When I got sober nearly 6 years ago, I knew very little about heroin addiction. What I did know was that alcoholism slowly chips away at someones life causing labored decline in mental, physical and emotional health. It still remains one of the leading causes of death among Americans every year, and I believe it was a cause that I was meant to continually educate myself on.
But heroin trails closely behind and it was a topic I was ignorant to. A recent statistic showed that more than 67,000 people died from illicit and prescription opioids in the US in one year. It is a staggering statistic that blinks into the media here and there; not enough to highlight the severity of the epidemic, but enough to highlight its insidious grip on the nation. Additionally, new data from around the U.S. confirms that drug overdoses are spiking during the coronavirus pandemic, rising by at least 18%. Maybe it was a distant cousin who "hung out with the wrong crowd", maybe your neighbor who hurt his back in a fender bender last year. Maybe it is you, from that sports injury or innocuous work accident you had years ago and oxycontin seems to be the only thing that manages the pain. Maybe it's your younger brother who "was a great kid who did well in school". Whatever the genesis of a person's relationship with opiates is, the stranglehold of opioid addiction is all inclusive. It makes no distinction on who it claims its mastery on.
The problem with heroin addiction portrayed in the media is that it reduces people to numbers. While "67k people" makes for a shocking talking point, the statistic becomes easily obscured by the steady influx of other worrisome news segments. 67k becomes an easily forgotten number. The media rarely draws a singular person from the totality. Who are these people? What do they do? Where do they come from? Let's set aside 66,999.
That brings me to the story of Joe. I was commissioned to paint this portrait of Joe for his memorial service last month. Joe had over 3 years sober. He was a great influence in the Austin recovery scene. He ran several sober homes, worked at Solstice Recovery as the Admissions Director, and spent much of his sobriety working with men afflicted with opioid addiction. By all accounts, he was one of the good ones you didn't think you had to worry about. Joe had many gifts that blossomed in his time sober: a loving partner, a young daughter (pictured) and a son on the way. He helped so many people get sober himself; a bright reward in its own right. Other sons, daughters, friends and loved ones were spared from death because of Joes dedication to their sobriety. He taught them that safe harbor was real and that there was life on the other side of addiction.
Heroin, like alcohol, can certainly whittle away at a beautiful life over decades, but its dark reality is rarely investigated by those not immediately affected. The horrifying truth of opiates is that, within a moment, it takes someone who is, to someone who isn't — like a light switch. A relapse isn't always a forecast of a looming hurricane. A relapse, more often, is an overdose; a flash flood that that brings grief, ruin and bewilderment in a matter of seconds. Be it stress, worry, or a simple lapse in judgement, Joe picked up again in a private moment. In a matter of seconds he was gone. He was a partner, a son, a father and a valuable testament to the glow of recovery.
If you feel opiates may have even a modicum of influence over your life, a sincere audit must be taken. These statistics are not exclusive to someone else. If you know someone who is struggling with addiction, help must be available at a moments notice. It is an epidemic that must be given the attention it requires and demands. Addiction is a disease that requires deliberate action— and recovery is the same. Recovery is something that must be monitored, inspected and maintained, lest it be lost in a dizzying moment. If you have the gift of sobriety, please take time to water it. The solution, sometimes inconvenient and frustrating, is widely available and mandatory, nonetheless. If you are sober, pay close attention to your sober friend and brother.
Rest in peace Joe. My heart goes out to the people who were close to him. My thoughts have steadily been with the mother of his children. My heart also breaks for Cole Shiflet who fostered and tended to Joe's recovery in its inception. This is not the first loss of a young man Cole has endured, yet he perseveres with honor in his determination to aid those who struggle. This is not the first painting I have done of one of the "Worst Boys" he has lost, but I hope it is the last. I often wonder if these paintings are enough — they seem so trite given the magnitude of loss.
I pushed off this post for weeks because it is difficult to calculate the wording of such a precarious topic, but I hope that it offers something to someone. If it is you, then help is available just for you.
Written by Jon McKenzie, a friend in the community. See his Facebook for painting commission inquiries.