This winter, my brother lay in a comma in a San Juan Regional Hospital bed dying from Kaposi’s sarcoma. This fatal type of cancer had spread to his internal organs and was now shutting them down. Rober, as we affectionately called him, had abused heroin for more than thirty years and this was the final result and my last moment with him.
Our family had tried to help him with his addiction many times and in many different ways. Giving him money so he would not steal; not giving him money so he would not buy; going with him to this rehab program and then another; asking his friends to talk him out of the drug habit – maybe he would listen to them. My mother took him to the hospital when he overdosed and nursed him back to life when he began to recover. She paid the rent and the food bills so his wife and daughter could keep their house and eat that week. My father posted bail for him the night he spent in the state penitentiary after a drug raid. Those who loved him prayed, cajoled, begged. “If you go to treatment I will buy you a car and you can drive yourself to the methadone center,” my mother offered more than once. He tried to give it up, but the psychiatrist who evaluated him wrote in a report to the court that his need was stronger than anything else .
Every time I hear or read about the “heroin problem” in Vermont , I think of my brother. I am grateful to the governor and legislature for this year’s initiatives to decriminalize drugs, increase treatment options and institute programs that send offenders to treatment instead of jail. Those are important actions. But, giving up drugs is difficult and it doesn’t help to suggest that the “heroin epidemic” is just a matter of those poor youth who can’t resist the drug temptation, or the strangers who come from nearby metropolitan areas to sell heroin, or those addicts whose crimes and methadone clinics threaten and depreciate the value of our property.
One in three Vermont families is impacted by addiction. The drug epidemic is not something that happens to others. Instead, heroin addicts are our brothers, our mothers, our sisters and fathers; our cousins, our friends and neighbors. They are people we love and grew up with and about whom we care deeply. Drug abusers are suffering and we suffer with them. We can help by reducing the shame and silence and psychological distance we create by talking and acting as if opiate abuse has nothing to do with us. We can help by bringing a human face, a name and a real story to those who are dying and will die from drug abuse, by bringing this problem closer to our hearts.