Gunn continued to take Klonopin the rest of the semester. Those three months in her memory were fuzzy, a common side effect of the tranquilizing drug. She had a good memory, but she couldn’t remember vocabulary words in her Hebrew class. Klonopin also removes inhibitions, which was a wonderful feeling for Gunn, but her friends were bearing her uncharacteristically harsh comments. Gunn remembered apologizing to a few people, telling them she didn’t know why she was saying such things.
When classes ended, she went on a beach trip, where she received a panicked call from her dad, who had been talking to a doctor friend about the drug she was on. He warned that it was highly addictive and dangerous over a long period of use. When she returned home, she went to a different psychiatrist.
The doctor promised to help wean her off the drug but warned that withdrawal would be difficult.
THE UNITED STATES IS FACING potentially the third year of decreased life expectancy at the end of 2018, a streak that hasn’t happened since record keeping began. A record 72,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year, even as opioid prescriptions were down. The ongoing deaths show a general crisis of drug addiction, not just opioids.
Bob Cutillo—a doctor working in a clinic for the homeless in Denver, Colo., and who teaches at Denver Seminary—puts the responsibility for lower life expectancy on these rising “deaths of despair” like suicide, drug overdoses, and deaths from alcohol abuse.
“The Christian community has much to contribute, but I am not sure it is equipped to respond,” he said. American Christians are lacking concern for “how lost people are in our Western culture” while showing “limited dependence on the hope we have in Jesus Christ.”
What are the drugs of despair? They’re not just opioids or heroin. When I talked to addiction doctors this month about troubling trends they’re seeing, they pointed me to benzodiazepines (“benzos”), a class of prescription drug that typically treats anxiety. That class includes drugs like Xanax, Ativan, Valium, and Klonopin—the one that hooked Kristen Gunn.
While opioid prescriptions are down, benzo prescriptions are still rising and are among the most prescribed drugs in the United States. They’re very addictive, but patients often don’t understand the risks of long-term use and chemical dependence.
Because benzos depress breathing, they’re dangerous when combined with opioids or alcohol. In 2016 the CDC issued new guidelines urging doctors to avoid prescribing benzos alongside opioids. But prescribers told me that patients often hide their other drug or alcohol use when seeking benzos.
Users don’t typically abuse benzos by themselves but combine them with other substances to get a different high. Like fentanyl, some benzos are sold on the internet and shipped through the mail. Benzos are involved in more than 30 percent of overdose deaths.
This overdose epidemic has dominated the young career of emergency medical technician Sara Del Vecchio. Most of her emergency training is in overdoses.
She worked an ambulance in an affluent county outside of her native Philadelphia for a year, where she responded to suburban overdoses. The last two years she’s worked in an emergency department in Kensington, Philadelphia’s worst neighborhood for drug use and violence, and specifically in a part of Kensington called the Badlands.
On a given 12-hour shift, Del Vecchio estimates that overdose patients fill half of the beds in the Kensington emergency department. Once revived in the ER and observed for a few hours, those who overdose hear a list of options for next steps. They can talk to a psychiatrist at the hospital, do detox, and get referrals to rehab programs or local ministries. But they usually head back out to the street because they’ve tried everything and “it hasn’t worked,” said Del Vecchio.
One day, an overdose victim was brought into the ER, and Del Vecchio began doing chest compressions to try to revive the patient. As she was doing compressions, she looked up and saw that it was a guy she went to high school with. Del Vecchio helped the medical staff identify him—they couldn’t revive him.
“I just remember standing there,” she said, stunned. She knew he dabbled in drugs in high school, but had no idea about his pill and heroin problem. “He was a nice, sweet kid.”
Even before Del Vecchio became an EMT, she had lost friends to overdoses. She’s seen it in well-to-do suburbs and in the poverty-stricken Badlands, and knows no one is immune. About half of the users in Kensington die, she said, and she is shocked how many of her overdose patients feel helpless and have made peace with the idea of dying from drugs.
Kensington has several long-term ministries serving the addicted population, and those ministries are providing most of the outreach to addicts in the Badlands. But they have conflicting approaches to addiction, in Del Vecchio’s view. She volunteered with one ministry, but felt it was offering only “comfort care” to addicts.
“It’s an over-ministried area, which confuses me, because why is this still such a problem?” she asked. “Why are they still dying?”
BENZOS WERE ONE DRUG OF MANY for Kyle Walker, according to his mother, Bridget Crowley. When Walker was 17, he was in a bad car accident, and doctors prescribed opioids for about a year after as he recovered. Crowley didn’t realize Kyle was addicted. Her son seemed to be doing well, but then started a job with a railroad company where his co-workers were using pills recreationally. Soon he was on heroin and had to quit his job: A recent study estimated that 2 million Americans of prime working age are out of the workforce because of opioids.
For the last 15 years Crowley has supported her son through two stints in rehab. Crowley recalled that one time, when her son was asleep, she looked in his pockets and found an assortment of benzos and other pills. She said parents of addicts are “constantly waiting for them to fall asleep so you can snoop through their stuff, which is terrible.”
There have been victories, like happy family dinners after a successful rehab. But one time, when he was a month out of rehab and she was picking him up for church, he wasn’t coming out of his house. She decided to see what was taking so long—and found him unconscious on the floor of his closet. He had overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl. Crowley called 911. Paramedics revived him with Narcan.
“That was something I never want to see again,” said Crowley, as tears crept into her voice. “I don’t think God wants us to stay in this spot forever. But you can’t make a person change.”
Crowley finds few people at church can relate to this close relationship with someone with a drug addiction: the shame mingled with love for her son, the walking on eggshells around him, the regular feeling of not knowing if she’ll see him alive again.
Now he is in a court-mandated boot camp to get clean, and about to graduate: “In his letters he goes, ‘Mom, I just want to be part of the family again.’” Crowley is planning to talk to her pastor at their Southern Baptist church about re-starting a prayer group for men with addictions that her son could join when he gets back from boot camp.
Sandy Dettmann, a Christian addiction doctor in Michigan, had her own experience of dependence on benzos. Previously she was a pediatric emergency specialist and saw enough horrible accidents with children that she began to feel intense anxiety about her own children. (She recalled putting helmets on her kids in the car.)
Her doctor prescribed Ativan, and she continued to take benzos regularly for seven years—as prescribed. In 2011, feeling the effects of the dependence, she went to a five-day medically supervised detox to get off of them. Withdrawals from benzos are more dangerous than from opioids, and can be deadly.
Now, as an addiction doctor, she is educated about them. Dettmann says benzos should only be for rare emergencies, and doctors shouldn’t prescribe them for regular use of more than two to four weeks: “They work very well for anxiety, until your whole life falls apart. Then the drug you used for anxiety in the first place actually causes anxiety, and people quickly get on escalated doses.”