This week, my family suffered a devastating loss to addiction. On January 24th our beloved Jonathan became another grim statistic- one of the 52,000 people who die from an opiate overdose each year.
It’s the phone call we always expected- lurking in the shadows of our minds, but happily suppressed with rays of hope- in each conversation, text message or Facebook post, assuring the silly, kind hearted and outrageous person we loved had lived to fight another day. We were heartened when we saw him working (at a local supermarket), listened to him talk about plans to learn a trade, and finally get a commercial drivers license, so he could get his job back as a sanitation worker (the only time I ever saw him truly happy- but lost the job when he had relapsed a few years back). We celebrated each and every colorful keychain he earned- 30 days, 60 days, 90 days; and celebrated again and again, with the same fervor, each time he completed a stay at rehab. And each time, he emerged with a positive outlook and affirmations that this was going to be the last relapse. But the somber reality was always there. Knowing the sickening relapse rate of heroin addiction (as high as 90% in the first three months of detox) doesn’t make it easier; it only summons the what if’s and why didn’t we- What if we had made long standing plans every Friday night would he not have relapsed? Why didn’t we check in on him more? Why didn’t we find the time to attend one more meeting with him? Why didn’t we come out and ask if he was struggling to remain clean?
But this isn’t a post about my own feelings of guilt. This is about missed opportunities.
Everyday we read stories of honor students and athletes and celebrities- people who seemingly had everything, yet become victims of substance abuse- communities shocked because there were no signs along the way. Jonathan was not one of these kids- his adolescence was filled with signs.
Jonathan was not an athlete, nor in chorus. He wasn't an honor student or an artist. Jonathan was the kid in the dean’s office. He was the boy with multiple suspensions. He was the one that nobody knew how to deal with- not his teachers, the school or his family.
I think about my own training as an educator. I took classes on lesson planning and assessment, child development, teaching grammar, the art of writing; but never once did I receive meaningful professional development on working with difficult students; how to work to change disruptive behavior instead of punishing it, or conflict resolution. And I wonder- how many “Jonathans” have I had sitting in front of me, needing something more important than a symbolism lesson? Hurting in ways I could never understand?
I've attended staff development on looking for the signs of drug use and even opportunities for Narcan training, but by then it's too late. Maybe a Narcan kit would've given Jonathan one more day, one more week, or one more trip to rehab, but the only way to really beat this is to do everything we can to stop it from starting in the first place. Eggs in frying pans, catch phrases or a declared war on drug will never stop this from continuing.
Yes- we need more funding for in-patient treatment facilities.
Yes- we need more officers on the street to stop dealers from selling.
Yes- we need changes to laws that restrict accessibility to prescription opiates.
Yes- we need community awareness to know what signs to look for.
But what we need absolutely the most- is to stop it before it starts. More awareness for mental health, more programs that teach young people how to cope with pain and pathways for students to leave school with a skill for the future.
Could any or all of these things have made a difference for Jonathan and the millions of others whose lives have been ravaged by addiction? Maybe, maybe not. But isn’t it pretty to think so.
In loving memory of Jonathan Mammolito