Michael V. looked out at the audience of 120 seated in the Edward A. Myerberg Center at the community forum “Confronting the Opioid Epidemic” on Nov. 21 and smiled.
“You guys are normal,” he said. “You’re what I call ‘earth people,’ so you can’t really relate to someone like me who lived on the other side of midnight for 20 years. But I didn’t start out being an addict. I wanted to be an earth person, but I had my first glass of wine when I was 11 at a bar mitzvah.”
He descended into a chaotic life of substance abuse. “I ruined every relationship I had, lost every job I held and felt like a bad person,” he said. “I was in denial, and nothing worked until I literally felt I was going to die. So I got into recovery and I’ve learned to live life without drugs for 29 years.”
Michael was among the four panelists at the two-hour gathering, which was sponsored by Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral home, Jewish Community Services, the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, the Myerberg Center and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, associate dean of public health practice and training at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, served as keynote speaker and gave an overview of the opioid epidemic.
Sharfstein said more Americans died of drug overdoses last year – over 52,000 — than from car accidents, homicides and suicides combined.
He said the epidemic is impacting every ethnic and religious group in the United States, noting that around 100 young people in New York’s Orthodox community died from overdoses last year.
Sharfstein characterized addiction as a “chronic, relapsing disease” that affects the brain and leads to compulsive usage of opioids despite knowledge of the harmful consequences. He attributed the epidemic to the rise in the prescribing of drugs for pain relief; the emergence of cheap and pure heroin; and the proliferation of the production and usage of the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
From 2013 to 2016, fentanyl-related deaths increased 540 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. “The drugs today are cheaper and more powerful,” Sharfstein said.
More than 100 Americans die daily from opioid overdose, according to the CDC. In 2016, prescribers wrote 66 opioid and 25 sedative prescriptions for every 100 Americans.
Locally, the Maryland Department of Health reported there were 1,029 opioid-related deaths in the first half of 2017, up from 873 for the same period the previous year.
Prevention is one crucial weapon in fighting the epidemic, he said. “Doctors have a huge responsibility to prescribe more appropriately,” Sharfstein said. “Opioids should be a last resort, not the first.”
Also, various recovery treatments can help addicts overcome the disease. “In the right hands, you have a greater than 50-60 percent of doing well [during the first round of treatment],” Sharfstein said. “This is not a hopeless process.”
Most importantly, society needs to address the stigma of opioid addiction. “People feel there’s a big sense of blame – ‘How did you let this happen?’ – because it’s been criminalized and over-criminalized,” Sharfstein said. “That stops people from seeking treatment and effective care. … The most important thing is to confront it honestly.”
During the panel discussion, Dr. Yngvild Olsen, medical director of the Institutes for Behavior Resources in Baltimore, said at least 40 percent of addictions are genetically-based. She said her patients are often genetically predisposed to addictions, as well as to particular treatments and medications.
“Fifty years of [research regarding recovery treatments] show that all of them work differently and have different side effects,” Olsen said. “Not one will work for everyone. But … 40-80 percent reduce the chance of overdoses.”
American society needs to closely examine the roots of addiction, charged James M. Ryan, the young adult program director at the Ashley Addiction Treatment Center in Havre de Grace. He said the overwhelming majority of high school students will sample illegal substances by the time of graduation.
“Drugs feel good,” he said. “I know that sound blasphemous. … But we can’t hide from the reality. People want to feel good because their lives may not be what they want it to be.”
To combat the epidemic, Ryan said “real and authentic” relationships must be cultivated with those in recovery and the people trying to help them.
“Connection is the key to recovery,” he said. “Addictive behavior is repulsive and can lead to death, but we can’t shut them out or push them away. If we embrace them and love them, the evidence is overwhelming that recovery is possible. Isolation is not the answer.”
Steve Seidel, a pharmacist, spoke passionately about his son, Corey, who died from an overdose in February of 2016. “He was just your typical Pikeville kid – went to Baltimore Hebrew and Beth Tfiloh, loved sports and music,” Seidel said. “I miss him more every day.”
But Corey started smoking pot around the time of his bar mitzvah and moved on to hallucinogens and opioids, he said. Seidel said he and his family went through a rollercoaster ride as Corey attempted to find stability in his life.
“You grab for that hope and are really let down when they fall back,” he said. At one point while living in Colorado, Corey was thrown out of his house after threatening to kill his roommate and girlfriend. “Here’s a nice Jewish kid, homeless and living in his car, shooting up,” Seidel said.
Eventually, after moving to California and going in and out of treatment programs, Corey “fell off the grid” and was found dead in his apartment after nine days missing.
“There is nothing sexy about drug abuse,” Seidel said. “This is what it’s all about, and I’m dedicating the rest of my life to fighting it.”
Michael V. described himself as coming from “a warm and loving Orthodox family. No one would ever think I’d become an addict.” But abusing alcohol led to drug addiction for two decades.
“I became numb to the world,” he said. “I didn’t care about anything but getting more drugs, to the exclusion of my family, friends and jobs. I cheated and stole to get high.”
Michael said it required three attempts until a recovery treatment worked for him, largely because he met other addicts who showed him that beating the disease was possible.
“They told me one day at a time, and I saw success was possible,” he said. “I’ve been to hell and back. It was a lot of hard work, but I’ve learned to be patient, loving and understanding. … I’m grateful to God and the gifts of the people in recovery.”
At the end of the program, Beth Land Hecht, JCS’s senior manager for community services, thanked the panelists and Sharfstein for their participation. “We’re going to have to continue this conversation as a community,” she said.
One audience member, a recovering addict who requested anonymity, agreed.
“This was great, wonderful, but this can’t be a one-time thing,” he said. “These kinds of forums should take place every month, and then maybe every two weeks. There’s too much going on, and this stuff is too potent and cheap. Too many people are dying, especially kids. This kind of program has to keep happening and happening. People need to be aware.”
For information about a JCS support group starting Dec. 14 for parents coping with grief of an addiction death, call JCS at 410-466-9200 To listen to “Hooked: Personal Stories of Addiction,” visit ifIknew.org.
Top photo: Panelists James M. Ryan of the Ashley Addiction Treatment Center (left), Steve Seidel, a pharmacist and father who lost his son to an overdose (center), and Michael V., a recovering addict. (Photo by Steve Ruark)
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