It was 4:30 on a Tuesday. I was driving down a familiar stretch of highway. In another town, in another state, my best friend was right in the thick of her work day. But I still thought nothing of it when she called me out of the blue.
“Anna’s* dead,” she told me in the way that people do when the shock has yet to wear away.
“Do you know how it happened?” I ask in the exact same way.
“The public statement is that it was natural causes,” she replied. “But I mean, you knew how Anna was…”
The conversation we had next was one I was a little too familiar having: we knew she had her things going on, we were hoping she’d clean up, we can’t believe this happened… We’re speechless. We’re sad. We’re weirdly resigned. After a while my best friend hung up and I spent the rest of my car ride blinking back tears until I gave up trying to fight them.
In a way, I felt like I didn’t have a right to cry. Anna was my best friend’s former roommate. A friend of a friend. She was one of the thousand of various connections one will make throughout their entire life. But it might as well have been a beloved childhood buddy or a family member. It hit me in a way that I couldn’t shake off.
Two weeks ago, my best friend and I had this exact same conversation. Downright verbatim: an old high school classmate had passed, and in a very similar fashion. Replace “we knew she had her things going on” with “we didn’t know he had that going on…” and it’s the same conversation.
It’s a conversation I had last year with an elementary school friend, someone I hadn’t talked to in years, getting in touch with me to let me know that our friend’s sister suffered the same fate. Or when it was my turn to call my best friend, telling her that someone we once knew well was gone. The frightening part is that I could go on, playing Six Degrees of Preventable Deaths, reciting this and that conversation, point out this and that person from my life, using words like “heroin” and “alcohol” until people would stop me midsentence and go, “If this were fiction, no one would believe it.”
In some ways, it’s easy to dismiss the prevalence of this conversation. We’re so interconnected these days. The number of people who play or played at least some role in our lives easily reaches the thousands by the time we leave college. We all keep tabs, remembering classmates and coworkers and families of friends when they used to fade into the background.
And statistics are statistics. Know enough people, and you’re bound to go to a few funerals. You’re bound to find out about a few deaths by overdose.
My hometown has a heroin issue. There. I said it. My middle class, white-picket-fence-suburb-of-Boston is a statistic. And my hometown is not a special case: heroin ODs are on the rise in Massachusetts. Between January and April of this year, there were 185 heroin ODs in Massachusetts alone. And the rate of overdose deaths in America has tripled since 1990. This is an epidemic. Way more than Ebola in America, but there’s no time on the news for the things that are actually killing us.
I know the general attitude when it comes to addiction: they brought it on themselves, they got what they deserved, serves them right… So — of course — slash funding for resources. Think about addiction and treatment in black and white terms. Turn our backs. Why waste money on recovery programs? Why remove the stigma of those suffering from drug abuse? We have the War on Drugs. Close enough, right?
It’s easy to blame the addict. Far too easy. And I could go into how addiction is just like any other mental illness — including the genetic predisposition towards it — but we already know how our country feels about mental health issues. It’s a useless endeavor to attempt to dissuade anyone’s negative opinion of the addicts themselves.
So that’s why I’m writing this, from my egocentric, bleeding little heart to yours: we need to change how we go about addiction, from the inside out, from the bottom up. If nothing else, then because I never want to have that conversation again as long as I live. I don’t want another phone call, I don’t want another text message, I don’t want another link to an obituary. Addiction ruins lives, but it’s more than a bomb that hurts those in the immediate vicinity when it goes off; it’s a mushroom cloud, affecting everything in its path for miles upon miles, stretching farther and having more impact than we can even begin to fathom.
If I were in a better mood, I would remind you once more how interconnected we all are. Everything affects everyone — socially, economically, emotionally. It’s far too easy to balk at “one more dead addict”, forgetting the people who are affected by their deaths, and how their feelings will ripple out, creating a butterfly effect, affecting communities, regions, countries as a whole.
But I’m not in a better mood. I’m tired and I’m sad and I’m honest-to-God sick of it.
People will die from addiction, be it suddenly from an overdose or slowly as their bodies break down. And countless people around them will die a little bit with each piece of news. In a way, the pain is reassuring: it’s a reminder that life is sacred and beautiful and important and commonality of losing it doesn’t cheapen the situation. But society is too busy labeling addicts bad people, lost causes, to realize they’re making a bad situation worse.
There is hope. Change is already starting. Just this summer, Massachusetts passed a bill that will have insurance companies partially cover addiction treatment and recovery. People are unhappy about it. Insurance companies are fighting it tooth and nail, saying it’s going to make everything more expensive. But it’s a step in the right direction. It won’t solve everything — and it’s going to take a lot more than just making treatment more accessible to curb this epidemic — but it’s a damn good start. For those suffering from addiction, for those suffering from yet another life lost, for everyone.
*name changed to protect the innocent