We started using heroin because it was easy to get, but overcoming addiction was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Community made it possible.

For me, it was OxyContin then heroin. It turns out that this is a common trajectory. In the United States, 72,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2017, nearly 50,000 of those from opioids. Imagine an entire football stadium full of people obliterated.

I first abused opioids about the time I turned 18 years old. I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, which, simply put, is the drunkest city in the nation, and I was pretty young when I started drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. But when I first snorted Oxy, it was a high of another level.

Later, we started doing heroin simply because it was easier for us to get. What I soon found out is that while people who do drugs can have somewhat normal lives, many people who do heroin just do heroin. By the time you realize that something is terribly wrong, it’s too late, your mind and your body are hooked.

Heroin abuse and addiction

When my older sister, Allison, died on June 16, 2011, she was 24. She was the kindest person I’ve ever known. Allison was going to school for anesthesiology and finishing up pre-med when she died. I thought she might be using medication prescribed by doctors of hers to treat chronic pain she had had for years from a bad case of shingles, but I didn’t think she’d look for the hardest thing she could find to treat the pain. I just didn’t see it coming.

When my kid brother, Austin, died on Sept. 17, 2016, he was 22 and had just graduated from college. I had worried more with him because I had seen him spiraling downward. I had seen him following in my footsteps.

All too often, addiction flies under the radar, in our own homes and in the homes of our neighbors, our colleagues, our friends. We whitewash it — we’re told not to air our dirty laundry in public. I stand today to admit to my addiction and to speak up in order to put an end to opioid abuse, to find courage on behalf of Austin and Allison and to do so in the interest of honoring their memory. Addiction will not go away on its own.

Our life expectancy is on the decline in the United States in large part because of opioid abuse, and 2.1 million people had an opioid disorder in 2016. These are hard facts, but we need to face them because ignorance enables addiction. Our country has a problem, and we need to face it head on.

Turning my life around, despite the odds

What works? I was in and out of jail five times and on probation twice. I was brought in for questioning, often in handcuffs, more times than I can remember. At various points I was homeless, held at gunpoint, robbed, had my apartment ransacked (more than once), and I was in rehab twice. Two of my family members and three of my friends died from heroin overdoses, and I’ve had two near fatal ones. With the related disease and paralysis that accompany heroin use, it’s a miracle I’m still alive.

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