September is Recovery Month. It’s also the month, five years ago, when I lost my father. But there’s a story in this coincidence that I believe is worth telling.
I sometimes tell people that my father was addicted to opioids before it was cool. I say this not as an insult to my father or to belittle the struggles of those suffering with addiction, but rather to emphasize that this is not a new issue. Certainly awareness of this social problem and its devastating consequences have increased in the past decade. But so many of the sad stories that I hear today seem reflective of my father’s experiences and struggles with addiction.
All of the emotional pain that my father suffered eventually became coupled with physical pain, as a disc issue in his spine degenerated . . . So a doctor, who was also a friend of his, prescribed Percocet. And thus began my father's addiction.
My father was abandoned at an orphanage during the depths of the Great Depression. His parents most likely couldn’t afford one more mouth to feed, so he ended up a ward of the state and was bounced around to foster homes for several years. Through this carousel, my father was victimized and abused in multiple, terrible ways, which in turn made him act out to such an extent that fewer families would take him. By the age of seven or eight, he was the oldest child in the orphanage, and he often recalled watching other children go home with families as he remained behind. He was eventually taken in (though never formally adopted) by an older couple who found a stronger boy useful for taking care of their fields and animals. Despite their occasional threats to return him to the children’s home if he didn’t follow their dictates, my father stayed with the Herzbergs until he went off to college, legally changing his name to theirs once he became an adult.
All of the emotional pain that my father suffered eventually became coupled with physical pain, as a disc issue in his spine degenerated. This was more than forty years ago, when the odds of a successful back surgery were not high and treatment options were much less advanced than today. My father was a very active person, even into his sixties: jogging, playing tennis and basketball, and doing quite a bit of yard work. So a doctor, who was also a friend of his, prescribed Percocet. And thus began my father's addiction.
My best estimate is that this took place shortly before I started high school, though I didn’t really become aware of this until several years later. When my father’s pain increased, he’d ask for more pills. When his physician/friend/dealer began to feel uncomfortable about increasing the prescription, he went doctor shopping. The lack of computerized records and the fact that my father, as a small businessman, paid for his own healthcare, allowed the addiction to remain hidden. Plus, my father maintained a completely functional facade. To my knowledge, he never missed a day of work, or holiday gathering, or other social engagement related to any of this.
There was a point, I think around the time I entered college, when it started to become increasingly difficult to get the pills. At least once a month my father would become very irritable, yelling frequently and even getting physically aggressive. He’d eventually find ways to get his medicine, but these weren’t guaranteed so he was increasingly on edge.
My father also didn’t talk about the abuse that he suffered as a child until he was around seventy years old. His was not a generation that discussed those types of things. Mental health issues were equated with insanity, and nobody went to therapy.
Though he would often apologize for his erratic behavior, my father only mentioned his addiction to me a few times, mostly explaining how he needed the pills to treat the pain in his back. But he also knew that his body had grown to need the drugs he was taking, and part of him felt ashamed about this.
“I don’t want to be a . . . junkie,” he confessed tearfully.
I know that it hurt my father’s pride that he was dependent in this way, and that, since I'd come to understand this, I might think less of him because of it. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure he took painkillers in some form until the day he died, a period of more than three decades. In his later years, these were coupled with properly prescribed forms of pain management, like cortisone and stronger anti-inflammatories, so that he was less dependent on the opioids.
My father also didn’t talk about the abuse that he suffered as a child until he was around seventy years old. His was not a generation that discussed those types of things. Mental health issues were equated with insanity, and nobody went to therapy. They were too busy pushing on with their lives. And my father never, ever would have wanted to connect his psychological pain, his physical pain, and his opioid addiction.
Rather than being appreciated for finding the courage to seek treatment, those who do so run the risk of being labeled as “crazy” or “mentally ill,” or, just as bad, being branded an “addict.” This has created a vicious cycle where mental health issues, many of which stem from trauma, are buried or inadequately treated, leading to additional trauma and more, and sometimes more acute, health issues.
But I have come to believe that this type of connection is part of the dynamic of the opioid epidemic that our nation, and my home state of Ohio, have suffered during the past decade. And this has happened in ways that mimicked the pattern of my father’s path of addiction. Episodes of physical pain allow some people to find ways to numb their psychological and emotional pain. In addition, the availability of certain drugs allows people to similarly self-medicate to deal with their mental health issues. In this way, the prescription opioid epidemic that grew during the first half of the previous decade has mushroomed into the nonprescription opioid epidemic we currently find ourselves in, with over eighty percent of drug overdoses today involving some form of fentanyl.
Unfortunately the availability and use of these deadly substances have spread at a time when a variety of mental health issues, many of them stemming from trauma, persist in our society. These have been exacerbated by the isolation caused by the pandemic, coupled with the increased strain it has put on our healthcare system, as well as the economic upheaval that has ensued. Stigmas about discussing and seeking treatment for mental health and substance issues also persist: at the personal level, the family level, the community level, and at higher political levels. Rather than being appreciated for finding the courage to seek treatment, those who do so run the risk of being labeled as “crazy” or “mentally ill,” or, just as bad, being branded an “addict.” This has created a vicious cycle where mental health issues, many of which stem from trauma, are buried or inadequately treated, leading to additional trauma and more, and sometimes more acute, health issues.
My father died from complications from a stroke, not from anything related to drug abuse. But, if his addiction had surfaced a few years later, he could easily have become one of the sad cases that have become so common, most of us have, pardon the pun, become numb to them. My wish for this recovery month is that those who suffer from mental health issues and substance issues can find the resources, the support, and the courage to get help, and to take their first steps on the difficult road toward healing.