I reflect frequently upon loss in this blog and other venues. Just a few weeks prior to my sister’s death, I lost a close family friend unexpectedly. The timing of his death related to my sister’s is one that I still find heartbreaking and hard to believe. He was more of a cousin friend than just a regular friend. I saw him most often when our parents got together, and had the privilege of having known him since we were toddlers. We literally learned to talk together, gathering several times a year with our parents and siblings. My most vivid memories of my friend and his family take place on holidays.
He was, and is, family.
One Thanksgiving day he and I spent a few hours discussing the influence of recreational and prescriptive drugs on our world. It was a lofty conversation considering I was about seventeen, and he just a bit older. In order to prepare for using a particular substance, he explained, he took steps to ensure he felt his best. They included drinking a lot of water and eating healthfully – salads, etc. He did not appear impulsive in the least, and I was impressed. I think he admired my sobriety as much as I admired his contemplative experimentation. Had he had anything on him that day, I would have been game to experiment, too. But he didn’t, or wouldn’t, offer to share.
I wouldn’t begin to presume I understand where he was coming from as he described his belief system as it relates to substance use – again – both legally prescribed and non legal products - but I did recognize that we shared a desire to expand our connection to the things and people that surrounded us in a meaningful way. As teenagers, we were also moody, and insecure (at least I was), and intelligent. As I look back, I know he was one of the most intelligent and creative people I’ve ever met. He traveled with books and music, even to family gatherings. He was soft spoken, a critical thinker, and funny. I can hear him laughing in my mind.
A good friend of mine who is a physician shares my same vices- coffee and wine- and freely speaks to their effectiveness in controlling or regulating mood. Because they are legal, I think we tend to negate the strong role they may be playing, positive or negative, in how we feel and operate.
My husband says that we are a nation of addicts, and he’s not talking about drugs and alcohol. One can argue that other key elements of the average American lifestyle are equally destructive. Television. Sugar sweetened beverages. Any product meant for consumption whose first ingredient is corn syrup. Anything that cheaply and widely available can’t be good, right?
It’s no wonder so many of us struggle with obesity, mood and energy swings, given the choices that industry – food, tobacco, and entertainment – provides. But the answer to what to do about them remains unclear. More regulation? Less? Increased taxes? Nothing?
I find it interesting that in a society that values freedom of choice, most of us still feel compelled to label things as good or bad. What if we were to decriminalize and regulate products that are so-called bad and consider putting additional constraint around legal products that are so-called good? Millions of people become addicted to cigarettes, booze, and pain medication so often that it’s a regular part of the national conversation, and these same people can get receive treatment, if desired, more or less casually and without consequences. On the other hand, people who use substances recreationally are frequently thrown in jail. This shouldn’t be the solution to problem substance use.
Can we identify adolescents at risk and engage them in a meaningful conversation about drug use? Can we withhold judgment of our peers to choose to control their moods in a way that works for them? Can we support one another without playing a role on the jury?
My friend wasn’t a drug addict, by the way – far from it. He was young and brilliant when he died, and those closest to him could reflect on his contributions in so many ways. But by having an open and honest conversation with him about making mood altering decisions long ago, I find myself re-appreciating his approach to how to consider difference, and how I might do my best work in prevention and public health.
This post is coming to a question mark as I think about how I want to conclude. I don’t want to be a preacher. I don’t always practice good health and prevention, despite the fact it’s my profession. I, too, make choices related to consumption - medical, food, drinking, whatever – that could be criticized. As I remember my dear friend, and think about how I want to arrive in the world this morning, I am humbled. It’s so easy to overlook the complexity of the reasons behind our choices and to critique them rather than try to understand how and why people make the choices they do.
Today I seek to withhold judgment, provide support, and cultivate compassion among those with whom I live and work.
And today, and every day, I miss my friend. May he rest peacefully and his spirit continue to engage my own.
Linking up with Lovelinks # 40.