Death By Addiction

Death By Addiction

Death is, of course, a morbid subject to discuss.  Most people do not want to die.  We have a fear of death.  This is a healthy fear.  Early on in life, we learn to avoid things that cause death.  We learn to avoid walking into traffic, eating or drinking poison, confronting dangerous animals, playing recklessly with guns.  Death by addiction is a subject that is almost never discussed.

During residency, I spent some time at the Medical Examiner Department in Miami-Dade County.  I had the opportunity to observe the medical examiners working.  Their job is to examine the bodies of people who have died recently.  During my stay, I was given a brief lecture by one of the doctors who worked as a medical examiner.  He explained to me how important it is that doctors document an accurate cause of death on death certificates.  For example, if a person died because their heart failed, putting “heart failure” on the death certificate may be incorrect.  He told me that it may be a mechanism of death, but not the cause.  If that person had heart disease because of many years of diabetes, for example, the correct cause of death would be diabetes.  The medical examiner further explained to me that we, as doctors, must determine the root cause of death.

Why do people who don’t want to die take deadly poison?

Most people who find themselves addicted to drugs are as afraid of death as anyone.  It might not make sense to people who do not have personal experience in being addicted.  Why would someone take poison if they don’t want to die?  It is one of the reasons why members of the NA program call the disease of addiction “cunning and baffling”.  The reason has to do with changes to the chemistry and structure of the brain caused by ongoing use of certain highly addictive drugs.  A person who is addicted does not want to die or expect to die when they take drugs.  Their brains have been reprogrammed to believe that they need to take drugs in order to survive.

This powerful force in the brain of an addicted person drives them to take dangerous drugs, which others would consider to be deadly poison.

The addicted brain cleverly justifies that the use of drugs is important and can be done safely.  Drug users will take deadly amounts of drugs and suffer near death overdoses and still believe that they can continue to survive and take drugs.  They believe they have the same chance of living a long and healthy life as anyone.

There is an unsettling movie written by M. Night Shyamalan named The Happening.  In this movie, people are mysteriously driven to kill themselves as soon as possible by whatever means necessary.  They jump from buildings, use nearby weapons, crash their cars.  The cause of these mass suicides in the story is a substance in the air, carried by the wind.  To me, this seemed like a metaphor for addiction.  The characters seemed compelled to bring about their death, like they were scratching an itch.

Thinking about addiction as a major cause of death may be helpful to motivate you to stop taking drugs.

Opioid drug overdoses are usually called accidental overdoses.  This is commonly heard in the news.  While it is somewhat correct in the sense that the victim did not intend to die by using opioids, such as heroin or pain pills, it still avoids naming the root cause of death.

Most accidental drug overdoses are caused by addiction.

I believe that my mentor at the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Department would have agreed that addiction is most often the root cause of death in drug overdoses, not “accidental overdose”.  Addiction is a cause of death in many more cases than we are aware of and admit to.  Obituaries avoid the subject as well.  Families believe they are being respectful by not discussing the addiction issue in their loved one’s obituaries.  Addiction is a taboo subject and carries a stigma.  Addiction causes traffic deaths, infectious disease deaths, cardiopulmonary related deaths and many more.  The problem is that addiction as a cause of death is being swept under the rug.

There was an excellent speaker and writer on the topic of addiction who was a member of the Narcotics Anonymous program.  Legend has it that he wrote much of the NA Basic Text as it exists today.  His name was Greg P.  NA tradition is to not give full names in order to protect anonymity.  Greg has since passed away, I believe from liver cancer.  In 1988, Greg gave a talk at an NA convention in which he briefly, at one point, spoke about “death by addiction”.  It is one of the few times in my life when I have heard of addiction being called a cause of death.  You can find the recording online here.  That site has many other motivating recordings by speakers who are recovering from the deadly disease of addiction.

You may use drugs and believe that you are still young and healthy. 

You may believe that you will soon quit and still have a long life ahead of you.  Do you think that you will be one of the people who gets away with it?  Maybe you imagine someday telling your grandchildren stories about your adventures.  When you look in the mirror, you cannot see that addiction is as deadly as any terminal illness.  It is as serious as metastatic cancer.  It is as serious as a massive heart attack.  Addiction kills people and they don’t see it coming.

No one who is addicted to opioids intends to die when they use drugs. 

Opioids, such as heroin and pain pills, are the deadliest drugs in common use.  They cause respiratory depression.  If you take a little too much, you may fall asleep, stop breathing and never wake up again.  opioids can also cause death by other means.  They can lead to endocarditis, an infection of the lining of the heart and the heart valves.  They can cause liver damage.  Opioids can cause unsafe behavior, leading to deadly traffic accidents or contraction of deadly infectious diseases.

We may know people who have died from opioid use and we did not even know that addiction was the cause of death.  Maybe it would be a good thing to discuss addiction as a cause of death in eulogies and obituaries.  It might help other people who need to know how serious their condition really is.

You can get help for opioid addiction.

If you are addicted, or dependent, on opioids, including heroin or pain pills, there is medical treatment that can help you to quit taking these deadly drugs.  This form of medical therapy is life saving for many people.  It prevents deadly overdoses and dangerous activities related to using street drugs and unprescribed pills.

If you would like more information on medical treatment for opioid dependence, please call Mark Leeds, D.O.  Dr. Leeds is an osteopathic physician who can discuss options with you and provide medical treatment to help you quit taking deadly opioids.  You can reach Dr. Leeds at 954-776-6226.

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