On a June day in the summer of 2014, my family and I went on a road trip to Kentucky. This wasn’t your average road trip. In fact, this was the day that I found out my sister, Lizzie, was a heroin addict. It was the worst day that I have ever experienced and it completely changed my life.
Drug addiction was a fairly foreign and unfamiliar subject to me during this time. Coming from a middle-class, suburban household, it was practically unheard of. I had no sympathy for addiction, but also had hardly any knowledge of it. I was so embarrassed and ashamed of Lizzie that I never spoke of her problem and kept it a secret from my friends and acquaintances. People, including myself at one time, typically view heroin addicts as “violent thieves” and “dirty junkies”. I was afraid that people would make those assumptions about my sister if they knew.
I wanted so desperately to understand Lizzie. It did not make sense to me. She grew up with two loving parents who took her to the most beautiful places in the world, gave her their undivided attention and taught her such valuable lessons in life. Something that I learned while trying to grasp Lizzie’s situation was that there are no exceptions to addiction. It can affect anyone and everyone.
The American Medical Association defines addiction as a disease and that it is caused by environmental, biological, and behavioral factors. Substances that are addictive cause the neural pathways in the brain to release high levels of dopamine, which is also known as the brain’s pleasure chemical. Continued use of these substances eventually cause changes to the system in the brain that are involved with pleasure, memory, and ambition. When the brain has acclimated to the drugs, it makes people rely on the substances to feel normal.
For example, when my sister wasn’t using heroin on the road trip, she was agitated, angry, and was not feeling like her normal self. Drug use often comes from mental illness. It can be used as a form of self-medication for people experiencing mental disorders. Adolescence is a particularly vulnerable time, because it is when the first signs of mental illness appear. Lizzie showed undeniable signs of depression and anxiety during her years of adolescence. Her brain was undergoing serious changes through her teens and unfortunately early drug exposure had a long-term impact on her brain. After doing a plethora of research and talking to my sister throughout the years, I firmly believe that addiction is a disease and derives from mental illnesses like depression. I eventually let go of the resentment and judgement I had toward her.
She is not a thief and she is not violent nor is she a “dirty junkie”. She’s caring and smart, but also a sufferer of mental illness and an unfortunate example of what early drug use can do to anyone. In contrast to my early and preconceived notions on addiction, I look at drug addicts with sympathy rather than ambiguity and revulsion. I am not afraid to share my sister’s story now, realizing that many people know someone or are struggling with addiction themselves. Not only do I view addiction differently, Lizzie’s drug addiction has made me passionate about science and human health and behavior. That road trip in the summer of 2014 impacted my life entirely and has shaped me into the person that I am today.