives, because it is so versatile and can be interpreted to fit any situation that we may be going through. Many love songs have been written over the years that are actually about drugs and addiction. For me, my addiction has always felt like an abusive relationship, so whenever I hear a song on the radio that speaks to romance, my first thought is always the torrid and dangerous relationship I’ve had with heroin.

My heroin anthem, which is probably very surprising to a lot of people, is a song that I’m pretty sure is not about drugs or addiction at all. That song is Maroon 5, “She Will Be Loved”. As we go through the lyrics, you’ll see what I mean.

Beauty queen of only eighteen
She had some trouble with herself

I was eighteen when my addiction started, so we open the song where my disease began. I have struggled with mental illness all of my life, since childhood, so you could say I’ve always had some trouble with myself.

I drove for miles and miles and wound up at your door
I’ve had you so many times but somehow I want more

My stomping grounds were all the way out in Waterbury, which is quite a few miles from where I live. I have found myself driving there so many times. And no matter how many times I rendezvous with my lover, my addiction, my drug of choice, and no matter how many times it hurts me and the people I love, I still want more.

I don’t mind spending every day
Out on your corner in the pouring rain
Look for the girl with the broken smile
Ask her if she wants to stay awhile
And she will be loved
And she will be loved

Every single day of my addiction, I spent waiting for my drug dealer. I’m the girl with the broken smile, literally, because my addiction has caused so much damage to my teeth. Metaphorically, because my life is a disaster but I always try to be pleasant to drug dealers. When you’re nice, they treat you better.

Tap on my window, knock on my door
I want to make you feel beautiful

They often walk, whether they’ve parked somewhere else and are walking or they’re hanging out somewhere and they’ve sent you to wait nearby. They come and literally tap on my window, or knock on my car door, so I will let them in. Once I’m high, everything is beautiful. I feel beautiful, even though when I am using I am every shade of ugly.

It’s not always rainbows and butterflies
It’s compromise that moves us along, yeah
My heart is full and my door’s always open
You come anytime you want, yeah.

Just like any abusive lover, they try to convince you that all relationships have ups and downs. They try to make you feel like the bad isn’t so bad, and the good is SO good. The compromise is that I give my life in exchange for a short time of feeling okay. Of feeling beautiful, full, and empty at the same time.

I know where you hide alone in your car
Know all of the things that make you who you are
I know that goodbye means nothing at all
Comes back and begs me to catch her every time she falls

And I sit, alone, in my car, tying off my veins with a auxiliarycable. If it’s night time I might have to pull out my flashlight. Heroin becomes everything you are. It makes you who you are, at that time, because everything that is the real you is depleted by the drug. I say goodbye, every single time, and I always come back. When things are bad, when things are good. When I am celebrating, when I am mourning. I fall, and I am caught by the warm wings of the angels who wrap me up in desperation and despair.

Tap on my window knock on my door
I want to make you feel beautiful

Another day, another tap on the window. Some dealers became so close to me that they actually let me into their homes, in which case, I would be knocking on their door.

Please don’t try so hard to say goodbye

Every time I try to say goodbye to my addiction, it pulls me back. Its grip is so tight, so warm, and yet so cold, it holds on for dear life. For my life. The fight is on going.

Every day when I wake up, I have to make the choice to say goodbye. Because if I go back to that corner, back to the pouring rain, I lose my ability to make that choice. When the addiction takes over, there are no choices left to make.

This song speaks to me so deeply, I feel like it was written specifically for me. Every love song I hear makes me think of heroin, because I’ve never loved anyone the way I loved my drug of choice. I would never stay in a relationship with someone who harmed me, physically, emotionally, and every other way imaginable. But when heroin does it, I find a way to look past it. I accept the unacceptable.

I heard this song on the radio today, and it just struck me that no one else knows this hidden meaning that it has for me. That even when I am not thinking about my addiction, I’m still thinking about it. It lives in my subconscious, and I have to actively fight it throughout the day to keep myself from getting on that highway.

Please don’t try so hard to say goodbye

I am trying, every day, to say goodbye.

©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

Partners In Crime: Mental Health & Addiction

Addiction is a cunning monster, but it doesn’t always work alone. Often times, it has a ready and willing accomplice that allows it to thrive. There are a lot of components to addiction, and a lot of different behaviors and mentalities contribute to its ability to destroy lives. However, the number one partner to addiction has always been and will always be mental health.

Over half of all people with a substance abuse problem are diagnosed with an additional mental illness. This number is staggering, especially when you consider how many people out there have a mental illness and have not been diagnosed. There is also the issue of misdiagnosis among addicts, because their use effects the way their disorder presents to a professional. Many people are diagnosed with mental illnesses while they are in active use, or in early recovery, and then find that the medications they are prescribed are not working, so they ditch them.

It is important to remember that mental illness has no cure, just like addiction. It is a living problem, that continues to grow and shift and change as time goes on. Our daily lives can affect our mental health. Our progress in recovery can affect our mental health.

So many factors contribute, and it is vital to our recovery that we continue to work on our mental health just as hard as we work on our recovery.

Reluctance to treat these mental illnesses sometimes stems from involvement with the Twelve Steps. While the original program promotes the treatment of medical issues, including behavioral ones, many groups have twisted the intentions of the founders and built this renegade program that frowns upon medications of any kind. Some people believe that the use of any drugs, including those that treat mental illness, means you are not truly “clean”. Other people believe that their problem is strictly a spiritual malady, and that their symptoms will be cured by working the program of AA or NA. This is one of the many problems caused by this program. The fact that each group is autonomous allows for some of them to plant the seeds for warped perceptions of their literature and this is very dangerous when it comes to people who need treatment for their underlying mental illness.

Then of course we have the shame factor. People can admit that they made a mistake with their addiction. They can admit that they did something wrong, maybe they were weak then, but they get into recovery and say “that was then and this is now”. They want to say that today they are better. Admitting that there is still something wrong with them, and that they have an issue that they have no control over, makes many addicts uncomfortable.

Mental illness, just like addiction, is a chemical problem that masquerades as a behavioral problem.

It walks around in disguise, making people look and act crazy. Depression, for example, is a problem caused when serotonin is not properly absorbed by the receptors in the brain. This is a chemical problem, not something you can think yourself out of. When pathways are damaged and neurotransmitters aren’t firing correctly and their reuptake is interrupted, medication corrects what is broken. It allows the brain to work as intended. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, or SSRIs, are the most common medications prescribed for depression and anxiety. They literally act like a lid, holding the serotonin down in the receptor so it can be absorbed as intended. It is not some kind of happy pill that helps you forget your problems.

Some drugs, like lithium, have less information available about how they work in the brain. We just know that for some people, like myself, they are lifesavers. When my kidneys revolted against lithium earlier this year, I was and still am devastated. After fifteen years, I had to go back to the drawing board and find a new base to my medication cocktail.

Finding the right drug or combination of drugs for your unique mental illness is complicated and takes time. You have to allow the drugs time to work, which can take a few weeks. Then, if you are not seeing desired results, you have to make the decision to try and change the dose, or toss it out and start over with a different drug. It is all about trial and error, and no matter how good your doctor is, no one can predict which drug is going to work for which person with 100% accuracy. Be patient, and don’t give up on a drug right away. I had to go back and try drugs that didn’t work for me ten years ago and give them another chance. I’m glad I did, because after almost a year I’ve finally found a combination that seems to be working okay.

There is also the issue of psychiatric drugs with the potential for addiction. Benzodiazepines are the number one culprit for opiate addicts to get addicted to. Some people find that they really help, and they are willing to take that risk. Buyer beware, these drugs can reignite the monster for some people. If you have any reservations about this, tell your doctor that you don’t want to take any benzos and would prefer to try drugs that are not a risk for becoming habit forming. Common benzos are Valium, Clonopin, Ativan, Librium and Xanax. These drugs are also a risk for those on Methadone or Suboxone, as they can cause respiratory depression when combined.

Medications are not the only ways to treat mental illness. It is a fact that proper exercise and nutrition work wonders to increase the production of serotonin and improve one’s mood and state of mind. Exposure to sunlight also helps, just remember to wear your sunscreen! Many people are able to get insurance to cover a sun lamp, which can be great especially for people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Another old school method is ECT, Electroconvulsive Therapy. This procedure gets a bad rap because it used to be very invasive and scary. However, today it can be done outpatient in your doctor’s office in as little as a half hour to an hour. The brain is an electrical system, and sometimes it just needs a little shock to the system to get it working right. Don’t rule these options out, especially if you are adverse to medications or have health issues that make taking medications impossible.

Some people suffer relapse after relapse while refusing to address their mental health. Taking care of your complete self is key to long term sobriety. Do not be afraid to seek professional help if you believe you are suffering from some kind of mental health issue.

Of course, finding a doctor is tough, especially for those on state insurance. A great place to look is in your town or city to see if they offer counseling services as part of their community programs. Many treatment centers provide medication management and therapy services to their clients, and sometimes it can be worth it to enroll in an outpatient substance abuse program, even if you don’t feel like you need it, just so you can gain access to their psychiatric services. They will then help you get a more permanent support system in place when you discharge from their program. Some programs do not want to work with clients on Methadone, which is based mostly out of prejudice, and is truly a shame. This is why finding a comprehensive program is critical if you are a Methadone client. Make sure you enroll in a Methadone clinic that offers support for your mental health as well as your addiction.

There is so much to talk about when it comes to mental illness, especially as it relates to addiction. For this reason, our next workshop will focus on this topic. Please join us Wednesday, March 1, 2017 at the Mildred A. Wakeley Recreation Center at 7 Linsley Street in North Haven from 6:30 to 8:30pm. We will discuss mental illness as it relates to addiction and have resources available for those who need them.

Please keep in mind that this workshop is a SAFE SPACE for those interested in attending. Don’t worry about feeling ashamed or embarrassed that you or your loved one is dealing with addiction and mental health issues. Everyone else who is there is dealing with the same problems you are, so no one is there to judge you! We always provide index cards so that you can ask any questions anonymously if it makes you more comfortable. We are here to support you!

If you have any issues related to mental health and addiction that you would like us to address during the workshop, please let us know! As always, if you have a topic you would like us to feature in a future workshop, let us know that as well! In Angel’s Arms is here to serve the community and meet your needs in whatever ways we can!

©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

Unpopular Opinions: Recreational vs. Hard Drugs

When we talk about prevention, we’re always focused on the parents. We have forums for parents to learn about drugs. We send home notices and we publish articles. We try to reach parents so that they can try to reach their kids. But the problem is that the message that reaches our kids is not sufficient. It isn’t working. “Just say no” and “drugs are bad” is not, nor has it ever been, effective at stopping kids from experimenting with drugs.

By the time they graduate high school, almost HALF of American teens will have tried marijuana at least once. Kids are inclined to try recreational drugs, which includes alcohol, because alcohol IS a drug. There are so many reasons that drive kids to experiment with drugs. Celebrity culture glamorizes drug use. Kids want to do anything that makes them feel older, like an adult. More than anything else, drugs can be fun. Just like the average person goes to the bar, has a few drinks and has a good time, recreational drugs can provide that same social energy and party atmosphere. People do it because it’s fun.

But heroin addicts are not having a good time. Drug addiction is NOT fun. There is no social, party time atmosphere for most junkies. There is a difference between recreational drugs and hard drugs. This is an unpopular opinion. Parents and school administrators want to cast all drugs as bad, and leave no wiggle room for experimentation. This is totally unrealistic, and just as ridiculous as abstinence only sex education.

We know that in areas that promote comprehensive sex education and access to contraception, the benefits are enormous. Teens are 50% less likely to get pregnant than those who receive abstinence based education according to a study by the National Survey of Family Growth. Advocates for Youth reviewed comprehensive sex education programs and found a significant delay in first sexual encounters; declines in pregnancy, HIV and other STIs; increased use of condoms; increased use of other contraception; reduction in the number of sexual partners and increased monogamy; and reduced incidences of unprotected sex. Despite all this success, comprehensive sex education is still fought by conservatives.

Science illustrates to us that education actually decreases the dangerous behavior that parents are afraid of. The same is true of drug education. Providing fact based, scientific drug education is likely to have the same results as providing fact based sex ed.

Kids are autonomous. They make their own choices. Yes, they are influenced by their parents, and parents should always outline expectations for risky behaviors including sex, drinking, and drug use. Parents should make it clear what they will not tolerate, what the consequences are, and what the real dangers associated with the behavior can be.

But maybe we need to let kids make their own choices, since they go ahead and do that anyway. Focusing on the difference between recreational and hard drugs allows kids to see that not all drug use is the same. If they smoke pot or drink a few beers and don’t suffer any of the scare tactic consequences they heard about from adults, they start to believe that all drugs are the same and none of them have real consequences. They start to believe that only weak people become addicts, and that they can totally control this, and it’s just all in fun. This is a direct consequence of painting marijuana and heroin with the same brush, and the same scheduling by the government. Both drugs are Schedule I, meaning they have no medical purpose, even though many states have begun recognizing medical marijuana. This allows the justice system to prosecute all drug offenders the same way.

In every direction in our society, we are lumping all drugs together, calling them all bad, and then calling it a day.

Make no mistake, I am not advocating for the use of any drugs. I suggest we attempt to influence our youth not to pick up any drugs, no matter how harmless they may seem. However, we need to be realistic. Kids should understand that all drugs are dangerous, but some drugs are even more dangerous for different reasons.

Only 9% of marijuana users develop what professionals call an addiction to the drug. This is an unlikely consequence for those who try smoking pot. However, those who try prescription painkillers thinking they are also a recreational drug are in for a rude awakening. Those who try prescription painkillers are almost TWENTY TIMES more likely to try heroin. Four out of five heroin users today started with prescription painkillers. Those are pretty significant statistics. Kids, and adults included, look at medications like recreational drugs because they come from a doctor and are legal when prescribed, which implies that they are considered safe to use.

Opioids, along with methamphetamine and crack cocaine, are the most dangerous and habit forming drugs out there. These drugs are NOT recreational, party time drugs. There is a big difference between going to a party and dropping some ecstasy on a Friday night and picking up one of these dangerous drugs, thinking it’s going to be a one time thing. Kids know meth is dangerous, they’ve seen the pictures of the addicts with missing teeth and open sores on their faces. They know crack is dangerous, they’ve joked about crackheads picking lint out of the carpet thinking they’ve found a tiny rock to smoke. And of course, they know heroin is dangerous. They’ve heard the stories of famous musicians living under bridges and shooting dope. It’s the prescription painkillers that they don’t understand the danger of.

Kids should be taught that prescription painkillers and street heroin are the same thing, because that is the truth. They should know that when they pick up one of those little blue pills, they are doing pharmaceutical grade heroin, and their brain and body interpret it as heroin. If they swapped that blue pill for a bag of dope, and ingested it in the same manner, they would experience the same high. These drugs are the SAME.

I did a lot of partying in high school, and spent many Friday nights drinking, smoking weed, rolling on E, and blowing lines of coke off of my math book. I partied pretty hard and so did a lot of my friends. Not a single one of us became addicted to any of these drugs. Not a single person became a felon because of these drugs. Everybody still graduated from high school and went to college. The behavior was dangerous, illegal, and extremely risky. I don’t condone it, and I don’t recommend it, but that is the reality of life for many high school students in America. They party. They have a good time. They still succeed in school and play sports, and they still go to college and become productive adults. The vast majority of people I did recreational drugs with in high school are all doing just fine today as adults.

The people who are not fine, are the ones who picked up the painkillers. While a handful of people did experiment with the pills and were able to move on, most of the people I know who got caught up in prescription narcotics in my graduation year of 2006, are still dealing with the ramifications of that choice today, in one way or another.

I didn’t understand that these drugs were different from all the other drugs I tried. I didn’t understand that this wasn’t a party drug. I didn’t know there was a physical dependence, meaning that I would get physically ill from withdrawal, and that it would happen whether I was mentally addicted or not.

We need to focus on the difference. We need to highlight what separates opioids from recreational drugs. I know this is an unpopular opinion. I know that no parent out there wants to think of their kid playing beer pong in their garage after school while parents are at work, or smoking weed in the woods behind the house. This is reality. You know this, because when you were a kid, you probably experimented with drinking and some recreational drugs yourself. You know in your heart there is a good chance your kid will experiment. You need to make sure they know the difference between smoking a joint and taking a opioid medications (which probably seems less harmful to them than the joint).

Ideally, kids would stay away from drugs and not drink until they turn 21. This is not reality for most young people. This is why we need to focus on highlighting the dangers of hard drugs vs. recreational drugs. We need comprehensive, fact and science based drug education that illustrates these differences. We need to work on harm reduction, and we will be much more likely to see positive results.

Think about this when you talk to your kids about drugs. Remember that when you misrepresent the dangers of some drugs, you undermine the danger of other drugs. Don’t undermine the danger of opioids by putting them in the same basket as marijuana and beer. Opioids love it when you underestimate them, and they have become the star of their very own epidemic based solely on the public underestimating their danger. Tell the truth about drugs, and the unique differences between them. This allows kids to make informed choices, and leave the propaganda behind.