Part of my job as a case manager in a residential program for recovering addicts is conducting an intake within hours of them walking through the front door. I always apologize for the litany of questions I’m required to go through because I know, as they’ve been shuffled from detox to other residential programs, they’ve been asked the same hundred or so questions upwards of ten, twenty times before.
The first page or two of the intake form consists of fairly standard demographic questions from “What ethnicity are you?,” to “What is your primary language?” to “Do you have any sources of income?” Without much of the equivalent of a “transitional” sentence, the questions abruptly move onto a checklist of substance of choice, everything from pot to alcohol, to opiates to crack to “club drugs.” I record if they’ve ever tried a particular substance on the list, their age at first use, and the frequency of use. I’ve become so used to hearing that these men have often begun their road to a serious opiate addiction at around the age of 14 or 15, that when they tell me that they first injected heroin at 19 I’m surprised at how late that seems.
Oftentimes the men will be eager to share their back story, the origins of their drug dependence. Many are somewhat “standard—“ a prescription for pain meds due to a legitimate injury that snowballs into heroin addiction, raiding their parent’s liquor cabinet, flipping a dormant switch into full-on alcohol abuse. Other stories go something like this:
“In 10th grade I was having a hard time staying awake studying for a history test. My father came in, saw that I was struggling, left the room for a minute, and came back with a few lines of coke on a mirror and said, “Here son, try this.” He showed me what to do, and the rest is history.”
The first time I heard something equally as appalling was as a volunteer at a local women’s correctional facility. A woman, clearly beaten down and defeated shared with the class I lead that her mother injected her with heroin when she was 10-years old. At that time, my daughter was ten. I felt heartsick for this woman and intense rage against her mother.
The majority of the men I counsel have been surrounded and immersed in a nuclear and extended family of addicts. There have been their fathers who have murdered their mothers, drunk driving deaths and life sentences for one thing or another. 90% of the time their siblings and parents are all addicts, some with long-term sobriety under their belts, others enduring the same agonizing cycle of detox and relapse.
When I see or hear people who deride and judge those struggling with the enormous monster of addiction, I often feel the need to remind them that no one says, “I want to be a drug addict when I grow up.” I am surrounded and reminded every day of the anguish and helplessness it creates. It doesn’t come from nowhere.
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