Spreading Hope, Erasing The Stigma, Raising Awareness
Author: Aaron Emerson
From Lansing, Michigan, I am a recovering heroin addict and alcoholic. I share my story to spread hope, raise awareness and erase the stigma of addiction. I am a huge Detroit sports fan and have a seven year old daughter.
According to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 72,000 people died from drug overdoses in the US in 2017.
The CDC estimates 72,287 Americans died from overdoses in 2017, an increase of roughly 10% and a new record.
Most of the overdose deaths – almost 49,000 – were caused by opioids, according to CDC. Fueling the opioid epidemic in recent years is the increase in Fentanyl, which the CDC says killed more than 29,000 people in 2017.
The 72,000 people dead from overdoses amounts to nearly 200 people per day and is more than car accidents, HIV or guns have ever killed in a year, according to the New York Times.
The numbers are preliminary and experts are saying the number will most likely be higher, as some toxicology reports may not have been finished.
So, those are the numbers, but unfortunately it seems like new records have been announced every year and nothing ever happens. The fact of the matter is that there is still a heavy stigma attached to addiction and many people will never care if addiction doesn’t ever impact them or their family. Many people will continue to help raise awareness and do everything in their power to fight this epidemic, but we live in a society where countless people still don’t even believe addiction is a disease. Sad. Wake up America. People are dying every 8 minutes from an overdose, literally.
Ah, the good ol’ Narcan debate. If you follow any addiction blogs or websites, you have probably seen the arguments. On one side of the spectrum, Narcan saves lives. On the other, well, Narcan simply enables addicts to keep pushing the limits of more and more opiates, knowing a dose of Naloxone is in the medicine cabinet.
Me? I’m extremely passionate about this topic. Narcan literally saved my life. So when I see people arguing that expanded access to Narcan is just a crutch to enable addicts, I cringe. I take it personal, like my life wasn’t worth saving that frightening, cold night.
It started out as just a regular evening in the life of a heroin addict. You know, some cocaine in the afternoon and a shot of heroin at night to come down. I was in full blown addiction and I didn’t care about anything other than my next fix. But that night turned out to be different; I would instead only care about whether or not I would take my next breath.
After I took that shot of heroin, I immediately knew something was wrong. My heart started beating faster than it had ever beat. I started taking deep breaths, telling myself to calm down and not overthink. But then my heartbeat immediately reversed and I started feeling it slow down rapidly. Within 30 seconds, I was starting to fade in and out of consciousness and I stumbled out of my room to get help.
I came out and begged my mom to call the ambulance. I knew what was happening. The mixture of cocaine and heroin was too much for my system. I started panicking and almost crying. However, even that became a struggle. As I heard my parents begging 911 to send someone ASAP, I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer and I passed out against the wall.
Inside, my last thoughts were full of fear. I knew this was it. All of the warnings of overdose and mixing drugs hit me all at the same time. I started begging God to save me. But then I remembered all the misery I was living in and I just gave up, accepting the reality that not existing anymore would be easier. Those were my last thoughts: glad for the pain to finally be over.
I woke up in an ambulance. And instead of waking up thankful to be alive, I immediately felt instant withdrawal. It was the worst withdrawal I had ever experienced in my life, like all of my dope sick episodes combined into one horrid, intense, devastating, painful experience. I was freezing cold, my body was shaking violently, it felt like an army of ants was crawling all over me, my stomach was turned inside out and I felt the most dreadful feeling of my entire life.
The EMT workers made it worse. They treated the experience like a stroll through the local park. And really, it probably was. They deal with overdoses every night. They are probably so far detached from trauma that taking a junkie to the hospital after an overdose is nothing to them. But it made it all the more worse, as my body was throwing itself against the sides of the ambulance, heaving uncontrollably, while they were just sitting there with a cold, plain expression on their face.
So there dispels the myth that opiate addicts have no problem doing too much dope because Narcan is always available. Hell no! Any heroin addict will tell you that Narcan is the LAST thing they want. The instant withdrawal it puts you in is worse than any heroin withdrawal. It is pure misery. I would never, ever want to be hit with a dose of Narcan again. I would actually beg anyone who tried to hit me with it to throw that shit away, because I’d rather take the risk of overdose than ever have to feel that withdrawal again.
The bottom line, though, is that if it wasn’t for that Narcan the Ingham County deputy hit me with that night, I wouldn’t be alive. The doctors at the hospital told me that if the deputy got there a minute or two later I probably wouldn’t have made it. My heart was shutting down. Cocaine is an upper that speeds up heart rate, while heroin is a downer that slows it down. So doing too much of both in the same time frame puts the heart in an almost impossible situation.
The Narcan was able to take the opiates out of my system, which allowed the hospital to monitor my stimulant levels until the cocaine exited my system.
I can not begin to explain how grateful I am for those police officers rushing to my aide. They got there before the ambulance and immediately hit me with Narcan. Legislation passed a few years ago allowed police officers to carry Narcan for those exact situations, because they often get to overdose scenes before EMTs. My parents said the Ingham County deputies treated the situation perfectly. They were courteous to them, showed concern and months later they even followed up to see how I was doing.
I ended up going to jail for a probation violation several months after all that happened. I got called out of my cell for a visit. When I walked out into the jail hallway, there stood an Ingham County deputy. All he said was that he remembered me from visiting my house on several occasions and heard I was in jail, waiting to go to rehab. He just wanted to offer encouragement and wish me well in rehab. He gave me his number and said I could call him if I ever needed someone to talk to. I was confused. Why would a random cop want to come visit me in jail? He deals with criminals all day, what was so special about me?
Once he left, the deputy working my jail unit asked me if I knew who he was. I said no, I don’t really remember ever seeing him. She said “he saved your life. He was the officer who Narcan’d you when you overdosed.” I gasped in shock. I was absolutely stunned. I didn’t remember him because I went unconscious before the cops arrived. What shocked me the most was the fact that he didn’t even tell me that he was the one who saved me. He didn’t want to take credit for just doing his job. But to me, he is a hero. He is the reason I am in recovery today, happier than I’ve ever been.
As I’m sitting out in my living room watching the Tigers, my daughter is at the kitchen table coloring, talking to herself like a seven year old. I am content. I am at peace. I just got a job in Mason and I am 83 days sober. I’m a good father today. I can’t help but think about that deputy, stopping to visit me at the jail. The guy who saved my life and didn’t even want to take credit. How courageous, gracious and humble. A true hero.
That is the story of how a widely debated drug, Naloxone, also called Narcan, saved my life. It is also the story of how expanded access to the drug and a heroic cop allowed a hopeless heroin addict to get his life together and build a new one. Yeah, Narcan enables addicts. It enables addicts to fucking live.
The other day I saw a quote that said, “I couldn’t find the light at the end of the tunnel so I lit that bitch up myself.”
How fitting. 77 days ago, I was thrown in jail. I was embarrassed, ashamed and numb. Jail is not a place that fosters an environment for recovery. It’s still the same old, dirty place that I remember from years ago. A week after getting placed in Post 1, a guy in the cell to the right of mine was jumped by two other inmates for a measly four dollars worth of commissary. His jaw was broken over three ramen noodles and a bag of chips. What can you say? It’s a place full of savages who are not well fed by the three provided meals. If you are a white boy in jail who orders a big store bag, you better be ready to scrap on a moment’s notice.
Though I slept most of my time away and wasn’t in there very long compared to my past stints, the incarceration and following stay in rehab was exactly what the doctor ordered. I never thought I’d stand in front of a judge at a probation review hearing and say a sentence mixed with jail and treatment was what I needed, but that’s exactly what I did a couple weeks after getting out.
People in my support system have noticed a change in me. I’ve been through this countless times, but I can honestly say I’ve never put this much effort and energy into my recovery. While in jail and rehab, I vowed every single day that when I got out I would do ANYTHING possible to stay sober this time. The 45 days away from home woke me up and helped me realize how fast life goes. It instilled a desperation within me that I’ve never experienced before.
I’m excited about being sober today. I’m working daily with two different sponsors and a recovery coach and am going to meetings once or twice a day. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, I’m getting involved in my faith more than ever before, too, going to church each Sunday and hanging out with other people in recovery. I ask God for strength each morning and thank him for sobriety every night. This last Tuesday, at my last Drug Court review hearing, I was promoted to Phase 2. My probation officer and outpatient therapist had amazing things to say about me, and for the first time in my life, a judge is telling me she is proud of me and encouraging me to keep it up. The last judge I had called me an animal and threw me away for a year, not offering any treatment after I relapsed on probation.
As I wrote in a blog last week, the hardest thing I’m doing today is working through my PTSD, something I’ve never done before. I don’t want to imply that everything in my life is all rainbows and butterflies. It’s not. It’s hard. It’s challenging sitting down with a therapist to talk about my feelings and PTSD. I still experience depression and anxiety, too. Things are not perfect, but I’m content. I’m at peace today.
I don’t think I could have gotten to this point if I wasn’t violated for my probation and put in jail. As mad as I was at myself at the time, it motivated me and, yes, forced me to make my own light in a tunnel full of darkness and pain. Sometimes it takes what it takes for an addict to get sober and fully embrace a fulltime recovery lifestyle. It can be so frightening for a hardcore addict to think about staying sober for the rest of their life. That’s why it’s so important to develop a mindset of living one day at a time and doing everything that we can within those 24 hours to stay sober. Some people get sober for the first time and embrace recovery forever. Others have to relapse countless times and experience a great amount of pain before they fully surrender. What matters the most is to continue trying, never giving up. I am truly seeking to learn from this last relapse. I am keeping that pain in the front of my mind, remembering it at all times, enabling me to experience gratitude on a daily basis. Life is not perfect today, but it is good! I have discovered the light that I never could find in the tunnel of addiction.
I’ve heard the saying in meetings countless times. It truly does make sense. How do you stay sober? The answer is simple: you just don’t pick up that first drink or drug.
When you break down sobriety to just that, it IS a SIMPLE concept. But talking about actual recovery and changing one’s life, well, it involves much more than simply abstaining from drugs and alcohol.
Another popular saying around 12 step meetings is this: what does an addict need to change to stay clean? Everything! Recovering from substance abuse is one of the hardest journeys an individual can ever take. Digging down deep to uncover trauma, abuse, pain, misery and all of the things that us addicts use drugs to run from is extremely frightening.
If we never get to the root cause of why we used drugs in the first place, though, lasting recovery is not gonna happen. For me, I’m currently working with a therapist to heal from the PTSD I experience due to a sexual assault when I was younger. It’s something I’ve hidden from and tried to cover up for many years, not even telling my parents until last year. But when I went to rehab earlier this year, they taught me how the trauma I experiened goes hand-in-hand with my addiction. I used drugs to cover up that pain, and until I started talking about it, I wasn’t ever going to live a life of recovery.
It’s a new process for me. I hate talking about the sexual assault. It hurts and brings out rage. But if I want to stop relapsing, I understand now that I have to work through my trauma and feelings. And so it is with many addicts. There have been many studies done that have linked PTSD and substance abuse. Many addicts and alcoholics also deal with mental illnesses, depression, anxiety, self-esteem issues and much more.
Until we start working on dealing with those issues, though, they’re going to keep manifesting in our daily lives. Just simply not using drugs or alcohol isn’t going to make those symptoms go away. And if we aren’t working on them, eventually they’ll catch up to us and be too much to handle.
Another thing I have to do to maintain sobriety is stay connected to other people in recovery. Right now, I currently have a sponsor, a secondary sponsor, and a recovery coach. Each one of those individuals wants me to call and check in with them every single day, and so I do. Sometimes when I’m having a busy day, calling three different people to talk about how I’m doing can be exhausting. But I committed myself to do EVERYTHING possible to stay sober and find recovery this time. I’m not gonna give up!
This is hard fucking work. So yes, keeping it simple and just not picking up that first drink or drug makes sense. Keeping it simple and picking up the damn phone when I’m having a bad day also makes sense. But at the same time, lasting recovery is not so “simple.” It involves shedding many tears, talking about uncomfortable issues, confronting trauma, changing the way we think, and reaching out to people in recovery on a daily basis. Everybody’s path to recovery is different. I’m not saying everyone should be doing the same things I’m doing to stay sober. What I’m trying to get at, though, is how hard this is: how utterly painful it can be to fight these demons.
Find what works for you. Find some people you can trust to help guide you through the process. We can’t do this alone. If you are in active addiction or in the beginning stages of sobriety, please know that all of this is worth it. Yes, the journey to recovery will be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, but there will come a day when it will all make sense, and an overwhelming feeling of gratitude will hit you. I have some tough days, a lot of times when I just want to crawl in bed and cry. But I also have a lot of times when I’m hanging out with my daughter, watching her play and laugh, and think to myself, “I wouldn’t trade this moment for the world. Thank you God!” Life is good today and I have hope! This is hard, but I am so extremely grateful!
It’s my 60th day sober and I am feeling great. I went to an AA meeting this morning at a local alano club and got my 2 month coin. I’ve picked up a few 2 month chips over the last several years, but this feels different.
It’s hard to explain, but I feel a much more spiritual sense to my attitude. I’ve really been awakened to the fact that life is so short, and if I don’t find lasting recovery this time, it might not ever happen. Earlier this year I lost one of my best friends to an overdose and my daughter is seven and a half years old. On top of that, I’ve been thinking a lot more about wanting to enjoy time with my parents and the people closest to me.
When you are in active addiction, all you are doing is making people close to you worry and stress, risking your life everyday. Nobody deserves that, and let’s face it, my parents aren’t gonna be around forever. I don’t want to waste any more time, and that attitude is really helping me slow things down and think about what’s truly important in life.
I’m not looking at my recovery as something I HAVE to do anymore, I’m starting to come to a place where I WANT to do it. I want to be sober, I don’t want to have to be high or drunk to enjoy life. Having to be outside of yourself to enjoy things is sad. There are so many fun things to do in this world sober, and those times are what create memories, not going out to a bar acting like an idiot or nodding out throughout the day.
Life is so precious, such a blessing, and we are not on this earth long at all. It’s so important to make the most of each day, enjoying every moment. I want to make a difference in my lifetime. I want to help people, to use my story to make an impact. I’d love to start an organization someday to help youth, a drug prevention or education type thing. Right now I am simply focusing on myself and working on my recovery, but I have been praying for God to lead me in the right direction.
Perhaps the most important thing I’m doing right now is participating in therapy at PAR Rehab. My therapist is amazing and she’s walking me through the process of healing from PTSD. It’s something I have rarely talked about, but one of the reasons I kept relapsing was because I wasn’t dealing with it. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s worth it.
The bottom line, though, is that I am where I am. I can’t change anything that’s in the past, all I can do is make the most of where I am right now. And I love where I am right now. I don’t know if I would take anything back because everything that’s happened to me has molded me into the person I am today. Today I am okay with myself. I’m in recovery and have a future. God is working in my life!