When the opioid epidemic hits home

 

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 90 Americans die every day from opioid-induced overdoses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that around 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2016 — a staggering statistic.

Although the opioid epidemic disproportionally affects small towns in rural America, there are no communities that are immune to this scourge, and Wisconsin’s Jewish community is no exception. I know this from personal experience — my youngest brother, Max, 29, was almost one of those statistics.

Only a few minutes left to live

It was early January 2016. Max, a long-time drug user and opioid addict, was living at my parents’ house in Glendale after suffering a drug-induced mental breakdown while living in California.

“We weren’t going to let him back in,” said my mom, “but due to his medical crisis, we did. He was also undergoing drug treatment.”

The treatment, like others before, wasn’t working. One evening Max and my parents were watching TV. Max went into the bathroom and snorted fentanyl, a synthetic opioid pain medication that is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin. My mom recounted what happened next:

“We were going to watch a show. He stumbled in and sat next to me. Then he got up and I said, ‘Sit down next to me.’ He sat down and then he put his head back and was unconscious. He wasn’t breathing. I yelled for your father to call 911. I gave him mouth-to-mouth. The paramedics arrived really fast. They put him on the floor and asked us if it was drugs. We said ‘Probably,’ and they gave him Narcan.”

Narcan, also known as Naloxone, is a medication used to block the effects of opioids, especially in overdoses. It saved my brother’s life.

“The paramedics said he only had a few minutes left to live,” my mom told me. “They told Max, ‘Your parents saved your life.’”

My parents were at their wit’s end because of Max’s drug use, but they agreed to let him stay with them as long as he went into drug rehab. But they made it clear it was his last chance. He could either get clean, or get out.

The last Seder?

A few months later my mom was preparing for the first Passover Seder. Max was standing outside and talking on the phone. My dad overheard some of the conversation, which sounded suspicious. Then Max left the premises to take a walk. My mom hopped in her car and followed him to a nearby Walgreens.

She saw Max get into a parked car that had a couple guys inside. It was obvious he was about to buy drugs. My mom used her car to block the drug dealers’ car. Max was busted – by mom. He got out of the car and walked home across the street.

My parents would have immediately kicked him out, but Passover guests were going to arrive in a couple hours; there was no time for Max to pack up his things and then get driven to a homeless shelter. Meanwhile, I was blissfully unaware any of this was occurring. I was focused on the matzo ball soup I had made, and hoping that everybody would like it. (And they did, of course.)

The road to recovery 

After the Passover Seder, my parents kicked Max out of the house for good. Max called shortly after, begging to be allowed back. But my parents stood their ground. Max panicked; he desperately needed a place to live. He went online and found out about 4th Dimension Sobriety in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. He moved in the Sunday after the end of Passover.

Despite suffering the agony of opioid withdrawal — and getting briefly expelled from the program — Max stuck to the strict rules of 4th Dimension Sobriety. He embraced the 12-step program, the early morning yoga and the group meetings. After six months as a resident, Max graduated from the program and was promoted to a managerial position.

“It was great,” said Max. “I had learned a lot about myself. I learned leadership skills, and I was able to help people.”

What went wrong?

Needless to say, the entire family has been overjoyed at Max’s recovery, and proud of what he has accomplished and continues to accomplish. As things have continued to fall into place for Max — and as I’ve gotten to know the real Max, who is much more likable than the drug-using Max — I’ve become ever more curious about what went wrong.

Why did Max become such a heavy drug user at such a young age? After all, he has two wonderful, wise and loving parents. Plus, Max has two older brothers to look up to and serve as role models. (For what that’s worth!)

So, how’d it happen? Well, I asked him.

Me: How old were you when you first used drugs?

Max: I started smoking weed in eighth grade.

Me: Why did you start?

Max: I just wanted to do it.

Me: Did something happen to you as a young boy to make you want to do it?

Max: No.

Me: You started out with weed. Then what?

Max: By the end of eighth grade and when I became a freshman — I think I was about 14 — I started doing [psychedelic] mushrooms, because it sounded really cool. I started dabbling with coke here and there, and pills. We’d get pills from our parents’ cupboards. I also tried LSD.

Me: Geez. I had no idea you were doing that much stuff at such a young age. What else?

Max: Xanax, benzos, Percocet, Vicodin, OxyContin — did this all throughout high school.

Me: Woah. When did you become physically addicted to the opioids?

Max: I didn’t become physically addicted until years later. I guess when I was a junior I became heavily addicted to cocaine. I was doing cocaine all night the day before Sasha’s bat mitzvah.

Me: I remember that day because you seemed miserable, and you were as surly as ever. How did you afford coke? It’s expensive.

Max: I hustled, dealt drugs. Anyway, then I put the coke down and started doing ecstasy. It made me chemically unbalanced and I got really depressed for a long time. I didn’t touch any pills at that time.

Me: So when did the opioid addiction start?

Max: When I was 18 a lot of my friends were getting oxy for super cheap. By 19, I was heavily addicted. I moved to Denver, Colorado, with the intention of getting away from the drug scene. I still continued to do other drugs, like Xanax, LSD, coke, ketamine, but I didn’t touch the painkillers. Then after half a year in Colorado I started shooting heroin.

Me: How were you able to afford it?

Max: I sold my snowboard, pawned things. I’d get a little money from Mom and Dad, since I was in school. I was sick every morning. I’d just lay in bed. Then I dropped out of school.

Me: Wow.

Max: I knew I was [expletive], but I didn’t want to do anything about it.

Me: Maybe because you didn’t know any other way to live?

Max: Yeah, probably.

Me: By then the whole family knew you were using heroin. Do you think there was anything Mom and Dad could have done?

Max: No, there was nothing they could do.

Me: Let’s fast forward. You returned to Milwaukee. Then you moved to California, but shortly thereafter came back home again and moved in with Mom and Dad.

Max: Basically.

Me: Then the overdose and later you were kicked out after Passover, right?

Max: Yeah.

Me: Why did you seek out 4th Dimension Sobriety?

Max: I didn’t want to be homeless. I needed a place to live. I was drained emotionally.

Me: So, now you’ve been clean and sober and you’re working. You must feel a lot better.

Max: Yes, it feels great to be a productive member of society.

Me: And now you’ve been selling cars since last August — and you’re good at it. I mean, you hit the ground running. Where did this talent come from?

Max: I’m a hustler. I was always able to find ways to get money for drugs, so selling cars to people sort of comes naturally. I’m a people person.

Me: Anything else you want to add?

Max: Who do you know wants to buy a car?