Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times/TNS
Photo: Liz O. Baylen
Photo: Liz O. Baylen

Opinion: Ga.’s working to end substance addiction, overcome stigma

September is National Recovery Month. Today, an estimated 180,000 Georgians are living with an opioid-use disorder. To put this staggering number into perspective, that means we have a population the size of Macon coping with the malicious effects caused by the opioid crisis.

Each number that makes up this total represents an opportunity to reach someone who is struggling, and we must do all we can to support them and their families.

As a society, one of the best ways to help those who are dealing with this issue is to look inward. To take a second and reflect on our own beliefs about addiction. In doing this, we may recognize and address the stigma that is too often associated with people who suffer from substance use disorders. Unfortunately, people have a tendency to look at someone caught in the cycle of addiction to opiates as having a major character flaw or moral failing. There is an underlying assumption that people who are addicted to opiates or other drugs make an active decision to continue using, that they choose to use because they are weak, uncaring or worse.

But, that is not the case. Like all drugs, opioids change the chemistry of the brain. Opioid addiction is incredibly powerful, often characterized by a compulsive urge to continue to use these drugs, even when they are no longer required medically. Taking opioids over a long period of time produces dependence such that when someone stops taking it, they may experience extreme physical and psychological withdrawal effects like muscle cramping, bone chills, insomnia, stomach distress and severe anxiety.

Given the powerful nature of this class of drugs, it is an uphill battle to stop using once one becomes addicted, and the touchpoint where addiction begins is often through no fault of the consumer – as I’ve learned from meeting people all across the state who share their stories, or stories from their family members, with me.

I recently had the opportunity to meet Doreen Barr through our Statewide Opioid Task Force network. Doreen bravely opened up about her son Ryan’s story at our last meeting in Marietta, which focused on ending stigma. Ryan was a fantastic athlete from Peachtree City, Georgia: a great student, friend, sibling and son by all accounts. After high school, Ryan went on to play college football where he sustained an injury to his hand. It was because of this injury that Ryan was introduced to opioids. Through no fault of his own, Ryan’s brain and body became dependent on these drugs.

While battling his addiction, Ryan worked to graduate college with a degree in exercise science. Unfortunately, Ryan moved on to heroin because his prescription drug addiction became too expensive to sustain. After fighting hard to rise above his addiction, Ryan overdosed on a deadly combination of heroin laced with fentanyl.

Doreen and her family devoted all of their energy to supporting Ryan through what they had hoped would be long-term recovery. The whole time, she and her family were compelled to stay silent about their circumstances. They felt shame. They suffered quietly and independently. Something no one who is trying to help a loved one should have to endure.

We must do all we can to be there for the 180,000 families who are going through a similar battle.

Stigma has a way of silencing those who are in pain and crippling people by making them socially invisible. More importantly, stigma often keeps people from asking for help.

If we can take positive steps towards ending the stigma associated with opioid-use disorder, we can lift up our neighbors who are struggling with addiction, give a voice to all who are silently suffering and lend our hand to all that so desperately need our support.

Addiction should not be considered a moral weakness. Addiction should not be a silencer. Addiction should not be a death sentence.

I hope you’ll join me in taking steps to break down the debilitating stigma associated with addiction by encouraging a positive discourse in your community.

If you or someone you know is seeking or in recovery, there is help. The CARES Warm Line, operated by the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, is available from 8:30 a.m. – 11:00 p.m. 365 days per year. A person in long-term recovery is available to answer your questions and provide support. Call or text 1-844-326-5400 to speak with a recovery coach now.

In addition, you can visit DoseofRealityGa.org, operated by the Office of the Attorney General. The multi-faceted website provides in-depth informational support for healthcare personnel, students, parents, businesses, educators, coaches, caregivers and seniors. Other tabs walk visitors through the dangers associated with opioid abuse and best practices for safe acquisition, appropriate use, safe storage and safe disposal. In fact, the site will provide visitors with access to an interactive Drug Take Back map that will help them find the closest disposal box to them. And, for those who are struggling with addiction or know someone who is, Dose of Reality also aims to serve as a conduit for treatment options and local recovery community organizations located around the state.

Chris Carr is Georgia Attorney General. Neil Campbell is executive director for the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse.

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