By Monica Piga Wallace
I recently joined a club that I never wanted to join. It is a club that has millions of members. They are as old as grandparents and as young as newborns. They are from every race, religion and socioeconomic status.
It is a club I would have given anything not to have joined – but I was helpless in preventing my membership. Last week, I became someone who lost a loved one to the opioid epidemic.
The victim was my 23-year-old nephew. He was a handsome young man with a beautiful smile. He had gentle, hazel eyes surrounded by the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen. He had been fighting his addiction for several years.
I did what I could to help him, trying to straddle that fine line between supporting him without further enabling the addiction. In the end, it simply wasn’t enough. I couldn’t stop my worst fears from becoming a reality.
We buried him last Friday. I am still in shock. Those, like me, who are unfortunate enough to have joined this club understand the roller coaster of emotions I’m experiencing right now. There is disbelief that I’ll never see those beautiful hazel eyes and those long eyelashes again. There is guilt in wondering if there is anything I could have done differently to have avoided this tragedy. There is an attempt to assign blame somewhere – anywhere – and there is profound sadness for the pain he experienced in his few short years on this earth.
Like so many victims of addiction, my nephew had a co-occurring disorder, meaning that his addiction was accompanied by mental health disorders. For him, it was depression. I suspect he started developing depression years earlier as a teen, but it was not diagnosed, so he began experimenting with drugs as a form of self-treatment. By the time his mental health issues were diagnosed, his addiction was deeply entrenched and the drugs had rewired his brain.
The hopelessness he felt as someone suffering from both depression and addiction overwhelmed him, and he finally took that fatal dose as a means to escape both.
The relationship between mental illness and drug use is not uncommon. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, over 60% of adolescents in drug treatment programs also meet criteria for serious mental illness. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that so many individuals begin using drugs in their adolescence, the same years when symptoms of mental illness first emerge.
We still have so much work to do to fight this opioid epidemic and to prevent any future members of this club. We need to hold drug manufacturers accountable for creating this epidemic. We need to have better mechanisms for screening and treatment of mental health issues. We need to employ best practices for treating addiction.
We need to continue educating our young people so as to prevent the use of drugs in the first place, and we need to speak openly about the problem of addiction – without judgment and without shame – so that those who are suffering from addiction will seek the help that they need before it is too late. In the meantime, I will honor his memory by doing everything I can to prevent future tragedies like this.
I love you, Matthew Joseph Piga. May God bless your soul and may you find the peace in heaven that you could not find here on earth.
Monica Piga Wallace is the New York State Assembly member for the 143rd District.