I’ve never been much of a statistics guy, but this one is haunting. In 2021 alone, 5,449 Pennsylvanians died of unintentional overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That is 5,449 families shattered and 5,449 human lives cut tragically short. That is 5,449 of the most horrific outcomes of an illness science has come to learn is treatable.
The ubiquitous torment and suffering caused by the “War On Drugs” has certainly contributed to the now-growing “overdose epidemic” in many ways, but I’ll try to stay focused on one, stigma, and offer solutions.
I grew up in a comfortable suburb of Allentown during and after the height of the Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” propaganda era. Drugs were societally villainized. Falsely promoted was the delusion that individuals who consumed substances were bad people or moral failures.
I sat through all the DARE classes that my fellow students did, I feared becoming a “bum,” “loser’ and “junkie” in the same way I’m sure they intended.
Shockingly, none of those things made a bit of difference when my path took me to begin what I believed to be harmless experimentation with alcohol around the age of 13. The winds of fate blew me through experimentation with essentially every drug available to me until I landed fully addicted to heroin.
My journey with heroin took me on some seriously interesting adventures, but every day was fraught with struggle as I lived my life almost as though I was on the outside looking in. It felt like the decisions I was making weren’t my own.
At the time, society had yet to subscribe to the brain science behind substance use disorder that effectively explains this phenomenon. Neural pathways had been created in my brain by repeated use of drugs causing it to bypass my cerebral cortex and kept me living an altered reality ruled by my limbic system, commonly referred to as the “lizard brain,” or the area responsible for our caveman-like fight-or-flight responses.
This altered existence led me to repeated trouble with the law and some trips through the criminal justice system. Each of my incarceration experiences ultimately contributed to the feeling of being dehumanized.
Every time I traded in Chris Dreisbach to become #0131644 I felt further and further away from hope. I couldn’t even conceive of the idea that recovery was possible. Recovery wasn’t loud in those days. It wasn’t shouted from the rooftops. And it certainly wasn’t in op-ed columns in the newspaper.
The lack of education, understanding and mentorship offered likely kept me in that cycle for longer than I had to.
That meant more trips to jail, more sleepless nights for my parents, more shame for my innocent bystander siblings, and essentially more preventable misery.
Thankfully for me, the universe tossed me through the ringer and let me out the other side relatively unscathed, save a moderate criminal record and one shiny felony. My shiny felony is a criminal trespass that to this day would probably prevent me from working at most semi-reputable fast food joints.
Once I received therapy, got connected to community support groups and began to develop a life in recovery, hope began to flourish. I realized substance use disorder was the cause of the majority of my past issues, was able to make amends for most of the harm I caused and began to live a meaningful life of purpose.
In 2010 I was able to start the first sober living community in Lancaster and thus began a (to-date) 13-year long career in a variety of different industries, but making it my personal mission in each one to help others not only achieve sobriety, but to go on to live their dreams and impact still more individuals struggling like I once did.
Being as loud as possible about the realities of recovery is of paramount importance. Ensuring that no more of our neighbors ever feel hopeless and alone again as a result of SUD/mental health struggles will remain a top priority for me and I hope to not quiet down until the number of fatalities resulting from SUD reports reads zero.
Chris Dreisbach, who grew up in Emmaus, is the CEO of Blueprints for Addiction Recovery, which operates treatment facilities in Lancaster and York counties. Learn more at blueprintsrecovery.com.