Can I Be A Drug Advocate As the Sister of A Drug Addict?
by Kait Heacock
The night I learned of my brother’s overdose, I cooked a large pot of food. Every time I’ve eaten this meal after, I’ve thought of it as the death meal. I was in survival mode: make enough food to feed myself for the next couple of nights because eating was one of the fews things I could guarantee. Eat, breathe, sleep, maybe. That week I drank too much and smoked weed every night. The weekend in Atlantic City, a new couple’s getaway, was damaged beyond repair, but we went, and I consumed everything I could to feed the vacuum inside me.
Much like survivors of gun violence focus on gun reform or breast cancer survivors raise money for research, those of us touched by the opioid crisis feel a personal responsibility. I did not save my brother; that fact will remain with me for the rest of my life. But I refuse to sit quietly and watch other families fall apart, not when there are potential real solutions. Opioids are a big pharma backed scourge made possible by doctors rushing to dull the symptoms of chronic pain rather than treat the cause. We should stop scapegoating cannabis and put actual funding into more in-depth research.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest report found the number of opioid-related overdoses rose by nearly 28% between 2015 and 2016. These overdoses break down into prescription opioids, synthetic opioids, and heroin. It was heroin that took my brother, though his entry point was the painkillers given to him after foot surgery. After some fifteen years struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction, a doctor handed him a death sentence when they filled out that prescription.
In a report released in April 2018, JAMA found a correlation between legalizing marijuana and a reduction in opiates, and this follows a report from 2017 by the National Academies finding evidence “to support that patients who were treated with cannabis or cannabinoids were more likely to experience a significant reduction in pain symptoms.”
According to a .gov drug abuse website, “Marijuana use disorder becomes addiction when the person cannot stop using the drug even though it interferes with many aspects of his or her life.” The website carries a whiff of reefer madness, so quick to offer marijuana as a gateway drug because it still holds the counterculture stigma of “turn on, tune in, drop out.” I was raised in the DARE, “just say no” generation, where we were taught that all drugs are the same. Unfortunately there are people, including those high up in our government, who can’t separate cannabis from other drugs.
For the record, former Attorney General Sessions, cannabis is not the same as heroin.
There were moments following my brother’s death when I wondered if I could do it too, need something so much I’d risk my life for it. I hovered on the brink but never dove off it. Is want and need the difference between dependence and addiction?
In an alternate universe, my brother was told cannabis was not just another “illicit drug” made to fuck him up, but that it was a medicinal alternative to address the pain caused by his surgery.
In an alternate universe, my brother survives. Not lives, survives. Because this is an epidemic.
I look for answers because I don’t have a brother anymore. A cursory glance at headlines suggest we exercise to combat the epidemic. The Trump administration wants to explore policy allowing the death penalty to be sought for drug dealers, and yet there is no mention of punishing pharmaceutical companies. We are fumbling in the dark for an answer to this plague. Is it really so absurd to suggest cannabis?
Entrepreneur and Ellementa co-founder Ashley Kingsley is a survivor. She is two years sober from pills and alcohol, and attributes her recovery to cannabis. Ashley suffered from undiagnosed Endometriosis for years, and from the age of 15, doctors prescribed her everything from sleeping pills to Percocet. When she was finally diagnosed, she underwent multiple surgeries and began to rely on opiates to dull the pain.
“It was like I had to feed something inside of me, like this beast,” Ashley described of her pill addiction. She tried AA, yoga, therapy—everything to get sober. “I was functional. I wasn’t jobless or homeless. I wasn’t what people pictured.”
Melissa Heldreth, co-founder of Panacea Plant Sciences, considers her family survivors too: “My brother was one of the lucky ones. He is one year and eight months off heroin, and it’s been a struggle for years.”
Melissa is also sober, and she uses cannabis for anxiety and pain relief. She, like so many others who become advocates, knows firsthand the risk of using cannabis when drug addiction is in your family, your life, yourself. When I shared with her my fear of a potential cannabis addiction, she told me, “I 100% understand this battle of thought process, but I look myself in the mirror every day and know this is the right thing for me. I’ve never been healthier or happier in my life.”
She supports her and her brother’s recovery stories with evidence, pointing me to studies on how CBD stops addiction. “THC is what stops heroin and alcohol withdrawals that could potentially kill a person. While there are people with addictive personalities who should watch their intake, studies show that weed, itself, is not addictive,” she explains.
“This is my main mission in life, to help end the stigma in using cannabis for sober people. To show people this is a less risky, healthier way to elevate so many things that doctors push prescriptions for. Prescriptions that are extremely addictive,” Melissa adds.
Ashley echoes the sentiment, saying, “Cannabis has changed my life—in so many ways. I want these kinds of stories out there.”
I admit that I relied heavily on alcohol, weed, and sex to numb, self-medicate, and distract myself after my brother’s death. I was in survival mode. We don’t always make the best choices in desperate situations. In the nearly six years since, I’ve stopped sleeping around for the sake of departing my body, and I’ve stopped the reckless nights of binge drinking just to force myself to sob on the walk home, a needed pain extraction that was as messy as my wet face.
In the years since my brother’s death, my relationship with cannabis has only deepened. I’ve utilized it in both my running and writing routines, began learning its medicinal benefits through work with a women’s wellness network, and now proclaim myself a cannabis advocate.
I want to normalize cannabis and proclaim its benefits, but it’s hard to do that when first you have to fight stigma and stereotypes. I worry people can’t—or refuse—to see the plant in a new light. But I also worry that their shortsightedness prevents them from utilizing something that can help with pain, sleeping problems, and in my case, wading through the emotional chaos left inside of me in the wake of my brother’s death.
What I’ve found the most interesting in my experiences using cannabis to affect my mood is that it seems to help me better hone in on what I’m feeling and process it. When I drank, it was a distraction from what I was really feeling, or like I was only able to experience the raw, visceral tears. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in for an ugly cry, but sometimes I wanted to dig deeper than that, and that’s where cannabis shaped a lot of my grief journey. It slowed me down and helped me shed the inhibitions that kept me from truly exploring my grief.
I haven’t always felt comfortable admitting that cannabis helped me fight my way out of the dark places I had fallen into in the wake of loss. I worried people would think I was no different than him, using drugs to escape my problems. To preempt that, as anyone with addiction in their family should consider doing, I’ll take breaks from using cannabis and alcohol to check the want versus need ratio, sometimes for a week, maybe a month. I don’t ever want to need it, don’t want to abandon everything and wind up like my brother, frozen in his Alaskan backyard, hundreds of miles away from his children.
In an alternate universe, my brother and I sneak away from Thanksgiving dinner at our parents’ house, pass a joint by the lake, and talk about how big his kids are getting. But I don’t get to live in that universe. I live in this one; I survive in this one.
If you or someone you know is suffering and needs help there are resources available:
The National Drug Helpline offers 24/7 drug and alcohol help to those struggling with addiction. Call the national hotline for drug abuse today to receive information regarding treatment and recovery.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Tel:1-800-273-8255
For questions or concerns about substance use during pregnancy, please contact Motherisk’s Alcohol and Substance Use Helpline at 1-877-327-4636 (toll-free in Canada).
For access to a listing of programs offered to First Nations and Inuit, visit: Addictions Treatment for First Nations and Inuit.
The new Canada Suicide Prevention Service (CSPS), by Crisis Services Canada, enables callers anywhere in Canada to access crisis support by phone, in French or English: toll-free 1-833-456-4566 Available 24/7
Crisis Text Line (Powered by Kids Help Phone) Canada Wide
free, 24/7 texting service is accessible immediately to youth anywhere in Canada by texting TALK to 686868 to reach an English speaking Crisis Responder and TEXTO to 686868 to reach a French-speaking Crisis Responder on any text/SMS enabled cell phone.
KidsHelpPhone Ages 20 Years and Under in Canada 1-800-668-6868 (Online or on the Phone)
First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness 24/7 Help Line 1-855-242-3310
Canadian Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line 1-866-925-4419
Trans LifeLine – All Ages 1-877-330-6366
Visit thelifelinecanada.ca for more services.