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Junkie, a Police Chief's Spiral into Opioid Addiction and the Cruel Road to Recovery / Memoir

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Opening scene (flashback) introduces protagonist and initial traumatic event:

The kid picked up a 2x4 and took a swing at my head. Like spikes on a medieval mace, three huge nails protruded from the end of the board. I leapt back as the crude weapon barely missed my nose.

This was supposed to be a fistfight. At least, that’s what my six-year-old brain thought.

A solid ring of grade-school boys surrounded me and my attacker. They shouted like a crowd of spectators at a Roman coliseum, eager for first blood. I took a quick glance to the side and saw a couple of the bigger kids holding back my brother, Mark, who was attempting to rush to my aid. Mark was three years my senior, but overmatched.

I was on my own.

The battle took place in a large field choked with ragged weeds and assorted junk discarded by people unwilling to pay the dump fees. It was less than a football field’s length from the unfenced backyards of the modest middle-class suburb that was home to everyone in attendance. All it would take was one parent to look out their window to see the seething ring of boys and know that something was amiss.

But that didn’t happen.

I backpedaled a couple of yards, and the kid rushed forward, holding the spiked 2x4 over his head like a sword. The wild look in his eyes scared me almost as much as the board whistling straight down toward my skull. I jumped to my right, lost my footing, and sprawled onto the ground. The board smacked the dirt but left me unscathed.

I’d landed on top of a long, green piece of bamboo. I scooped up the pole and sprang to my feet while the kid struggled to free his makeshift weapon from where the big nails had impaled the earth.

During this split second, my mind tried to make sense of the situation. 

I was the youngest member of what the boys in my neighborhood called the Pine Street Army, named after the street where we lived. My opponent was the youngest member of the Willow Street Army, which was made up of kids from a street a couple of blocks away. Our two armies had been feuding all summer and we were at a stalemate. Unbeknownst to me, the older kids had decided to let the two of us fight it out. The winner’s army could then claim victory for the season before school started up next week.

Pine’s base of operations was a small hill in a field behind our houses. It was originally a huge pile of dirt left from some building project long since abandoned. Now it was covered by tall, green weeds and riddled with a series of foxholes. Right across the street, the Willow gang commanded a massive pit—most likely the original source of our own dirt pile—warded by a corrugated metal wall scavenged from the surrounding field.

The Pine Street-Willow Street war had been raging for months. It had started out innocent enough, at least for young boys who were prone to do stupid things. We’d discovered that pulling up bunches of the long grass that covered our hill resulted in an impressive clump of dirt attached to the end. Then we’d spin it overhead like a sling and send the projectiles flying over the street to either impact Willow’s metal wall with a satisfying bang or, better yet, score a hit on one of our enemies. Of course, they did the same thing, and sometimes the air was full of little brown meteors trailing green flame.

But much like nations at war, our violence had escalated from swinging fists and throwing dirt-clods, to a battle for survival.

 I watched as my opponent freed his weapon and rushed straight at me. I swung the bamboo pole like a skinny baseball bat and struck the 2x4. Fueled by adrenaline, my blow sent the board flying from his grip.

Driven by a rage so deep that it blocked out any notion of humanity, I threw down the pole and leaped at my adversary. I drove him to the ground, straddled his chest, and grabbed his face with both my hands. I pulled down as hard as I could, my fingernails leaving bloody trails down his cheeks. I pummeled his face with my fists. Red droplets flew through the air. A few of the older kids from each side rushed in and finally pulled me off.

So, I guess we won.


Therapy Session (present time):

I hated telling that story. And I hated sitting in a psychologist’s office being analyzed by some shrink who’d never suffered through the horrors of opioid addiction. 

Ursula Schmidt, PhD, sat back and narrowed her jade-green eyes. “Pretty heavy experience for a six-year-old,” she said.

“It was,” I said. “I didn’t even really remember it until a few years ago.” My hands began to sweat, and I wiped them on my jeans. I had a powerful urge to jump up and bolt out the door.

“And that was your first memory of violence?” asked Dr. Schmidt. She was a trim, handsome woman with a slight German accent. No wedding ring, but I could see a faint tan line on that finger.

“First one that jumped into my mind. My parents never beat me or anything, if that’s what you mean.” I felt the sweat gathering in my armpits and beading on my forehead.

We faced each other, ensconced in overstuffed chairs. No obligatory couch, and no barrier filling the two-foot gap between us. Ursula handed me a box of Kleenex.

“No, I didn’t mean that at all,” she said. “It just seems that if you had an ongoing conflict with those Willow Street kids, there would be other incidents of violence.”

“Tons,” I said. “In fact, I remember one time when a kid punched me in the face and my nose started pouring blood. I just kept on swinging, and I guess it freaked him out, because he ran away.”

I wiped my forehead with the tissue and crumpled it tightly in my fist. What if she thought I was a violent psychopath? My heart began to thump against my ribs.

Using one of the orienting skills I’d learned in rehab, I took a few deep breaths and concentrated on scanning her office. The exposed brick walls were adorned with artwork of red-rock canyons, desert sunsets, and other splendors that dominated the southwest.

“How old were you when you got the bloody nose?” she asked, scribbling a few more notes to her pad.

“It was before that board-with-the-nails thing,” I answered. “Probably when I was in kindergarten.” My eyes were drawn to a bouquet of bright yellow daffodils sprouting from a tall crystal vase. The flowers were set on an old wooden desk that’d likely been there since the place was built.

Ursula set the pad down on a small table next to her chair and ran one hand through her short blond hair. She was dressed one notch below conservative in a black skirt and a royal blue sleeveless blouse.

“Where were your mom and dad during all this?” she asked. “Were there any repercussions from the parents of the kid that attacked you with the board?”

“None at all,” I said. “My parents never heard about it as far as I know. I had great parents. Well, my dad was emotionally unavailable for the most part. He was one of those Normandy WWII vets who didn’t say much. But they both worked full-time. My brother and I pretty much ran wild.”

I realized that I still had a death grip on the tissue wadded up in my fist. I relaxed my grip and stuffed the damp Kleenex into my front pants pocket. I sat back and let my body sink into the overstuffed chair.

“Besides,” I continued, “my dad got a new job later that year in San Francisco. So, we moved to California.”

“I’d like to talk about that during our next session, and more of your family history,” said Ursula. “Since this is our first time together, I want to check in and see if you have any questions or concerns?”

I took a slow, deep breath and let it out. “I guess even after all these years of therapy and treatment, I still don’t know why this all happened to me. It’s not like I was abused as a child or had parents who were addicts.”

Ursula looked at me for a moment. “Maybe the ‘why’ isn’t as important as the ‘how’. In a sense, the ‘how’ is the ‘why’.”

I could feel my face getting hot. What did she mean by that? I took a few more, steady breaths and dropped my shoulders.

“I know it sounds like whining, but I just can’t seem to get over the ‘why me’ thing.”

Ursula ignored my self-deprecation. “Why not you?” she asked. “As far as the ‘how’, it could be a combination of many things. Genetics, your environment, life experiences, the decisions you make—it all comes into play.”

“But I don’t even really know what came first,” I said. “It’s like the chicken or the egg dilemma. Did the drugs cause my depression or was I already depressed?”

“We’re going to sort all that out. But the first thing you can work on is dropping the ‘why’ or it will drive you crazy.”

“Too late,” I said.

Ursula laughed. It was a pleasant laugh. At least she had a sense of humor. My new therapist was a strange fit for a small town tucked in the mountains of New Mexico. A place where PhDs numbered in the single digits and faded blue jeans and Stetsons dominated the local fashion scene.

I noticed that my heart rate had slowed down to normal. The orienting techniques were working. Not long ago, I couldn’t even get in the door of a doctor’s office without triggering a major anxiety attack.

I’d come a long way.

“Childhood is a great place to start on the ‘how’ question,” she said. “In your case, one of your core beliefs became that you were not safe, and it was up to you to fight and defend yourself. You felt no one else was going to help and that you were completely on your own.”

Pretty astute for a first session, I thought.

“That was definitely my experience, and not just as a kid. When I feel threatened, I go straight to fight mode.”

“That’s good insight,” said Ursula. “I would think that you also felt some abandonment at no one coming to your rescue. That’s another core belief we can discuss later.”

Once again, she’d hit the mark. Maybe I did need this.

“Reprogramming your brain takes a lot of time and work,” she said. “And, in your case, you’ve become what some might call an adrenaline junkie. You’ve been exposed to not only violence but the excitement and rush that goes along with it.”

“Do you think that’s why I became a cop?”

“I do,” she said. “You feel most alive when you place yourself in dangerous situations. You thrive on chaos and reckless behavior. Your brain is wired for addiction and depression.”

Speaking of brains, mine felt exhausted. She seemed to pick up on it.

“And I think that’s plenty to cover for our first session.”


Reader’s Takeaway:

 Until it happened to me, I never would’ve believed someone could spin into a panic attack without warning. As a police officer—before I became addicted to opioids—it seemed perfectly natural to face someone armed with a gun. Now, my body can’t tell the difference between a real or imagined threat. I can spiral into fight or flight mode with something as small as waiting in a doctor’s office or getting stuck in traffic.

One of the stress reduction techniques I learned in rehab was to orient myself to my surroundings. A sort of grounding technique. This is how it works:

Instead of staring at the floor until tunnel vision sets in, I visually scan the room and observe any and all details. It can be done alone or in a group setting. It can even be done in line at the grocery store when you’re stuck behind that customer with all the coupons.

Panic attacks are terrifying and, for me, cause complete paralysis. During my first one, I was sure it was a heart attack. When stressful situations arise, as they always will in life, I now look around and observe the people and items in my surroundings. Slow, steady, breathing is critical. My attacks seem to happen indoors (a good incentive to get out in nature), so I make myself check out details like artwork, what people are wearing, and even the light switch on the wall. There’s something about moving my eyes and turning my body that helps short-circuit the attack. It seems like the movement sends a message to the brain that all is well.

If that doesn’t work, I grab a few ice cubes and squeeze. Once the cold becomes unbearable, I throw them on the ground hard enough to make the ice shatter (preferably outside, on a hard surface). The goal is to draw attention to the present (my freezing hand) instead of focusing on the impending panic attack.

Sounds weird, but it works.

Unfortunately, the main challenge that accompanies addiction is that mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, may never go away. That’s why, when the level of stress is high enough to trigger an attack, it’s so important to practice techniques—even simple ones—like the ones mentioned in this chapter.

A panic attack can be avoided if it is caught early enough. My advice is to practice the orienting technique even when life is good. Make it a daily ritual.

Then the next time a panic or anxiety attack seems imminent, start scanning.

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