The tragedies of abusing chemical substances

A couple of week’s back, two individuals who resided in our community, and of whom were known to me, met their surmise most tragically; one by suicide and the other by heroin overdose.

The first individual, let us call him Jim, suffered from the effects of chronic alcoholism for many years. Ostracized by his family, friends, and the community, he lived a life of desperation from his disease. He finally committed suicide by hanging himself.

Without fanfare or ado, his passing was not publicized at all, not even mentioned in the local death notices or obituaries. Jim was really, and most sadly, recognized by the community as a “nobody.”

The second individual, let us call him Bob, met his tragic demise by overdosing on heroin. Bob was known in the community, had friends, and was generally most active. His death was equally not recognized, but there were rites on his behalf by some in the community.

The deaths of both of these individuals shared the commonality of being addicted to chemical substances; having Substance Use Disorders. Their deaths, as have been many I have known, took me back to the beginning of my career in the field of Mental Health and Addictions in 1974. I was a newly assigned Drug and Alcohol Control Officer in the Air Force, with my first duty assignment as a Counselor and Program Manager at Laughlin Air Force Base, in Del Rio, Texas.

Aside from those experiencing problems with alcohol, we dealt with Illicit drug use, primarily in the forms of Cannabis Sativa (Hash Hish was included in this), hallucinogenic drugs (primarily Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), Phencyclidine( PCP), Peyote, Jimpson Weed, and Psilocybin mushrooms), and Amphetamines.

Cocaine had not become problematic to much extent at that time in our society, and designer drugs/Synthetic drugs were in their early stage of development and did not pose a threat to our personnel.

We experienced cases of those who were having the hallucinatory affects of drugs, cannabis psychosis after ingesting large amounts of the drug, alcohol poisoning, and other affects of substance use/abuse.

At one point we had 50 young airmen in our drug group, providing them counseling prior to their being discharged from service. Individuals with alcohol problems and alcoholism who voluntarily requested assistance were provided alcohol rehabilitation programs, without reflection on their service; if having a DWI or DUI then that would be punished separately and reflected on their record.

The major reason for the upswing in Drug Abuse at that time, and the aftermath, was a result of the “Hippie Movement”…the counter-culture movement that began during the Vietnam War effort. This movement, aided by the media, promoted an eradication of societal values at the time (“If it feels good, do it!”); and the promotion of drug abuse across our nation (this movement, in which individuals choose to place emotions over intellect is still present in our society today, and has led to the era of “political correctness” and other major changes in the mores, folkways, and values of our American culture).

Our Air Force society, which was a part of our overall society, also experienced the effects…young airmen coming into the service with the faulty assumption that smoking marijuana was ok; even though it was against the Air Force regulations…they challenged the regulations. We are still suffering from the effects of that movement; with even greater problems and challenges of Drug use/abuse.

This is a most important lesson of our nation’s history. We managed to bring substance abuse under control in the Air Force during that era, but the civilian world has not; the drug and alcohol problems continue to proliferate at an alarming rate.

I shall never forget the many tragedies related to those individuals with substance use disorders back then. One person stands out so vividly in my memory, whom was so dependent on cannabis that upon discharge he deserted his wife and two small daughters and moved to Alaska; where cannabis had been de-criminalized…where he could grow cannabis and use it without retribution.

This case is but an example of the serious nature of addiction to cannabis that I have often encountered during my lengthy career.

Today we have even greater problems with illicit drugs. New pharmacological drugs and illicit drug substances are “coming on the market” all the time. For those of you who have been following my column, you have read the multiple articles I have written about the Opioid Epidemic…Heroin, Fentanyl, and associated opioids; that have contributed to many thousands of deaths in our society each year.

As I write this article many individuals die as a result of opioid overdose, and the poisoning and overdose of alcohol and other drug substances; the latest in this batch of deadly drugs being Carfentanil; a synthetic opioid, so dangerous that the breathing of it or having the drug on ones skin can be most hazardous. Carfentanil can be up to 10,000 times more potent than heroin! Deaths due to the use/abuse of chemical substances is now one of the leading causes of fatalities in our society.

While contemplating this article, I conferred with a colleague of mine, who is equally a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor and a Substance Use Program Administrator. In our discussion he related, “We are finding disturbing combinations with synthetic marijuana with similar symptoms to PCP. While having less severe acute affects overall, their high degree of availability increases abuse leading to significant biological changes, having severe long-term consequences.”

Of course, the major problems with these chemical substances, besides their extremely harmful physical affects and overdose potential, are their being most highly addictive. The reward circuitry of the brain will always want more of the substance once ones use begins habitually; such as the alcoholic who “cannot not drink.” All of these chemical substances, to include cannabis, have the potential for addiction/dependency, causing physical harm, and leading to a medical diagnosis of Substance Use Dependency.

I know that many of you readers may ask, “But Doctor Jones, what makes you an expert concerning drug and alcohol abuse anyway?” This question I have very often been asked many times…posed by individuals in my hundreds of presentations across this great state…in therapy groups while working in the state hospitals for mental illness and chemical dependency…and in many other settings.

Besides my extensive education and licensing, and working with those with chemical dependency and dual-disorder issues over more than 40 years, my primary experience was developed from being raised in a dysfunctional family; one of abuse and neglect, one wherein alcohol abuse and alcoholism were present; the associated behaviors being played out among many today.

My elder brother became alcoholic, and although reached sobriety for almost 10 years, still succumbed to the effects of his disease; leading to a tragic death of Pancreatic Cancer and other physical conditions. My little sister, whom became a “flower child,” a “Hippie” in the 1960s, abused many different types of chemical substances, died a tragic death with renal failure at an early age. I began to abuse alcohol as a young adult, but it was short lived…choosing not to continue the pattern of my dysfunctional family when I had my own family (over 50 years ago).

I do not really consider myself an “expert” in the field of Addiction, even though I have been labeled so In courtrooms settings and other areas, as I am most aware that there are others more experienced and educated than I…but I must admit that I have learned a great deal during my professional career…still learning. And I do know for sure that the use and abuse of alcohol and other drug substances most often leads to tragic outcomes; and that is the message I want to continuously relate to you.

I leave you today with four most important “Lessons Learned” statements:

1) The potential for death and injury; and family harm, related to alcohol and other substances of abuse is ever present; and will continue in our society.

2) Awareness education does little for most individuals who choose to use/abuse chemical substances; it only strengthens the resolve for those that choose not to engage in use/abuse of alcohol and illicit substances.

3) Early intervention and treatment for individuals engaged in alcohol and other substance abuse is so very necessary…treatment works.

4) Continued recovery from addictions can only be healthily maintained through engagement in a 12-step group program.

Until Next Time, Stay Healthy My Friends.