Opinion by Jeff Bleich
In people’s living rooms, I focus on kitchen table issues — changing job markets, the cost of education, housing shortages, on-line threats, mental health and addiction epidemics. Afterward, there are thoughtful questions about these topics; except rarely about mental health and addiction. That is, until the Q&A ends. People then approach me one on one. A few will wait, deliberately letting others speak with me, until the crowd has thinned. And that is when the conversation gets very real.
None of them ever expected that this would be their issue. Their child or brother was healthy and happy until the age when . . . that stopped. I haven’t been in any living room anywhere in this state — rural, urban, rich, poor, north, south, it doesn’t matter — in which these stories do not come out. I’ve been there, too. It is both a relief — knowing we are not alone — but also bewildering. How many other rooms have I stood in through my life with people suffering silently, without me even realizing it.
My experience, or one of my experiences, involves a nephew that I love. He was a star football player in high school and a good student, who tried OxyContin in college. When it got too expensive, he moved to heroin. He managed to hide it until the night that he flipped his car and nearly killed someone else and himself. His life since that night has been a struggle between using and getting clean. When he’s healthy, he is charming and funny and caring and seems honest; but you never know. And that’s where the people I talk to at the end of the evening live now — in that ring of hell where you just don’t know. You don’t know at any moment if you’ll get the call that you need to race to the hospital because he has OD’ed. Or that it is too late. You live in a world of wariness, where you need to tamp down any hope and promise that rehab has given you, and stay suspicious just to survive. You ask loved ones to hide their money and credit cards. And then you discover that they have to start hiding rings and other valuables, too. You count pills in the medicine cabinet. You stare at the clock at 3 a.m. wondering. You feel a cold sick dread every time the door closes behind him or her, worrying what could happen. People in these rooms live with that fear, and dread, and pain every day.
Unlike those who have addictions, there is no clinic for family members; just support groups they fashion themselves. There is no insurance for this. In most cases their co-workers don’t understand why they are so distracted, or on edge, or absent. Their other family members and friends let them withdraw. If their child had any other kind of a disease, people might bring dinner. But no one brings lasagna because your child is a heroin addict, or nearly OD’ed, or has attempted suicide. This is the club that no one wants to belong to. For every addict struggling to get clean and sober, there are many other people struggling with them. And now I know in a way I never did before, they are your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers, your colleagues, the person who brings coffee to your table, or heads your company: no one is immune. If you are blessed to live long enough, to have a big family, and a circle of friends, then you’ve probably also been there, too.
Naming September “Recovery Month” will be nothing but a slogan unless we take time to be honest about an epidemic that is stealing lives and destroying families. It’s natural to want to avoid this topic, or to blame addicts or their victims. But talk to the people I talk to, and there is no way to blame them or to ignore their pain. It’s our pain, too. If you ever need a reason to care about stopping the opioid crisis, just wait around until after the Q&A is over.
Jeff Bleich served as Chair of the California State University Board, President of the California State Bar, Special Counsel to the President, and U.S. Ambassador to Australia. He is a candidate for Lt. Governor of California.