GUEST BLOG: Addiction Can Affect Anyone

By: Jason Snyder, Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Policy and Communications Director

May 12, 2016

I recently heard someone say that a lack of strong families is at least partly to blame for the current opioid addiction and overdose death epidemic.

Based on my experience, I beg to differ.

From left, my brother Josh, Todd, my mother and me. That was Christmas 2004. Todd died about a month later.

From left, my brother Josh, Todd, my mother and me. That was Christmas 2004. Todd died about a month later.

I was raised the oldest of three boys in Cambria County by parents who will be married to each other this September for 45 years. My father, a lineman for an electric company for much of his career before moving into management, didn’t drink or use drugs. He provided us with everything we needed and most things we wanted. He coached our little league teams. He took us hunting. He took us on vacations.

My mother was a stay-at-home mom who didn’t drink or use drugs, either. She was active in our schools’ Parent-Teacher Association. She was at every one of our baseball and football games and wrestling matches. She made sure we studied and got good grades.

We went to church as a family every Sunday.

During those years, we not only didn’t think drug addiction would affect us, we didn’t even think about drug addiction, period. Addiction didn’t happen to families like ours, so it wasn’t even on our radar.

Until it did enter our world.

We watched for several years as my brother Todd’s life spiraled out of control. One early January morning I got a call from his girlfriend. She couldn’t get him up. I was there within minutes, and it was clear he was dead. The last image I have of him is his lifeless 28-year-old body, turned blue, laying on the floor of a home he rented, dead of a heroin overdose. Todd had a bachelor’s degree in accounting, held numerous good jobs, and left behind a young daughter, who today is now 18 years old.

I then made the most difficult phone call I have ever made in my life. I called my parents. My dad answered, and, at the news, began to wail. My mother’s wailing followed. Lastly, I heard my youngest brother Josh, in the background, wailing.

We were shocked. We knew the situation was bad, but I don’t think we believed it could happen to us.

So when it happened a second time a little more than two and a half years later, we were devastated. This time, my mother called me to tell me my 25-year-old brother Joshua – the same one wailing at the news of the death of his brother Todd – was dead of a drug overdose. This family, into which my parents had invested so much, was dismantled. Josh died on September 14, 2007. Exactly two months later, his son was born.

With my brothers’ deaths, I was the last man standing. So when I told my parents in late 2011 that I was entering inpatient drug rehab for an addiction to oxycodone and oxymorphone, they were understandably horrified.

Yet what was a frightening, anxious time actually turned out to be the beginning of a much greater life for me and, in some ways, my parents. My parents have a much better son today, and I am a much better employee and overall person than I once was.

Still, as much joy and comfort as I hope I give my parents, they each have a hole in their hearts that will never heal. There will always be sadness and anguish, having had to bury two of their three children.

My family’s story has many lessons. One of the biggest: addiction can and does affect anyone. In Pennsylvania, it affects at least one in every four families. Yet, the stigma around the disease of addiction is so strong that many families with stories like mine are ashamed and embarrassed and suffer in silence and isolation. Stigma is so strong and damaging that many people who need help will not seek it. Many people in recovery from the disease would prefer to remain anonymous than bear the judgment, assumptions and stereotypes often heaped on them.

I am fortunate and grateful to be where I am today, bringing together my personal and professional experience to aid in the fight against the worst ever overdose death epidemic.

Under the leadership of Gov. Tom Wolf and Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Gary Tennis, Pennsylvania is addressing this public health crisis head on. And from the public, we need support, compassion and understanding. Without it, no matter how many initiatives we take on, we will keep many suffering with the disease of addiction trapped in a dark world of despair, when, in fact, there is help and hope, and recovery is possible.

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