The numbers are staggering. Last year, 72,000 people died of drug overdoses, and in three years the death toll is projected to top 82,000. The estimated economic cost of addiction is $700 billion a year. Drugs are the No. 3 killer—and the No. 1 killer of our youth.
With that in mind, David Sheff, the bestselling author of Beautiful Boy, and Butler University Board of Trustee Lynne Zydowsky ’81, a life sciences executive, sat down in front of more than 1,000 people at Clowes Memorial Hall on Tuesday, March 26, to talk about addiction, and what can be done to solve this epidemic. The event was presented in partnership between Butler University, Community Health Network, and the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation with support from Lynne Zydowsky and WFYI.
“There is no way to spin what is happening in our communities because of the opioid crisis,” said Sheff, whose book was made into a movie starring Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet. “But it is getting us to talk about this problem that we’ve kept hidden in the past and we’ve always been afraid to talk about, we’ve been ashamed to talk about it because of the stigma around addiction. So we’re talking about it now and because of that I have to feel that as bleak as everything is, there is some hope because we’re having conversations like we are having here tonight.”
Sheff’s book is subtitled A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, and in it he writes about his son Nic, who started smoking pot at age 11, and eventually graduated to crystal meth. Sheff recounted how Nic would disappear for a day or two at a time. One time, Sheff had to call the local sheriff to ask if he’d seen Nic.
The sheriff said, “Have you called the morgue?”
The night Sheff was able to get his son into rehab, he remembers being able to finally sleep because for once he knew where his son was.
Nic went through rehab—and then relapsed—at least nine times over a 10-year period, Sheff said. It wasn’t until Nic had a psychiatric evaluation and was found to be bipolar and suffering from depression, that he got the medication he needed and began to make progress.
He’s now 36 and has been sober for nine years.
“It’s a miracle, but it also is appalling—and it’s appalling that it took 10 years,” Sheff said.
In an hour-long conversation with Zydowsky, Sheff emphasized the fact that addiction is a mental illness that should not be stigmatized. He said it is a brain disease that is about chemistry.
He also explained that the treatment system in this country needs major improvement.
There was a program that made Nic go outside in the middle of winter with a pair of scissors and cut the grass because he didn’t make his bed ‘the right way.’
“Some of the treatments make the addiction worse,” Sheff said. “As if that’s the way to treat someone who’s ill.”
Doctors should be trained to recognize signs of mental illness, he said. Sheff said if medical schools offer their students any training, it’s typically an hour or a half-day workshop. He said only 9 percent of pediatricians were able to identify a child with a drug problem.
“If there’s an overall message here,” Sheff said, “it’s that if you’re in the throes, don’t give up hope. It’s hard. Take care of yourself. Get support for yourself. And don’t give up over and over and over again. And there’s hope. There is hope for recovery, and I think that’s something we really need to know in the middle of this crisis.”