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Cuipylo: It's time to change how we view addicts, addiction

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When you take a person's life you take everything they have been and everything they may have become. Gone is the hope for the future. Gone is the potential for a better day, a better way. Gone the mistakes made and the lessons learned from those mistakes. Gone is the energy and effort invested in this person from birth. Done and over with so much waste.

May 14, 2020, I lost my son Russell to a drug overdose. One of 93,000 people to die in that manner that year. 93,000. One of 93,000. Who are these people? What are their stories? How did they come to this end? It's easy to dismiss them as moral failures. It's their own fault, should never have taken illegal drugs in the first place. There is some merit to this argument but it's the easy way out. When we take this stance we discount the investment we've made in those lives. We agree to simply throw away the time, money, energy and love we've invested. We simply cannot afford to do that.

Young people sometimes engage in risky behavior. Anyone who's raised children will recognize that as the understatement of the year. They test limits, physical, emotional, rules, and sage advice from people who have tested those limits and were fortunate enough to have survived. Risky behaviors carry different risks. Skiing fast poses a risk different from, say, unprotected sex or smoking. Some behaviors endanger others, driving recklessly. We regulate some of these behaviors with speed limits, age limits to use alcohol and tobacco and information campaigns on the dangers. Wear a helmet when skiing or biking, buckle up and don't drink and drive. But still the limits will be tested. It's the nature of youth.

Illegal drugs, opioids and heroine in particular, pose risks far beyond most risky behaviors. You can drive daddy's car at 100 miles per hour with six friends onboard, live through it, and never do it again. You've had the thrill, can claim bragging rights and relive the stupidity with a shake of your head and a wonder of how did we ever survive our youth. Opioids are not like that. They physically alter the brain to crave more. They never let go. Any recovered user I've ever spoken with describes a daily struggle to stay clean. They have to fight their own brain. So when one chooses to try the risky behavior of taking opioids into one's body a lifetime struggle ensues. Indeed one has to first choose, a stupid choice no doubt, a risky choice, and a choice with a lifetime of ramifications. Not a choice the undeveloped mind of an adolescent is qualified to make.

There has been a "war on drugs" since I can remember. There has also always been an attitude that the addict's problem is self inflicted. To a degree that is true. The skier who hits a tree while skiing without a helmet also has a self inflicted injury but the two are treated differently. One is an accident the other a moral failing. One deserves compassion the other scorn. Why? Why, when it can be demonstrated that one mistake, call it a moral failing if you want, can so alter one's brain chemistry that the struggle to quit becomes monumental? Why are we willing to throw out our investment in the addict? Do we not believe in redemption? Do we not value the time lost, the holidays stolen, the hugs that will never be? Can we not figure out a way to break this cycle? Do we simply not care?

I read this morning in the Auburn Citizen that a drug dealer was charged with manslaughter for selling the drugs that killed someone. Much of the difference between him and the rest of us is his action versus our inaction. Commission versus omission. I commend the police and the prosecutor for taking this action. If they secure a conviction I hope the dealer uses his time in prison to contemplate depraved indifference. I suspect that my son was at some point a dealer and also showed depraved indifference toward his clientele. Perhaps this indifference is systemic, learned from those who call addiction a moral failing and addicts deserve less compassion than others who have fallen to other risky behaviors. Maybe we need a change of attitude. Stigmatizing addicts hasn't worked, just saying no hasn't worked, the war on drugs hasn't worked. Maybe it's time for a change as to how we view addicts and addiction. Maybe it's time to recognize the investment we have made in these people, that we've put in too much time, energy and love to simply throw it away.

Carl Cuipylo is an Auburn native who retired to Ponte Vedra, Florida, in 2019.


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