It was inevitable, I suppose. With annual drug overdose deaths in America reaching the 50,000 mark, why would I be surprised to hear that the opioid scourge claimed the life of someone I knew? Nevertheless, I was not expecting the bad news.
When I entered the program room, I glanced around the table to see who was present. The group appeared to be short a participant. So when one of the men somberly said they had “bad news” to report, I assumed it was word that someone had been expelled from the program. That was indeed the case, but it wasn’t the bad news I was about to hear.
“Larry is dead.”
I scrambled to connect the name to my memory bank. Before I could make the connection, the group’s spokesman went on to fill in the details. “You know. Larry ________. He was in the program with us. Remember? He just got out on the 10th. Died of an overdose less than two weeks later. They just had his funeral on Friday.”
“Holy cow!” It was all I could say as the memories finally came forward. Larry was a bright, confident and articulate 38-year old with an easy-going smile who loved to get high. He reminded me of that fact numerous times as we dug into the program material on addiction during the 12 weeks he was with us.
At nearly every turn, Larry resisted. He had used drugs for many years. And, as he reminded us on several occasions, it had landed him in jail only once in 38 years. He thought the odds of making it through the rest of his life without being incarcerated again were pretty good. He was right about that, though not in the way he imagined.
At various times during the 12 weeks, other members of the group confronted Larry with what was obvious to everyone but him: he had a serious addiction problem. There was a lot more going on than just his simplistic explanation that “I like to get high.”
When I introduced the idea that addictive drug use is always a response to pain, Larry objected. “I didn’t have a bad childhood. I haven’t been traumatized. In fact, I’ve had a very good life. And, believe it or not, I have become a very successful and prosperous businessman.” And then, as if to make the point one more time, “I just like to get high.”
Several days before his release, I shook his hand and wished him well. I asked him to remember the things we talked about. I suggested he should especially remember how other members of the group had urged him to stop using and get help. Smiling, he thanked me.
Larry’s obituary in the local paper said simply that he had died at home. Age: 38. The names of his four children were listed, along with his parent’s and step-parent’s names. Calling hours and a funeral service time were also included. The lack of details spoke volumes about the shame that still drives many to be silent about addiction and overdose deaths, which in the past year alone have claimed more American souls than the Vietnam War.
I asked the ten men at the table how they were feeling about the news of Larry’s death. One or two said it was sad. One or two said something like, “it happens.” I suggested that news like this should get the attention of everyone who abuses drugs. No one nodded. No one agreed. They have seen it before. More than half of them have known someone who died of a drug overdose. One participate estimated he’d known at least 15 men and women who died of a drug overdose.
Larry was my first. If the opioid epidemic is as bad as the statistics suggest, he probably won’t be my last. But still. Such a waste of a life with some much potential.