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Atwater: Hoffman’s death puts face on heroin addiction

Published: Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

I think most have heard by now that actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman died of what is suspected to be a heroin overdose. This sad ending for a talented man has made front pages of major papers, op-eds and blogs.

The saddest thing to me is he is just the front man for an epidemic that people only talk openly about when someone dies. The more tragic the death, the longer the rustle of remembrance. But a vast majority of people who die from heroin use aren’t famous. They are someone’s son or daughter, sister, father, brother, cousin or friend. They don’t get news coverage, and most families who experience heroin overdose deaths are too ashamed to go public about the cause of death. Although the particular substance might be heroin, the cause of death is addiction.

Our county alone has lost 15 to 20 people a year for at least the past 10 years, and surrounding counties have had as many or more. That does not account for overdose deaths from opiates other than heroin. Most people just shake their heads in disbelief this kind of thing can be happening here. But it is.

The people who are dying from heroin overdoses are people who are addicted to drugs. Drugs have become increasingly available, particularly the use of prescription opiate pain relievers. Heroin is stronger and cheaper, and the supply chain has become more sophisticated.

Addiction is largely a genetic predisposition. Addicts don’t metabolize alcohol and drugs the same way those without the predisposition do and so are prone to addiction. The difference today regarding heroin is primarily a shift in drug use patterns, not more drug addicts. The preference and availability has shifted toward a drug that is far more dangerous and potentially lethal than the drugs commonly used 10 years ago.

People don’t choose to have addiction any more than someone chooses to have bi-polar disorder or diabetes, but like those diseases, addiction, although chronic, is treatable. According to a film I saw recently called “Anonymous People” there are 21 million Americans in some sort of long-term recovery from addiction.

We have begun to get our heads out of the sand. We have started to coordinate our resources and bring them to bear. Our treatments are better, and our law enforcement and court system are directed and functioning under these new rules of engagement. However, this is just a good beginning.

• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor.

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