Submitted by Geoffrey
My family lives in the western suburbs of a northeast city. We have lived here for many generations. My dad worked logistics. My mom worked for the small town. My brother and I attended the same large public university in the middle of the state. We are very middle class. Boomer parents and Millennial kids. After graduation, I got a job in the tech industry in the metro, married and started a family not far from home. My brother graduated, delivered pizzas and played in a band on weekends. One night, he overdosed on heroin and narcan saved his life. Everything changed after that night in 2018.
We thought nothing needed to change before that night. I had a wife and kid and visited my parents on weekends for family dinners and quality grandkid time. My late 20s brother was finding his way but had what we thought was a fun life. He had a circle of friends, a place of his own, random women in his life and was playing gigs at bars. He even had one show in the city and his band recorded a demo for their Soundcloud. He was thin but not sickly looking with a mop of brown hair same as he had at age 15. My mom was retired on a pension and my dad was counting down the months to retirement.
After the overdose, my dad retired immediately. He was going to do something. We did not know what, but after we talked to my brother, he was going to be there for Rick for whatever he needed. Rick moved in with my parents. Well, he moved in with them after 90 days at a rehab facility they paid for. During those 90 days, my parents spent Sundays talking to me about how and why Rick was using and what we were going to do about this when he got back. It was all speculation and trying to minimize any blame. My parents asked me about what to do because my generation deals with this. I really did not have answers. Heroin hit friends’ networks, but I didn’t have friends with siblings who overdosed and survived. We were lucky.
When Rick got home, we settled on a plan, but would he agree to it? He would live with my parents, but on the conditions he went to Narcotics Anonymous and did not talk to heroin friends. He told us he would be fine throughout the conversation. He agreed. He also had nowhere to go. My dad would drive him to meetings to make sure he attended. For the first couple of months the only new effects I experienced were text messages to check on Rick and my daughter spending more time with her uncle. He would drop by on occasion as he thought of next steps because pizza delivery is not a career one rushes to restart.
Rick told us about another type of meeting group geared towards a younger crowd. My dad drove him there. Rick then told us both NA and this new group allowed non-users to attend once a month at open meetings. He asked my mom and I if we’d attend. Of course, we agreed. My wife was supportive as our daughter goes to bed before the meetings begin so no household effects if twice a month I helped my brother out. I remember being nervous like a first date the first time I went with him.
The NA meeting was a subdued affair with coffee for the crowd of close to twenty people. It was a mix of old and young. There wasn’t anyone looking heroin chic. People shared their stories of the week, dealing with urges or talking about the past and what brought them to using. One woman cried and her friend who came with her for open night consoled her. The meeting had a Christian vibe even if it was not explicitly Christian. People talked to their sponsors. I saw some people ask for signatures on slips of paper they had. Those were court mandated attendees. I met my brother’s sponsor who was in his 40s and had been a user in the ’90s. He was a positive guy, a runner and looked cleaned up like a poster boy for the program. On the drive home, my brother didn’t want to talk much about that, more about our favorite NBA team, and all he could say was that the fucking steps were annoying.
My parents started a text group just with me once Rick overdosed, and it was a CNN feed ever after that. I told them what attending a meeting was like. They needed to know how he was doing, no one cared about this before the overdose, and I dutifully reported. My mom attended a meeting. The next month I attended the other meeting he went to. This was not NA. It was a younger crowd. No Christian vibe. There was coffee and soda. It was unstructured but with a similar format to NA. People talked about their week. No sponsors. It was more just a hang out session. No steps. On the drive home, I asked my brother why he went to that meeting, too. He said no steps, no pressure and he just wanted clean people to talk to who got it. I would never get it. He told me I couldn’t get it.
I couldn’t get it, but I did get to know people at the meetings. I joked with a middle aged woman who told a young woman looking college aged after a sob story to “take care getting off the cross so Jesus could have his spot back.” She said she had heard years’ worth of stories and everyone has their story, their baggage but the younger kids all think their unique in their suffering. After a while, even I got annoyed with hearing about steps. The non-NA meeting did have a different vibe and the unstructured bit didn’t force a process, so it might not be as effective, but the NA system is like AA with a 99% failure rate or whatever Charlie Sheen noted.
At both meetings, I heard about vivitrol and suboxone, substances that are used to combat opioid addiction, and we are all paying for this. Same as narcan being assigned to every EMT crew in America. You can’t get high on heroin or drunk on vivitrol, and it is expensive. There are things you learn too, like how users have an emotional rush a couple months in as their brains get back to normal with serotonin receptor repair. After months or years of not feeling anything, feelings come back, which can overload anyone. Some users slam meth and heroin together so they can stay alert but feel the heroin high. The issue of constipation and digestion is a big one, so those ads for opioid induced GI problems are not pushing a product with no user base. Some attendees are doing it to get visitation rights back, and it hits you that between heroin orphans and kids separated from their parents, we will deal with the fallout for a generation.
The non-NA meeting showed me how the younger crowd was definitely a cross section of the nation while the NA crowd was the more traditional looking user base. Both crowds are all white. The youth of the non-NA meetings had a spectrum of young women who did look close to heroin chic and obese users. There was one chubby redhead with wavy hair who brought her guitar and would play before a session. My brother befriended her and encouraged her to write and play as much as possible. He plays bass. They talked about their songs. That was their thing. It was nice to see an organic dialogue that wasn’t just focused on steps, not using, progress, etc. They were just musicians talking. Once when they were talking, I asked to see her sheets she had brought. I went through the pages, and the bubbly, childish looking handwriting masked incredibly dark subject matter.
Her parents divorced when she was young. Her mom worked all the time. No siblings so she was alone a lot. She got a job at the bottom of the health care industry as a CNA at a retirement home. She had used oxys as a teen, but not much. As an adult, she used out of emptiness and boredom. Like my brother who could work, play in a band and not show any signs of distress, she was a high functioning user who worked 50 hours some weeks. That overtime was to afford more heroin. Her songs revealed a life of nothing much to do, unreliable or abusive lovers with no future and no thoughts of the good life. It was just living and not enjoyable. It was work, leisure and boredom. Her concerned mom, closer to me than my parents in age, would show up sometimes with the concerned but caring expression most relatives showed at open nights. She was going to be there for her daughter, now at least.
Over time, my brother stopped going to the NA meetings and attended only the non-NA meetings. He still asked my mom and I to attend on open nights, which now I look back on it as a way to spice up the conversations and be able to discuss a variety of topics where the attendees would be more careful about talking about their using days. On rides home, we would talk not about a future as much as how I built what I had. He realized he had lived in an eternal present.
This is where sponsors help by showing a path out and a possible future, but for some reason it didn’t resonate with Rick. Sponsors are eager to connect. There was never a lack of new blood. Someone was either leaving rehab and coming per family enforcement or the state had said it was a condition of their probation. There were cute young women too, which surprised me for some reason. My brother ended up dating, and still is dating, a thin brunette from the non-NA meeting crowd. She did two years at another of our state’s public universities, and then dropped out. The tuition was too high, and her divorced parents could only contribute so much. She worked retail, partied and then her circle had one user. Then another used. Then another until they were all using and taking turns going out to buy for the group. Someone would bring the goodies, they’d all strap in, and then for a few hours all be knocked out into the void together. It was social but not social as they spent hours not interacting, but at least were doing it together. She got arrested one night while out buying. She is a felon now. Works as a waitress at a chain restaurant. She despises the service class’ complaints about life because they don’t know real shit in her words, and she keeps quiet about her prior life. Her manager knows so she has no faith he would keep quiet about it, but she stays silent and just earns her check.
Because it was the Trump era, I thought about the media articles on Trump appealing to these people. He was the only candidate to even voice a concern about the opioid epidemic. Hard to argue the opioid crisis was not a targeted program against a specific demographic, but now the fentanyl phase has shifted it to be any area and almost any drug that can be adulterated. Trump was not appealing to users. No one would really because they are only focused on their drug and scoring more to fly. Trump was not going to get these people to vote for him in a reliably blue state. Trump was speaking not to the users, but to their networks. The people like my parents and I who have to pick up the pieces, if anyone even picks up the pieces, around the opioid afflicted caste are that audience. There was one young guy who always talked basketball with my brother and I and one night he got real with me and asked if he could text during Nets playoff games. I said sure, include Rick. He said he had no one to talk to. That meeting was it for him for clean people. This guy did vote Trump, but his mom did not, and he hid that from her. They didn’t talk as she saw his use as a personal failing with a classic Boomer Mindset. Trump’s message was not for everyone in the heroin adjacent crowd, but to anyone who understood there are many factors at play with this problem. Is Rolling Stone going to cover this? Not unless the overdoses start hitting Democrat voters at greater numbers and they can wrap an intersectional narrative around it. White suffering doesn’t sell to the media clique.
Covid caused more worry for my family not for the disease but if Rick would backslide. He had picked up a service job, but that left in the wind with our state’s lockdown. He had his girl, and she also lost her job. We tried maintaining the frequency of visits and contact. I questioned if that would make a difference since it was not much more than before his overdose. We had a lockdown baby, and I got Rick to visit more to introduce his niece and nephew to good music. Meetings restarted, and I know he attends with his girlfriend and once in a while he asks me to show up. Some attendees did not survive lockdown. Survivor guilt hit group the night they let everyone know why someone was not attending anymore, but it hardened my brother and his girlfriend to stay clean.
Rick’s still a little guarded with me. Rick will never say why he started using. He hates hearing the word addict. He used. That’s what he always says. There is still mystery there, and he won’t even tell my mom. I suspect the love of his life knows. I speculate, too. I knew his childhood, as it was the same as mine. Middle class ’90s kids in a middle class town who went to college. I’ve never asked and just let him talk about what he wants to discuss with me after meetings. I suspect he was just bored. I suspect he saw nothing worthwhile for his future. My wife will still say it after Rick and his girlfriend leave our home, “I wouldn’t ever think they’d both be addicts.” The key for Rick, and I suspect other success stories, is building that clean social network after mandated or forced rehab that replaces the old user circle. We never worried about him before his overdose. We didn’t think we had to. Now whether we have to or not, we always will.