United States Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has issued an open call for stories about opioid abuse and how it has affected West Virginians. He intends to read these letters on the Senate Floor to filibuster the appointment of Robert Califf to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), citing strong ties to “Big Pharma.” This could prove counterproductive to educating both physicians and patients on the possible dangers of prescription painkillers. Regardless of how you feel about the appointment of Robert Califf and how we address the drug problem in West Virginia, the reality is that there is a problem worth discussing. Senator Manchin’s request has compelled me to share my story with our readers. Below is a portion of the my letter to Senator Manchin, which I hope will assist with the effort.
In February of 2003, I received a telephone call in the middle of the night. My 20 year old brother, Tony, had shot himself, ending the life of the most enjoyable person I had ever known. He was smart, funny and full of life, but he also had a serious problem with addiction. All addiction. At barely twenty years old, he had already developed an addiction to alcohol, cigarettes, crack cocaine and methamphetamine. I am certain that if he were alive today, he would have also developed an addiction to heroin.
He did not get that way on his own. We come from a long line of addicts, which is why I monitor my alcohol use carefully. There were no resources for Tony in 2003, and there are no resources now in 2016. The United States, particularly in working class West Virginia, glorifies the “bootstrap mythology.” We value hard work, independence and the thought that family is all you need. Mental illness and substance abuse are shameful and often overlooked. People who seek help are considered weak. It has been 13 years since my brother passed, and hindsight painfully provides clarity of vision. I remember conversations in which he said he didn’t think he would ever see twenty-one. He had financial troubles as well as some significant legal issues in his early and mid-teens. I can now see that they were the signs of a kid in need of help.
Even though he was not outwardly sad, he must have been depressed. It was hard to see at the time because of his ability to turn everything into a joke. He always offered a new perspective on even the worst situations. Never lucky in love, his first real crush dumped him on his birthday. This became a bit of a running joke throughout the rest of his short life. Looking back, I can only assume that his addictions negatively impacted most of his relationships.
Tony was addicted to fun and required instant gratification, which made him terrible with money. Unable to properly handle his finances, he faced vehicle repossessions, bounced checks and constantly empty pockets. I remember waking up one morning to an excited voicemail message. Tony had won $1000 on a slot machine. By the time I heard the message, a mere five hours later, the money was already gone.
My brother did not typify the average drug addict. He was not “strung out.” There were no physical signs of drug abuse, and I didn’t even know he was an addict until after his death. It’s clear now that my brother did typify the average drug addict.
The night my brother decided to end his life, he was sober. He joked with our five year old sister, pointing out the Spaniel they had just seen on the Westminster Dog Show, telling her about his first dog, Brian. He hugged her and announced that he was going for a walk. He trudged through a foot of snow up a steep hill to the tree he and my father had embellished with their initials, and he shot himself in the head.
There was no mercy of a quick death for him or his family.
He lived for a week and one day in the Intensive Care Unit. He woke up and spoke to the nurse, which gave us hope. We knew that he would be blind, but doctors were unable tell us just how much damage had been done. They explained that there would be sever personality changes because he had likely lobotomized himself. Our hope quickly dwindled as it became clear that his brain was incapable of regulating body temperature and other important functions. The swelling and infection would not cease, decreasing his chances of survival by the minute. It eventually became clear that the damage was too extensive and that Tony was not going to live.
Our father had to make the difficult decision to remove him from life support. The hope was gone. This was no longer a case of prolonging life. It felt like we were simply staving off death. He left a father, mother and siblings. Countless friends and other family members are forever impacted by this life cut short. No one is better off without him.
I write this letter because, even though Tony did not have an opioid addiction, people like him need a system of dependable resources.
You can read more about the plan to filibuster Robert Califf’s FDA nomination at Senator Manchin’s Facebook Page. If you have a personal story you’d like to share, please note whether you would like to be named or remain anonymous, and send to firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail your letters to one of my offices:
900 Pennsylvania Avenue, Suite 629
Charleston, WV 25302
261 Aikens Center, Suite 305
Martinsburg, WV 25404
230 Adams Street
Fairmont, WV 26554
Washington, D.C. Office
United States Senate
306 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510