Point of View

Let NC lead the way on treating addicts

August 29, 2013 

Charlie Kochersberger

Until a few days ago, I could not imagine agreeing with Gov. Pat McCrory on anything. I mean, if he said the ocean was salty, I’d check it out. But I have found some common ground.

When the state budget was being debated earlier in the summer, senators wanted to shut down North Carolina’s three addiction treatment centers, in Greenville, Black Mountain and Butner, saying that addicts could get adequate care in private facilities or hospitals near their homes.

The senators who supported closing the centers clearly knew nothing about addiction or its treatment. Their proposal was mean-spirited and ignorant. What they suggest echoes the deinstitutionalization of the Reagan years that abused the mentally ill and left many on the streets. It just did not work, nor will turning addicts away from the minimal state treatment options they have in North Carolina.

The governor, to his credit, disagreed and proposed no cuts at all to the centers. He added that addiction treatment was a personal priority for him. I don’t have anything like a governor’s clout, but addiction treatment is a personal priority for me, too.

My son, Charlie, was a heroin addict. He took his own life six years ago at age 28, after three years of fruitless struggle against his addiction. My wife, daughter and I are no longer inconsolable, but we grieve him every single day and are different people from those we used to be.

We saw at calamitous firsthand how addiction can destroy a person and a family, and we know that it is not some moral failing. If Nancy Reagan had an ounce of influence when she pointlessly advised, “Just say no,” the country would not have the drug problems it suffers today. She meant well, but she just did not understand.

Some 4.2 million Americans have tried heroin at some point, and perhaps 1 million might be hard-core addicts today. The numbers are hard to pin down – as many as 10 percent of Americans over the age of 12 are addicted to something – but they are devastating. The vast array of addictive substances, both legal and illegal, further elevates the urgency of a smart and humane response to addiction. The state should expand, not close, treatment facilities.

When I am about halfway through the semester at N.C. State, where I teach, and I feel that I have bonded with my students, I take a moment to tell them about Charlie. I do this not to try to evoke sympathy but because I want them to see that a person as ordinary as I am can experience this kind of trauma and loss.

Every time I have done this, students have approached me after class to tell me about their mother or girlfriend or uncle or sister or friend. Addiction is everywhere, and suicide is not uncommon. My goal is to encourage the students not to stand idly by but to get involved. It is better to risk a friendship than to ignore the signs, do nothing and suffer a terrible loss.

The wise and gifted author David Sheff, author of “Beautiful Boy,” the story of his own addicted son, has written a new book, “Clean.” He argues – and I completely agree – that addiction is a chronic illness, like cancer or diabetes and, like them, can be treated and overcome. The members of the N.C. Senate who want to shut addiction treatment centers should put this book on their bedside stands and read it carefully. Maybe they will come to their senses.

Treatment for drug addiction is time-consuming and costly. We threw tens of thousands of dollars at our son’s addiction, but the three 28-day programs he tried were ineffective. He broke rules and was expelled from two of them, and he relapsed days after the third.

The only thing that kept Charlie clean was being incarcerated. He was behind bars for 10 months after pleading guilty to robbery (heroin is costly), and when he got out, clear-eyed and fit, it was the best he had looked in years. Alas, he succumbed months later to the irresistible drumbeat of the drug and returned to his dealer in Durham. It was all downhill from there.

I do not advocate locking up addicts, but I do think that regimented, long-term residential treatment, coupled with talk therapy and possibly the pharmaceuticals that help treat addiction, is the only way to go. It is expensive, but in the long run this would be a fruitful investment for North Carolina.

Charlie was handsome, funny, smart and musical. There is no telling what he might have accomplished. The state must not risk losing more like him, so instead of making further cuts, North Carolina, led by Pat McCrory, should expand funding and become a leader in addiction treatment.

Bob Kochersberger, who teaches journalism at N.C. State University, is working on a book about his life with Charlie. He can be reached at bobkochs@gmail.com.

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