On February 14, 2016, the moment I received a phone call from an unknown number with a Florida area code, I knew in my heart that this was the one I’d been dreading for five years. Still, I questioned the detective on the line, “Are you sure it’s my son?” My mother’s heart couldn’t accept the news. But a few minutes later, as I began to process it, I knew that I’d fight to try and prevent even one more person from having to hear, “Your child died from an opioid overdose.”
My son, Justin Alexander Solak, died on Valentine’s Day 2016, just a few months shy of his twenty-sixth birthday. Like tens of thousands of others, he overdosed on fentanyl and became another statistic in this country’s worst epidemic. A year later, over seventy thousand people in America died of opioid overdoses (NIDA, 2019).
Opioids have caused this country’s worst epidemic and Justin’s story isn’t unique. His struggle, and our struggle as a family, is repeating itself again and again as the opioid crisis grows. Addiction doesn’t discriminate against gender, race, or class—it’s a problem faced by all of us and it’s about time we eliminate the stigma and begin to address addiction as a disease, not a character flaw.
Justin’s grandfathers and father had their own addiction problems. They were alcoholics, but no one spoke about it. On rare occasions their addictions were discussed in judgmental whispers, citing a lack of self-control and too much self-indulgence.
To help Justin, we did everything “right” as a family. We sought help, we supported him, and we followed the advice of countless professionals. He also tried looking for help himself at sober-living homes and intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), but many of those facilities are poorly regulated and he landed among predators.
These predators used his weakness for their own gain. Justin fell victim to a body-brokering ring—that is, someone would find him coming out of an NA meeting, get him high, and deliver him to a shady rehab. One week later, someone would find him again, get him high again, and deliver him to a shady rehab again. Justin went through this cycle eleven times while a series of unscrupulous rehabs received insurance money, giving a cut to the person who delivered Justin to them before taking a cut themselves. By milking the system, they slowly killed my son.
Body brokering in Florida and California thrives as middle- and upper-class people with insurance try to find help for their loved ones. These facilities must be called out and regulated, and the body brokers prosecuted.
But beyond that, how do we address the larger problem? There is no one-size-fits-all solution. We need different solutions for different misusers. Programs or physicians rigid in their approaches can be threats or turn-offs for many families. Some misusers may benefit from meds, others from abstinence. The extraordinary cost of inpatient and IOP rehab prohibits many from receiving the support they need.
Medical insurance companies and pharmacy companies should invest in helping misusers receive expanded treatment. Physicians should prescribe fewer pills for oral surgery—no one needs a bottle of thirty pills that could sit temptingly on a shelf.
The loved ones, friends, and families of misusers must be cared for because they are also stigmatized. “What did the parents do wrong to have their child turn to drugs?” is the unspoken question. Did my divorce drive Justin to drugs? Did we put him in the wrong school? Did we switch him to another wrong school? I can feel other people asking these questions in their heads, but they haunt me and my whole family too. We cannot help but ask the “what-ifs.” Support and therapy for family and loved ones should be easily available, and not only during the rehabilitation process; support should be ongoing and recognized by insurance companies as a medical need.
To that end, I became a cofounder of the Opioid Center of Support, which I launched to help others avoid experiencing the pain that I suffered by losing Justin to an opioid overdose. We have created an online platform to serve the millions of Americans coping with opioid abuse. The platform is designed to help caregivers—families, friends, classmates, and colleagues—provide informed assistance to loved ones misusing opioids like heroin, fentanyl, and prescription painkillers. The Center “organizes the most trusted resources on opioid misuse in one place online, for the first time” (“The Opioid Center,” 2018).
We intend for the Center to counteract the predatory treatment center ads, densely worded government websites, and scientific jargon dominating search results on opioids. Cofounder Curtis Hougland says,
While the Internet is the first-line of discovery for most people, there’s an alarming lack of evidence-based resources that are helpful. More than 50 percent of opioid-related Google results are from organizations that don’t reveal that they’re commercial. And fewer than 8 percent of resources are intended for those impacted by the opioid misuse of a friend of family member despite the strong evidence of the role of community in recovery” (“The Opioid Center,” 2018).
On the current Opioid Center of Support website is an online data donation platform, through which individuals using or misusing opioids can donate their data for scientific research. We intend—based on successful work in areas such as suicide and depression—to collect baseline data from those challenged by opioid misuse. This baseline could be combined with publicly available data from social media to create an early intervention model, which could be given to responders across the spectrum to help increase their success rate and allow them to be more proactive in assisting those with issues related to opioids.
Most importantly, conversation and discourse about addiction and mental illness needs to continue. We as a nation must invest federal and private funding to provide help. Open lines of communication are key. Conversations and reaching out to those with similar experiences lead to support and sharing options that might work. Our paths may be different, but we all love someone who faces this challenge every single day.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2019). Overdose death rates. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
“The Opioid Center of Support announces free online support center for caregivers fighting the largest drug epidemic in US history.” (2018). Retrieved from https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20180827005357/en/opioid-center-support-announces-free-online-support
Vera Bullock is the assistant dean of advancement and assistant vice president for External Relations at Fordham Law School. She founded the Opioid Center of Support (OCS) following the tragic loss of her son to an overdose of fentanyl. The OCS aids families and friends in helping their loved ones cope with addiction by organizing top resources in one place.