This statistic comes from a recent study done by American Addiction Centers. Among the other findings of this survey, they concluded that Millennials are most affected by these deaths, that 44% of those surveyed said the victim they knew was perceived to have a vibrant social life, and that those with vibrant social lives were less likely to be predicted to fatally overdose.
When I first read the statistic that 1 in 3 Americans know someone who has passed from an overdose, I was skeptical. Could that really be true? The opioid crisis is certainly a big deal, and the chickens are coming home to roost with Purdue Pharma now allegedly considering bankruptcy due to the lawsuits against them. But could a third of everyday Americans really know someone who has died from an overdose?
As I thought about it more, I found that the statistics highlighted in this survey were true for my own experience as a Millennial, despite being raised in a fairly sheltered environment.
Upon evaluating my own social circles, which are eclectic from growing up a conservative homeschooler and attending liberal colleges, I could readily think of loved ones and acquaintances I knew that struggle or have struggled with drug addiction. I remembered sitting with at least one loved one in the emergency room after an overdose. But I could only think of a single individual who had died from overdosing, because so many have been fortunate enough to have gotten medical attention before it was too late.
It occurred to me that the reason these individuals didn't come to mind immediately because they are not categorized in my mind as druggies. They are intelligent, loving, hardworking people. The furthest thing from what we as a society normally see drug addicts as. I suspect that this misperception of the sorts of individuals susceptible to drug addiction is a factor in why many do not get help. The shame of not fitting the social script their community has for them further pushes them into their addiction.
This was the case for Dayn, a talented, musically-inclined Millennial I met through content creation. A father and family man, Dayn is the last person you'd expect to have ever been into drugs. And yet, when I asked my community to share their stories of drug addiction with me so that I could explore what other misconceptions there might be surrounding the topic, he was the first to step up and volunteer. Prior to this point, I had no knowledge of his past drug use.
I was curious. How could a man so seemingly normal, and for that matter, religious, fall into the clutches of addiction? He was gracious in allowing me to ask.
Dayn told me that the foundation for his addiction was laid through expectations, both explicit and implicit, coming from the successes of his family and pressures from his church to make decisions he didn't feel like were truly his.
His introduction to drugs was glancing, as he was offered a hit at a party and accepted. From there, he partook socially.
As someone who has never imbibed in drugs, it was genuinely difficult for me to understand why someone would take an offer like that. So I asked him what benefit he felt like this provided him. His answer was eye-opening and cut to the heart of the matter, "...After being forced into doing things I didn't necessarily understand (religious decisions), it felt nice to make my own choices with people that seemed to accept me as I was."
"So being able to consent and control things in your environment was a breath of fresh air?" I asked.
"Yes," He confirmed, "...the freedom of choice was invigorating."
He expounded upon the benefits further, explaining that weed helped him sleep and served as what he described as an "emotional addiction." When I asked what that meant, Dayn said that he found that weed magnified his emotions, making life more colorful and vibrant. When he was not on it, he felt "numb."
At age twenty, his parents discovered his actions and he was kicked out of their house. A friend from high school, a fellow musician, took him in. It was not long after that more drugs were added to the list, including heroin, acid, and cocaine.
He continued on this path, adding alcohol to the mix and heavily using it. This, he said, was rock bottom. The impact that all of these substances had on him led him to act in ways he wouldn't normally and didn't remember after the fact.
The man he described is impossible for me to visualize, knowing him as he is now. I wanted to know what changed.
He told him that he began to feel God calling him back. And in response to that, he tried to drown that out with drinking. His father started pestering him to go to an annual church retreat with his family, whom he had been estranged from during this time.
During that retreat, he tried to be recalcitrant. But he felt the presence of God very plainly there, and someone who knew through music and his church prayed over him.
I was terrified." He said, "Then I felt it. It was like a dark cloud was lifted from my mind. For the first time in 5 years, I had clarity. My addictions to cigarettes, alcohol, every drug, simply gone in an instant."
While we both agreed that his experience of healing in such a way is likely a unique and perhaps not common, it is nevertheless the one he had. He now uses his journey to help others in the midst of their own addictions.
Addiction as a Disease
At this point in our conversation, I felt conflicted. While I do not personally suffer from drug addiction, I do live with an eating disorder. I found that the way Dayn talked about drug addiction mirrored my experience in many ways. In the lack of autonomy that laid the foundation, the environmental factors that triggered the avalanche of disordered thinking and eating, and the relief I find in Christianity. It left me wondering, why do so many consider what I have a disease, but what Dayn deals with as a choice?
Within the American Addictions Center survey, respondents were asked whether or not they believed that drug addiction was a disease or a choice. 59.8% of respondents that knew someone who had fatally overdosed answered that they believed drug addiction was a disease, while 54.1% of those who did not know someone answered the same.
I asked Dayn what he thought. He said, "Some things aren't so black and white... Addiction is a disease composed of a series of bad choices."
This answer was echoed by another individual I spoke with from Generation X, Mr. Masty, "People choose to use the drugs, but addiction itself is a disease. I don't know very many people who choose to get addicted, such a choice would be a mental disease in and of itself."
When it comes to addiction and compulsive behaviors of any kind, their complexity warrants a holistic approach in recovery, including emotional, medical, and spiritual care. But what can the layman loved ones of addicts realistically do to help, I wondered?
[We have some advice! Check out “How to Love Your Friend if Her Man is in Active Addiction,” “How to Support a Friend Whose Loved One is an Addict,” and, “My Loved One Has an Addiction, What Can I Do?”]
Dayn's advice was this, "Don't bring up the addiction. Love them without showing anger, even though it hurts. Pray for them. Invite them to events outside of church. Invite them to just go see a movie or something. When you do hang out, tell them you've missed them, and that you love being with them. Make them feel their self worth."
[This sentiment is echoed in our behind-the-scenes interview, "Tough love is a very fine line" [Interview] Behind the Drugs”]
Statistics are so often faceless, which leads people to build their own idea of what the people behind the statistics look like, act like, and think. Understanding what leads to addiction and contextualizing the person suffering is vital in dealing with the problem as a society. If we don't accurately assess the situation, we cannot effectively correct it.
Rebecca Lemke is a writer on holistic and regenerative living, with a focus on both the temporal and the eternal. She is the author of “The Scarlet Virgins,” a book that examines the legalistic Purity Culture movement of the last 30 years from a gospel-centered Christian perspective. Her work has appeared at The Federalist, The Huffington Post, To Love, Honor and Vacuum, Hot, Holy & Humorous, I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and more.