Nearly 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2020

Nearly 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2020

When assessing the economic and healthcare impacts of the coronavirus, we often fail to recognize the massive collateral damage from the long months of lockdowns, business closures, anxiety and fear that spread across our nation in 2020.

According to the latest Center for Disease Control and Prevention data:

- From January to December 2020, there were 93,331 drug overdose deaths

- An average of 256 Americans died every day from drug overdoses — the most in U.S. history.

We were told by our leaders that mask wearing and social isolation of the young and healthy, as well as the medically vulnerable, was essential to curb the spread of the virus.  But did we fail to take into account the ongoing cost of this disruption in normal human, family and community relationships?

Author Johann Hari spent close to four years and traveled 30,000 miles crossing the globe to learn more about the problem of drug addiction. He shares about his experience in the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. 

Hari discovered the quality of human relationships is a key feature in the development of addiction. Healthy, happy people bond with other humans. But if you can’t do that because you’ve experienced trauma and abuse, and you can’t trust people, you are more vulnerable to bond with a drug instead.

Hari writes:

What I learned is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety…The opposite of addiction is human connection [my emphasis.] And I think that has massive implications for the war on drugs. Our laws are built around the belief that drug addicts need to be punished to stop them. But if pain and trauma and isolation cause addiction, then inflicting more pain and trauma and isolation is not going to solve that addiction. It’s actually going to deepen it.”

Is Hari’s premise too simplistic?

As many as two-thirds of all individuals with addictions experienced some form of trauma during their lives. Addiction experts tell us that these individuals may model their substance abuse and self-medication for the symptoms of their trauma, on behaviors they observed in loved ones while growing up.  

My professional social work career has focused in the last 20 years on helping women and men find spiritual and emotional healing after a painful abortion loss, in a ministry outreach called Rachel’s Vineyard. Most women and men suffer in isolation, and are reluctant to share about their abortion experience with others.    

One of the common ways people cope with the complicated grief and the confusing feelings and memories of the abortion event, is the abuse of alcohol and drugs (and/or other addictive or compulsive behaviors.)

I spoke with my colleague in Rachel’s Vineyard, Susan Swander, who personally experienced both addiction and abortion loss, and asked her what she thought of Hari’s ideas about addiction. 

Susan shares:

It's my belief (based on my research and reading) that alcoholics and addicts are biologically different. I believe there is a physiological/chemical difference in our bodies.  

I think Hari's statement about the opposite of addiction being human connection is too simplistic. Once the disease is triggered, it is true that a sort of love affair with the substance of choice can very easily develop.  

But in terms of my own abortion experience, many of us arrive at an abortion clinic with our substance friend in hand. Many of us can't make that decision without the “strength” of our friendship. I often wonder if I had been a sober young woman, would I have gone through with that first abortion?

My abortions did not cause my alcoholism. But my friend Wild Turkey made the pain of that trauma easier to deal with. I had to get sober (for 19 years) before I was able to face the trauma of my abortions. My third and last abortion happened when I had been sober for six years. [1]

Addiction after the abortion

Jason’s abuse of drugs and alcohol, began after he failed to prevent the death of his child from abortion.   

The following is an excerpt from Jason’s full story that can be found in the book Tears of the Fisherman:

I left the Air Force in 1993, returned to my home town and got a job in retail. I soon ran into Andrea, a childhood friend whom I hadn’t seen in years. Andrea and I started hanging out together and our relationship quickly became sexual. I bonded well with her daughter Kelly and before long we decided to get an apartment together.

It didn’t take long for me to realize I enjoyed family life, so I asked Andrea to marry me, and she agreed. We didn’t make much money, but I worked hard to support Andrea and Kelly and was getting frequent promotions at work.

A few years later I came home from work and Andrea told me she was pregnant. I was thrilled! Kelly was almost three years old and now she’d have a baby brother or sister. I told everyone in my family and at work that I was going to be a daddy.

At first, Andrea seemed happy about the pregnancy. But after a few weeks, things started to change…Our discussions turned into arguments…Every time I tried to plead with her to keep our child, she would tell me it wasn’t my decision…that it was her body and her choice. I even offered that if she just had the baby, then I would raise it on my own…

It was on February 25th, 1995 that my life changed forever. Andrea had gone to the clinic and had the abortion while I was at work… The last thing I remember after hearing the news was lying in the parking lot of a bar screaming at the top of my lungs. I have no recollection of how I got home or how many days passed before I moved back in with my parents.

After this traumatic event Jason began abusing drugs and alcohol to cope with his traumatic loss and later was hospitalized. After much suffering, Jason learned he was not alone, and began to educate himself about abortion-related trauma and resources for healing. He attended a Rachel’s Vineyard healing weekend for abortion loss and was able to begin a journey to recovery.

Abortion and disconnection

It seems likely that some who struggle with addiction have a genetic/biological vulnerability to what unfolds as a disease process. Abortion is often part of their story, and like Susan, the healing of that loss can be part of their journey from addiction to sobriety and recovery. 

For others, like Jason, the experience of abortion is a traumatic event in their lives, and a complicated experience of loss, one they are unable to process and integrate into their lives in a healthy way.  This can trigger the abuse of alcohol, drugs, food, pornography, extra-marital sex and other self-destructive behaviors as a way to self-medicate for their pain. 

While women and men have different ways of processing and expressing emotions and grief, the heart of abortion healing touches upon something that Johann Hari discovered from his travels around the world: the importance of healthy human connection in the healing of broken relationships.  

The healing of abortion loss often requires a unique treatment process, such as the program developed by Theresa Burke, Ph.D., Rachel’s Vineyard. [Theresa has developed another program for those who have suffered sexual abuse and other traumatic events called Grief to Grace.]

Rachel’s Vineyard and Grief to Grace are very effective healing programs that enable the participants to safely access their complex and often deeply painful feelings. They find a safe, spiritually positive healing environment, loving support, and people who intimately understand their loss.  

For the first time they are able to work through the pain, as they travel to what is at the heart of the healing journey for those with abortion loss – discovering and reclaiming their connection as a mother or father to their aborted child or children.

For some women and men, reestablishing this connection is a pivotal moment in reducing, and eliminating, unhealthy relationships with drugs, alcohol or behaviors that they used to cope in the past. 

Here we go again?

As of this writing, the recent surges in some areas of the “Delta Variant” of the coronavirus are leading some government leaders to reconsider lockdowns and masking for their communities. Hopefully, given the record number of overdose death in 2020, and other economic and psychological consequences of shutting down our economy and schools, our politicians and government officials will proceed with caution, learning from our past experience. 

Community leaders must take reasonable steps to protect our most vulnerable citizens.  But we must also carefully consider the overall impact of lockdowns and masking for those who are at low risk for serious complications from the virus.