My introduction to the opioid crisis came in the summer of 2014 when I entered what the world knows as a “28 day program”. I had no idea what I was embarking on and how what I was about to learn would change my life forever. I had been a highly successful guy who over time wasted everything. Finding myself stuck in a cheap hotel near the Tappan Zee Bridge, all I knew was that I was terribly ill and unable to figure out what to do next. I had lost my house, my car, most of my relationships and both my mental and physical health. Finally, I realized I had a simple choice: get help or die. That moment, full of equal parts clarity and fear, was a turning point.
Driven into action out of necessity more than desire, I called a hotline number, told the rep some of my real story and was referred to a state licensed and funded treatment program which inducted me immediately without checking for insurance (I had none). In many states, this wouldn’t have been possible. Fortunately for me and countless others, New York has dedicated significant resources to treating those with substance use and other behavioral disorders, with or without insurance.
I had a series of revelations over the course of the next few weeks: 1) I had a substance use disorder (admitting it was the revelatory part), 2) what I had was a disease (not a rebellious lifestyle choice), 3) there was a cure for my disease. All of this was shocking, and by the end of the 28 days I had decided to completely change my life. I felt like a patient suffering from pancreatic cancer who has always heard that the disease is inevitably terminal, only to suddenly discover that there is a simple way to get better (hard and painful and long, but ultimately simple nonetheless). And then I learned that the best way to continue getting better is to help others to do so as well. I realized that Peer Support was as critical to humans (or at least this human) as food or shelter. We have a need to connect and share this journey with others, a truth borne out of our evolutionary biology that we ignore more and more with each passing day. I was almost overwhelmed by the power of the secret I had discovered. Little by little, I made the choice to commit my life to helping others with the same disease and to helping others avoid contracting it.
But there was one more big surprise for me. I went in to rehab thinking that the vast majority of people who had my disease abused alcohol. By 2014 that was no longer true; by then more than 60% of people (especially younger people) with substance use disorders had a problem with opioids (and the percentage was continuing to increase). So, while alcohol use disorder remains a critical issue and requires our continued attention, it is a relatively well-understood, stable and controlled problem with known answers. I decided that If I wanted to make a difference, I needed to focus on what was clearly not well understood, stable or controlled: opioid use.
Read the rest of the story (and my proposed solutions) here.