I lost a friend last week. She was 42 years old, and it was a drug overdose. She was beautiful, smart, kind. I gave a eulogy at her funeral. Peering at her loved ones and our mutual friends through a wall of tears, I said she had been a burst of color in a gray world. She was a real person, and now she’s gone.
It wasn’t the first funeral I’ve attended for someone who had died this way, but she was the closest. It wasn’t even the second or the fifth. She was the second woman to overdose from just my small group of high-school friends.
The opioid crisis has become personal for me. It is, among many other things, a crisis for American women my age.
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from a few weeks ago tells the bigger story: “Among women aged 30–64 years, the unadjusted drug-overdose death rate increased” 260 percent since 1999.
When I tell people about the loss, they nod their heads or tell me their own stories. People are dying from drug overdoses at a sky-high rate, and everyone knows someone who has been lost.
Opioids aren’t a crisis anymore; they are an epidemic. According to the CDC, “130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.” I’ve known too many of those Americans. Maybe you have too. They aren’t mere statistics.
After the funerals, the friends and family stood around looking at the ground. We assured each other that there was nothing anybody could have done for the deceased. It’s true, but it’s cold comfort. We play back the last moments, the last time we spoke, our last interactions. Were there signs? Maybe. Even if we knew, what could anyone do? Addiction is a sneaky disease, and addicts can get very good at hiding the fact that they are afflicted.
The range of the afflicted has expanded. My friend was a college graduate with parents who loved her. These kinds of details shouldn’t matter when we talk about people who die young, but for so long we were able to dismiss this epidemic as something that happens to other people — the ones alone, without family, without love. The last few years have exploded this misconception. The epidemic has been moving ever closer to us all.
My ethnic community is among the hard-hit. There isn’t much research on drug use specifically among immigrants from the former Soviet Union living in New York. But one 2012 paper noted that substance-abuse and HIV rates among immigrants from the former Soviet Union “appear to be disproportionately high” in comparison to other immigrant groups and “possibly even native populations.”
We go to too many funerals these days. The most discomforting thing in our post-funeral conversations is the lack of surprise. Maybe we didn’t know this person specifically was using, but it’s so widespread that it could happen to anyone at anytime.
Those of us on the outside of this crisis grope for a solution, but solutions are scarce.
You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. You can’t help someone who doesn’t necessarily appear to need help. There is no government program that can help a drug addict who doesn’t want to stop using.
There is no magic fix to help prevent people from starting in the first place. The helplessness is the worst part.
There is nothing anybody can do. We clutch our children and beg them never to try it. “It’s poison. You will die. I don’t want to go to your funeral and sit in the front row, shaking and shell-shocked like my friend’s mother. I want you to live.”
We want to scare our children, to make them understand the depth of the peril. We know that it’s entirely out of our hands.
My friend was much loved. I loved her. I so badly want to revisit those moments when I might have sensed she was in trouble, but her easy laughter and her soft voice convinced me otherwise. I wish there were something I could have done, some way I could have stepped in.
There was nothing anybody could do. I know this. But it doesn’t help me sleep at night thinking about all we’ve lost.