A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
It has been five years since I first wrote of the odious creep of heroin into the lives of our suburban youth. An article in the October 20 edition of the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel, and the tragic yet heroic story it details, has again placed this horrific issue front and center on the menu of our social concerns.
Joseph Stalin once acidly responded to an American journalist's query about genocide with the scathing but insightful comment, "a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic". Similarly, the ever increasing headlines of heroin use, addiction, and overdoses are sadly becoming a statistic, our reeling minds and tired eyes all but unable to bring the context of personalization to these horrific stories. But in the story of State Representative John Nygren, and his beloved daughter Cassie, we see the individual tragedy and the heinous disintegration caused by this drug's use.
When I was young I ran with a pretty fast crowd. We ran fast and hard, and to our shame, we ran for the worst of reasons. We ran because it was fun, and because we thought we were entitled to that fun. We cared not a fig for our own welfare, nor the welfare of people who loved us. I was able to leave the race, and it remains one my greatest blessings that I was able to walk away without lasting damage to myself, and more importantly, to any one else. Others I knew kept running straight to their ruin. Today we may all know people who have lost children, leaving hearts mangled and marred by this modern blight.
Representative Nygren has not lost his daughter to death, but he has lost the girl he knew. Once a vivacious and luminous young lady, she is now a prison wraith, shrunken and hollowed by the ravages of the drug that has taken over her life. Her courageous sharing of her story, and her father's efforts to use his office to prevent others from walking that particular road to hell is a profile in courage, and an illustration of the grace of redemptive effort committed to a noble cause.
Readers of this column and people who know me know that I am a huge fan of rock music of the late 1960's and 70's. Such music was replete with lyrics and imagery of drug use, and the rock 'n roll scene of that era was littered with those who fell: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Duane Allman, Danny Whitten, and Graham Parsons to name just a few. And while there were hundreds of songs that dealt with such topics, I think the best of them was Heroin, by Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. The song needs a few listenings for its impact to settle; its opening chords, shrouded and brooding, pull you in slowly. And the discordant, fractured viola later in the track speak to Reed's personal dance with that devil.
I've always thought that Reed (who passed away just a week ago) was as much a poet as a musician, and this lesser known song speaks with searingly penetrating lyrics, one line of which proclaims:
Cuz when I'm rushin on my run,
And I feel just like Jesus' son.........
I obviously don't know the circumstances of his song writing. But in my mind's eye I see him alone with an accoustic guitar, in a shade-drawn, darkened room. Lingering somewhere between the "rush" of the high, where mental and physical capacity seems Olympian, and the cellar-dwelling lethargy of the "down", when physical existence seems unendurable, he captured the essence of what this drug was in his life.
Cause it makes me feel like I'm a man.
When I put a spike into my veins..........
In my youth heroin was not a drug of choice; it was a word, an image, the exclusive playground of tortured artists, urban blues club performers, and the aforementioned rock stars. The suggestion that it might be a siren call beckoning the teenagers of Milwaukee's North Shore and western suburbs would have dumbfounded us. But headlines remind us that opiate derivatives, prescription drugs, and heroin are here - right here amongst the shaded boulevards of Barker, Calhoun, and Watertown Plank. These drugs are being dealt, purchased, and used in our community.
Most teenagers and young adults enter this labyrinth via the front door of prescription drugs. On the surface, they are more innocuous, and kids who wouldn't think of "spiking their veins", casually swallow an oxycodone, perhaps first hastily proferred in a parking lot, or at a party. It's too LATE at that juncture for them to consider the dilemma, and snared in the crucible of uncertainty, ignorance, and peer pressure, too many give the wrong response. Kids need to be prepared to answer this question long before they ever find themselves in that circumstance; they need the answer right in their pocket, to be quickly delivered at that crucial juncture.
If it is not so ready, too often unfolds the tragic progression..........When asked once why he took heroin, Rolling Stone Keith Richards replied with his signature, savage honesty, "because I liked it". And having felt the overwhelming juice of their first "run", many kids understandably want more. And in their wretched search for the next "glimmer", some turn to heroin, as it is less expensive and more available than the more acceptable prescription alternatives. In a very short while they are hooked, addicted, and all but consumed. And then, as Richards again recalls, "it doesn't matter what you want to do, or what you should do. All that matters is, how am I gonna score some junk today"?
There is no better weapon in the war against illicit drug use than the watchful eyes of parents who are ready to insert themselves into the lives of their kids, and willing to assert their authority over those same lives. But while this is the best anecdote, there are many other weapons to deploy in this war. Organizations like The Addiction Research Council and Your Choice Program are agencies that offer help to our community and our families in the fight against the evil that is teenage drug use. People like Brookfield resident Sarah Nielsen and her courageous efforts on behalf of the Your Choice Program, are out there, laying their time and their resources on the line to help reach at risk kids, hopefully BEFORE they take that first step. A few years ago I introduced Sarah, and the Your Choice Program to a capacity crowd in the Brookfield East High School cafeteria, I remember how encouraging it was to see Moms and Dads there with Middle School aged students. That's the age to start engaging youth on these harsh realities, and having the difficult conversations with them. Another excellent local program is the Elmbrook Health Coaltion, which amongst many health and wellness objectives, does excellent work in this area.
So whether you want to call such people and such organizations part of "a village", or one of "a thousand points of light", can we agree to the seriousness of this situation, and to the reality that they are doing some great work?
Let's follow the story of State Representative John Nygren. And let's join hands across whatever political aisles might divide us, and wish the legislator and his daughter all the success they can muster.
Most of all, let's borrow from the example of Cassie Nygren's courage and be willing to talk to our children and grand children about this stuff. It's out there - and we can't turn back that particular clock. But what we CAN do is make sure they are as prepared and equipped and ready as possible to face this menace.
There's a lot at stake.