Meeting U.S. Surgeon General and learning what I can do about addiction
On Monday, I met U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.
It was not our first encounter. I had listened to him address journalists and medics at a health conference in Cleveland a few days before I came to Oklahoma last month.
This time it was different.
He walked toward me in his crisp uniform, stood before me and shook my hand. I introduced myself and said I am a journalist from Kenya. He nodded and said:
“Welcome to America.”
It was a brief encounter. However, this is not about that moment, but rather the things that happened before the handshake.
Before I get into that — about the defining moments — perhaps I should transport you to Nairobi, Kenya.
The year was 2009. I was in my second year of college, a shy village girl who had found herself in the heart of the fast-paced tempo of Nairobi.
We had just finished our end-of-semester examination and were getting ready to travel home for holiday.
On this particular day, my roommate was busy powdering her face in front of a broken mirror. She would occasionally squint to see if she had drawn the arch of her eyebrow right, because it was a year when dark brows defined fashion.
The smell of her cheap perfume lingered all over our tiny room.
I was in jeans and a pink shirt that my boyfriend Simon bought me. Lips smeared with red lipstick. We were preparing to go to a nightclub where we had been informed "things will be going down."
I was anxious and excited. My roommate splashed her pungent perfume on me and we stepped out. The nightclub was located at a dead end of the campus hostels.
Girls dressed in short skimpy skirts were scattered around the club. Inside, a kaleidoscope of color burst from the disco bulbs, and people danced in frenzy, as is typical of Nairobi nightclubs.
The speakers boomed.
We walked to the counter and ordered drinks. I got a cold Tusker lager. My first alcoholic drink!
I poured it in a plastic tumbler and watched the froth rise. Then I took a swig and tried not to spit it out.
It tasted horrible, but I wanted to fit in.
The music got louder.
We danced and drank beer.
One of the boys reached for his pocket, removed a yellow pill and put it on his tongue.
“What’s that?” his friend asked.
He laughed, stuck out his tongue, and there it was. The pill — balancing delicately on his pale tongue. He curled his tongue playfully, swallowed it, and smiled.
The music got louder and the tumblers on the table rattled.
His friend stretched out his hand, asking for a pill. He reached into his front pocket and slid him one. His friend threw it at the back of his throat without even looking at it.
As the night progressed, he kept giving pills to random people. They seemed to know he had them.
One of my classmates took two.
“They make you high, so you don’t have to spend too much on alcohol,” she said before jumping to the dance floor.
She was so intoxicated.
When the clock chimed 3 a.m., my roommate and I hopped on a motorcycle, commonly known as boda boda, and headed home.
My roommate let out a howl as the motorcycle sped dangerously on the rough road.
“It was fun, wasn’t it?” she asked when we stopped.
I have to confess, it really was. What I didn’t know was that, at the club, I had experienced people using prescription drugs to get high. Before then, I didn’t even know it was a "thing."
Years later, I entered the journalism world and realized that not only is it a thing, but it is a thing that has crept into many families and is consuming them bit by bit.
Surgeon General Murthy was in Oklahoma to talk on the subject of opioid addiction, dependence on prescription meds and what can be done curb the addiction.
He talked about how the epidemic has sneaked into families and is causing so much destruction, not only to the people using the drugs, but the families who watch the addicts lose themselves piece by piece.
“It does not discriminate on age, social class or race,” he said while addressing health professionals at the Samis Education Center.
I wanted to stand and shout: “It doesn’t discriminate continents either. It permeates every strata, border and barrier. I have seen it in Africa, too!”
Since I have decorum, I sat still and listened to the damning figures. He mentioned that since 1999, the number of people dying from prescription meds has almost quadrupled. It is rising. People don’t want to acknowledge it. We think it cannot happen to us or those close to us, but it is happening.
It’s happening to a random neighbor, a distant cousin, a famous musician, a Facebook friend — anyone.
I thought about a young man I covered in coastal Kenya. He was addicted to prescription meds and heroin. He was so wasted. He didn’t even know where he was.
He was at his mother’s house, lying on a papyrus mat in the darkness of their small hut. He was shivering, despite the scorching sun outside.
“I just want him to bathe. He hasn’t washed himself for so long,” his aging mother said in flawless Swahili, common with coastal inhabitants.
He tried to stand, but fell back to his mat almost immediately. And oh! The stench. His body was riddled with wounds and scars, some peeping through his old shirt.
He was like a walking braille, that if you ran your hands through his entire body, you would be able to read and summarize the lives addicts live if intervention is not done on time.
They are in a world of their own, where fear, urgency and reality are unheard of.
You know what the most painful part was?
Watching his mother trying to lift him when his knees could not support him, and how he fell into a helpless heap when his mother could not support his weight.
The symbolism was real:
The people who have to lift those who are battling these issues, and the feeling of helplessness they get when things scatter into millions of pieces.
The people who have to pick up the pieces from the ruins of addiction, and some do it over and over.
The parents of the addicts, children who watch their parents disintegrate, families that get interrupted.
That is what Murthy was talking about — how society is always so harsh on people battling addiction. They blame them, forgetting that they are sick people who need help.
I am not innocent. The temptation to ask: “How did they get themselves there? They should find their way out" ... can get too strong.
“They are not well. They are in a different state of mind,” said Commissioner Terri White, of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, who was also at the meeting Monday.
Murthy visited a treatment center.
I was there when he did.
I was also there when a mother who lost her 22-year-old son talked about the pain of losing a young, vibrant life to overdose.
“He follows me everywhere. Austin is always in my heart,” Gail Box said as she prepares for the fifth anniversary of the loss of her son.
Her voice shook as she struggled to fight her tears. The broken sentences as she tried to find the words that were frozen inside her cut through me like a sword. Her husband, Craig, held her hand.
It seemed like everyone in the room momentarily held their breath.
Gail, forming words to describe the emptiness of loss that comes with burying a child, could have been my mother.
Or your mother.
Addiction has no formula. It does not come singing. It sneaks and steals. All it needs is to find a vulnerable person.
The best that can be done is to have a collective responsibility and direct those who are struggling within the clasp of addiction to seek support.
That is what I gathered from the surgeon general.
That, and the fact that he has a strong handshake. An African handshake.
OK, I am obsessing. I will stop.
But before I stop, maybe I should quote 31-year-old Justin Zagaruyka, who is recovering from over 10 years of addiction.
He said: “Nobody can force you to seek treatment. You have to find it within yourself to stop. The greatest thing is to find those who will assist you and not put you down when you make that decision.”
All of us have a part to play — those of us struggling with addiction, and those of us who know someone who is trying to stop.