drug addiction


A leaked voicemail Joe Biden left for his son struggling with addiction is deeply moving

'I know you don't know what to do. I don't either. But I'm here…'

"Joe Biden" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Joe Biden left a loving voicemail to his son Hunter in 2018, which Sean Hannity shared on Fox News.

Drug addiction is brutal, both for the person addicted and for their loved ones. Addiction can destroy lives, tear apart families and wreak havoc on communities. Anyone who has dealt with addiction themselves or has tried to help a friend or family member through it knows how hard it can be and how helpless it can feel.

Anger, confusion and frustration are natural responses to the behaviors of a person struggling with addiction. So are love, compassion and empathy when you understand the nature of addiction. Parents of people struggling with substance abuse often feel a constant push and pull between all of those feelings, but at the end of the day, every loving parent just wants their child to be OK.

When Sean Hannity aired a leaked 2018 voicemail message from Joe Biden to his son, Hunter, on his Fox News show, the world got a glimpse of the emotional weight of addiction and the unconditional love of a parent who doesn't know how to help their child stuck in the throes of addiction.

In the voicemail, which was obtained by the Daily Mail, we hear an emotional Biden telling his son that he loved him, that he needed to get help and that he was there for him.

"It's Dad. I called to tell you I love you. I love you more than the whole world, pal. You gotta get some help. I know you don't know what to do. I don't either. But I'm here, no matter what you need … I love you."

Hannity called the voicemail "sad," and then tried to use it to make Biden look bad. “Now that voicemail reportedly came at the exact same time Hunter lied on a gun application to buy a handgun,” he said.

However, rather than seeing it as damning, people reacted to the recording with overwhelming support. Those who have struggled with addiction, and those who have loved ones who have, simply saw a concerned father reaching out to a struggling son with compassion and love.

For instance, former NBA star Rex Chapman, who went through a very public struggle with opioid addiction, wrote on Twitter, "As a recovering drug addict I can’t tell you how mean spirited this feels … They’re exploiting a dad’s love for his son who’s troubled. Wow. I guess no one at Fox News knows any of these opioid addicts across the country."

Chapman pointed out that the Biden family has endured unfathomable tragedy, with Hunter Biden losing his mom and sister in a car accident and losing his brother to brain cancer.

"The fact of the matter is that many addicts have family members who can’t or won’t say these words to them. Who only judge. Hunter is very lucky to have a dad like this," he shared. "If only every addict were so lucky…"

Actor and journalist Ben Dreyfuss shared that he'd gotten calls like this from his family when he was struggling with drugs and mental health issues and that the audio made him want to cry. "Joe Biden seems like a really good dad?" he wrote.

The bafflement at how this voicemail could possibly make Biden look bad came from across the political spectrum. Conservative commentator Bill Kristol simply wrote, "The fact that Fox News thinks this reflects badly on Joe Biden says it all."

And conservative writer Megan Basham of The Daily Wire wrote, "This is nothing to sneer at. It's been quite a number of years, but I've been on the receiving end of calls like this from my parents. Praying today for Hunter's salvation."

Surveys have shown that about half of American families report being touched by addiction, and addiction doesn't discriminate between political parties or points of view. What reactions to this voicemail show is that a father reaching out to his drug-addicted child with a message of concern and unconditional love is heart-wrenching, but also relatable for so many people.

There are healthy and unhealthy ways to love a person through addiction, but it's important for every human being to know that they are loved and that their loved ones are going to be there for them, no matter what struggles they face.

This message from Biden to his son should have remained private. But since it's out there, let's acknowledge it for the beautiful example of parental love that it is.

Jess Keefe didn't know her brother Matt had a drug problem until he was rushed to the hospital in 2011.

His hand was swelling up, he was in pain, and no one knew what it was. After days of tests and close watching, Matt was diagnosed with an infection caused by intravenous drug use. A brain scan revealed the culprit: heroin.

"He was very much in denial," Jess explains. "He didn’t want to acknowledge what was happening and was very resistant to treatment of any kind."

Matt Keefe. Photo courtesy of Jess Keefe.

In the coming weeks, Jess and her family tried as hard as they could to get Matt into a recovery center but to no avail. None of the detox and rehab centers in their area had space for him. Matt was sent home to his parents with a firm verbal prescription: Stop doing drugs.

Tragically, it didn't work. Matt recovered temporarily, but eventually started using again and died of an overdose on Oct. 5, 2015, at the age of 26.

Despite the fact that drug addiction affects tens of millions of Americans every year, treatment for it is remarkably hard to come by.

More than 100 Americans die from drug overdoses every day, making it the number one cause of accidental death in the United States — more than car accidents and gun deaths, according to CDC reports. Overdoses from opiates like heroin and prescription painkillers have quadrupled since 1999.

This neighborhood in Staten Island has a high rate of heroin use. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Despite those high numbers, only about 10% of people with substance abuse disorders receive specialty treatment for their addictions.

Filling the enormous gap between the necessity and availability of treatment requires a massive overhaul of our medical, educational, and criminal justice systems. The first step, though, is the same one that people have to take when they enter addiction recovery: We have to acknowledge that we have a problem.

In a new landmark report, Vivek Murthy became the first U.S. surgeon general to call America's addiction problem what it is: a public health crisis.

The report, released in November 2016, urges a paradigm shift in the way we think of and treat addiction. In it, Murthy calls on the United States to stop thinking of substance abuse as a "moral failing" and approach it instead it as a brain disease that is identifiable, preventable, and treatable.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaking with President Obama in 2015. Photo by Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images.

"We must help everyone see that addiction is not a character flaw," the report says. "It is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes, and cancer."

Jess Keefe, who now works as an editor for Shatterproof, an addiction-focused nonprofit, says she is "thrilled" by the report, which was released a little over a year after her brother's overdose. "I can’t emphasize enough how exciting that is to people who are affected by this disease personally, and people who work in the sort of space that I do."

Addiction in America has reached critical mass, and it's taken decades to fully acknowledge it. So what's been holding us back?

People don't die from addiction, Jess says. They die from shame. "That's the thing that really kills people. They feel like they can’t reach out or get resources when they need them because its something that's driven into the dark corners."

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

Jess' brother, Matt, for example, hid his addiction from his family until it landed him in the emergency room. Even after, he continued hiding it, holding down a nine-to-five job all the way until the day he died.

Human beings have a long history of stigmatizing diseases we don't fully understand — from leprosy, to cancer, to AIDS in the 1980s. The results of that stigma can be devastating and far-reaching, especially when it persists for generations. Stigma and shame are what keep people with addictions from coming forward to seek help and why doctors and recovery systems can be unprepared to handle those patients when they do.

Until the systems are fixed, until the stigma is addressed, people like Matt will continue to feel discouraged from asking for help, and people will continue to die.

Like any massive problem, solving America's addiction crisis will require a lot of time and dedication, but Murthy has taken a major step forward.

The surgeon general is the highest ranking doctor in the United States, and his acknowledgement of addiction as a public health epidemic will no doubt lead to the medical community having more of the resources and training necessary to fight it

Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images.

The surgeon general's report, however, is just the beginning. The rest of the fight is largely up to us.

Our part in destigmatizing addiction begins with the words we use, says Jess. Instead of calling someone an "addict," for example, which can carry harmful connotations, we can say "person with addiction" or "person with a substance abuse disorder." That small shift in language helps recontextualize addiction as a disease that a person has, rather than their unshakable identity.

When someone stops doing drugs, calling them "clean" carries an implication that the alternative is dirty. "If someone's not using, they’re 'in recovery,'" suggests Jess. "Stuff like that actually has a big impact on how society perceives people with these problems and also how people with these problems perceive themselves."

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

The real battle is the one that needs to happen in our minds and in our hearts. Chances are we all know someone, or will know someone, who will face a substance abuse disorder. Thinking of that individual not as someone who's made terrible judgements but as someone with a treatable disease of the brain will help us all provide support and empathy for people in need.

Treating addiction with compassion instead of judgment isn't just the right thing to do; it could be life-saving.

On Wednesday, April 27, Officer Drew Fowler rode his bike over Pike Street's rainbow-colored crosswalk and started pedaling back up toward the precinct.

Fowler is a tall, broad-shouldered man. Every day, he rides around Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood on his bicycle, as part of the Seattle Police Department.

On this particular day, it was the middle of the afternoon. Fowler and his partner, Officer Chris Myers, were ready to finish up their shifts and head in.

But as they started pedaling up Pike Street, something caught Fowler's eye. On the other side of the street were three men, sheltered in the covered stoop of a dusty, abandoned music store. They were all sitting down, but something didn't seem right with one of them.

All illustrations by Kitty Curran.

"There's no good way to explain why we were alerted," said Officer Fowler. "It was just that instinctual. The way he was laying, it was very unnatural."

In fact, the man was lying on his side, back twisted, legs splayed out on the sidewalk.

Fowler and Myers stopped, still balanced on their bikes on the other side of the street, and called out to the men: Is he OK?

The officers had to shout over the noise of traffic. The man's friends seemed out of it, but one of them vaguely waved his hand, as if to say come here, come here.

Fowler and Myers rode across and stepped into the doorway. The man wasn't just lying down. He was unconscious. Foam had settled around his mouth and he wasn't breathing. Fowler recognized the signs. Theman appeared to have overdosed on some sort of opioid. If something wasn't done, he was probably going to die.

Opioid abuse is not unique to Seattle.

"Our nation is in the midst of an unprecedented opioid epidemic," starts a fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

It's estimated that about 2.5 million Americans are addicted to either heroin or prescription opioids. Overdoses have more than quadrupled since 1999. In King County alone, 229 people died of opiate overdoses last year.

King County is where Seattle is located, and county officials are determined to bring that number to zero — which is where Officers Myers and Fowler come in.

As Fowler leaned over the man, Officer Myers darted to his bag and pulled out a small syringe.

The precinct had given the syringes to all of Seattle's bike officers not even a month earlier, as part of a pilot program with the University of Washington and The Marah Project. The syringe was full of naloxone, a powerful medicine that can essentially hit the undo button on an opiate overdose. Opioids kill by latching on to the part of a person's brain that controls breathing, and naloxone fixes that.

Myers screwed on a plastic applicator tip and shoved the syringe up the unconscious man's nose. He pushed the plunger once, sending a spray of the medicine up into the man's sinuses where it would be absorbed straight into the bloodstream. He switched to the other nostril and pushed the plunger again.

Then, Myers and Fowler waited.

Naloxone isn't a new drug, but giving it to cops is a new idea.

Hospitals and medics have used naloxone to save lives since the 1960s, but for a long time, that was pretty much the only place you could get it.

Starting in 2001, however, states started making it easier for people everywhere to get a hold of it, and soon enough, police departments were interested. In 2010, the Quincy Police Department in Massachusetts became the country's first police department to equip all of its officers with naloxone.

Cops don't have the advanced training or equipment that medics do, but they do have one big advantage: speed. Cops patrol neighborhoods. Firefighters and medics don't. This means cops can get to a call quicker. They can also keep an eye out for public overdoses, like Fowler and Myers did. Medics still follow up, of course, but by equipping cops, cities can get someone help much sooner.

And seconds count when someone isn't breathing.

Within 30 seconds, Fowler and Myers' man started breathing again.

Deep within his brain, the naloxone went to work. Nerve signals started to flow again. Breathing signs reappeared. Color started to slowly return to the man's face. Within two minutes, he had opened his eyes. Within five minutes, he was sitting up and talking.

"It would be overly dramatic to say 'coming back from the dead,'" said Fowler. But the comparison is not without precedent. Either way, it's a "pretty impressive thing to watch over the span of 10 minutes," said Fowler.

Medics arrived to give the man a more thorough once-over. One shot is often enough, though sometimes patients need an extra dose or additional care. This man didn't. Within about 10 minutes of Fowler and Myers' first inkling that something was wrong, the man had completely recovered.

Saving lives is important, but if we want to defeat this epidemic, we'll need to address the root causes of it as well.

Much of the recent rise in opioid addiction has been fueled not by heroin, but by the rising availability of prescription painkillers. Prescription opioids used to be prescribed very narrowly and kind of as a last resort, but since 1999, the number of prescriptions has increased four-fold.

This is a problem because opioids can be incredibly addictive. Even people using them for legitimate pain relief — such as after a surgery — can end up addicted. In fact, the majority of people who end up using heroin turn to it because of a pre-existing addiction to prescription drugs.

There are also problems with how we treat addiction and the laws surrounding addiction as well. That can be frustrating to some people and officers, who may see naloxone as enabling an addiction or as just a stopgap solution.

Luckily, King County has been thinking about these problems too.

Washington is one of many states that has Good Samaritan laws, which provide some legal immunity to people who report an overdose. But they're not just dealing with this from a legal viewpoint. Seattle already diverts many low-level drug offenses away from prison and into community-based services or drug court.

"This is a social issue; it needs a social solution," said Seattle Police Department Sergeant Sean Whitcomb.

They've even put together an opioid addiction task force.

The mayors of Seattle, Auburn, and Renton commissioned the task force in March 2016 and have already put together a suite of recommendations. The naloxone program was actually one of their recommendations.

King County also wants to do things like institute prescription drug take-backs, remove barriers to anti-addiction therapies, and combine drug treatments with mental health and other care services. They want to set up safe-injection sites — an idea that's attracted a lot of controversy but has been working in Europe since 1988. The task force is also well aware that current War on Drugs policies have disproportionately hit communities of color and that it's important that they not replicate those mistakes.

Taken together, these recommendations would stop overdoses, get users help, and prevent new addictions in the first place.

Back at the doorway, Fowler and Myers' man was eventually able to get up and walk away under his own power.

As of this writing, the Seattle police have performed a total of 13 of these rescues — the latest on Oct. 20, 2016. Fowler and Myers were involved in another one of these rescues as well.

"I've heard [naloxone] referred to as, like, a miracle drug," said Fowler, "and that might be a bit strong, but — right place, right time, right people — it's a great confluence."

The data about these saves is being given over to scientists at the University of Washington, who will assess the efficacy of the program. But for the cops themselves, using the drug seems to be an easy decision. The training is simple and the drug itself is cheap and lightweight. Sergeant Whitcomb said there's been essentially no pushback in Seattle. Everyone seems keen on it.

In the end, all of this is about saving lives, which is a clear win for everyone.

"So much of police work exists in the gray area," said Fowler. You're doing the right thing, but it might not be easy and it may look different to different people. But this new program doesn't feel gray, according to Fowler.

"Getting the opportunity to do something so simple, but so impactful as saving a life, it's a good moment for a police officer."


Scientists just made a wild discovery: Addiction has genetic markers.

A cure for addiction might be found using, of all things, cocaine and rats.

Any elementary schooler who's completed a D.A.R.E. program can tell you about the dangers of addiction.

Remember this? Yep. Me too. Photo via U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons.

Far more difficult to explain, however, is how addiction can be passed from generation to generation.

We sometimes use labels like "addictive personality" for people who are born with what seems like a tendency toward addiction ... but do we know exactly which parts of the brain these addictive tendencies stem from? And if we did, would we then be able to prevent addiction before it ever became an issue?

Thanks to an all-star team of researchers, the answer to both of these questions seems to be "yes."

Researchers think we might be able to prevent addiction before it starts.

How did they come to this conclusion? With rats. Cocaine-addicted rats.

Photo via iStock.

Researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Alabama at Birmingham published a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal in April 2016, claiming that they found certain genetic differences in rats who are susceptible to addiction.

Image by PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay.

According to the study's lead author, Shelly B. Flagel, addiction can be linked to two basic genes: fibroblast growth factor and dopamine D2 receptor.

“If [the rats] have certain low versus high levels of one of these molecules, then they can be a candidate for treatment to prevent addiction in the first place. Or, if we know that they’re an addict, to prevent relapse," said Flagel to Inverse.

As dreadful as it may sound, humans and rats are almost identical on a genetic level.

Photo via iStock.

So even though this link was only found in rats, there's a strong chance that the link could be present in humans too.

The Human Genome Project explains that "the rat genome contains about the same number of genes as the human genome ... and almost all human genes known to be associated with diseases have counterparts in the rat genome and appear highly conserved through mammalian evolution, confirming that the rat is an excellent model for many areas of medical research."

Once we know for sure what these "addiction genes" look like in rats, eventually we might be able to identify those genes in humans.

Someday, we might even be able to identify these "addiction precursors" in humans with something as simple as a blood or saliva test.

Basically, this research on cocaine-addicted rats could help us prevent addiction in humans before it becomes an issue.

“That’s one benefit of this study — that we were able to look at essentially genetically similar animals, and say, this is what their brains look like before they’ve been exposed to cocaine, and then this is what they look like after they’ve gone through this prolonged self-administration paradigm and develop or exhibit these addiction-like behaviors,” said Flagel.

“It’s just providing further evidence that this is clearly a key molecule."

So in the fight to stop addiction, it seems that a useful resource is...

GIF via "Review."

Oh, the irony. Science is truly an amazing, confusing, wonderful thing.