The Ghost Bike of Billthy

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_bike

This is a ghost bike. If you’re looking, you will see them around cities marking the places where cyclists have died. Car crash fatalities have crosses, piles of flowers, pictures, and ribbons memorializing a life lost on the road, and cyclists have this.  It’s simple. Just an old, busted bike, chained up at the scene of an incident, spray painted completely white.  They can be found worldwide, wherever cyclists die, and there’s a cycling community in mourning. People say it’s to raise awareness for drivers, to help remember to share the road with bikes, but people who don’t ride often don’t understand, or care, what the bikes are for.  For me, they stand as a bleak reminder of how vulnerable cyclists are, that a car doesn’t have to be fast to be deadly, and that friends can easily die tragic, preventable deaths.

 

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Photo c/o Austin Horse, in Philly, halfway through his ride to D.C.

This is Austin Horse. He’s a New York City bike messenger, adventuring cyclist, winner of a few world bike messenger championship races, and based on all accounts given by mutual friends, a decent human being.

 

Once upon a time he had another friend that was named Bill. He was also a New York bike messenger, as wild and scrappy as his long beard, which had helped earn him the nickname Billthy. He had a serious case of bikelust, and was cherished for his presence at the back of the RAGBRAI pack that cycles across Iowa every year. He was a brother, an uncle, a father, a friend to many, and also, by all accounts, a decent human being.

One day, Bill woke up feeling ill. He dealt with it, as most grown ups do, but he didn’t feel any better. At this early point in the story, he could have gone to see a doctor, received some medicine, and been fine.  Or maybe had a yearly check up, where the doctor would’ve told him he couldn’t heal without treatment.  But he didn’t see a doctor, or have physicals because he couldn’t afford them. He took a risk, and assumed that like whatever maladies he’d experienced before, it would eventually go away.  Instead it became worse, and then unbearable.  Bill finally went to the hospital, but it was too late. What had started as an ulcer had perforated, then turned into sepsis, commonly known as blood poisoning. At 52 years of age, on February 1, 2015, Bill died.  From an ulcer.

If you met Bill you might think he was an uncommon person, but stories like his have become so common to me that it holds no surprise.  DC messengers I worked with have also died young from treatable conditions that went untreated, cancers that weren’t detected early enough, or chronic conditions that weren’t properly cared for.  These weren’t bad people. Despite whatever personal baggage they may or may not have had, they worked hard and were usually willing to drop what they were doing and run a package. Even if the whole city was under a foot of snow and even the US Postal Service was closed.  Typical of bike messengers and other working class people, Bill couldn’t afford preventative care because he was uninsured, even with medicaid expansion, and even with subsidies in the marketplace.  For many in this position, survival does not allow sick days, because hourly pay is how food finds its way onto their table. Illnesses come and go, but the need for income remains the same, especially if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, hand to mouth.

Austin thought Bill’s death needed a ghost bike. He was a cyclist, and this was a tragic, preventable death, common to many messengers, and it warranted some public awareness.  But where would it be displayed? There was no crash sight, or landmark to place the blame.  So Austin decided that in honor of his friend, and to advocate for universal health care that might have saved him, to make Bill’s ghost bike mobile.  Instead of a random ghost bike, he would bring Bill’s actual bike which was already white.  He would ride it from Bill’s home in Brooklyn, in his hand, by his side, all the way to Washington D.C and up to Capitol Hill.  Austin and Bill’s bike rode the stretch all this week, while the senators were debating  behind closed doors legislation that would affect the future for millions of Americans like Bill. He took the bike and Bill’s story to the people in congress, hoping to remind them that what they’re creating is not just a bill. It’s a way to change people’s stories. It‘s a chance to give them life.

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Image c/o Austin Horse, In Brooklyn, starting out toward DC

Austin is an experienced cyclist, but riding a long distance in this way is no small task. Any amount of riding with your hand on someone else’s bike is awkward.  I’ve ridden bikes that needed repairs to a shop about a mile from my house. It was unpleasant. It threw off my balance and slowed me down.  I’ve also ridden the distances Austin traveled each day. It hurts. Not just in your legs, but in your palms, your wrists, your back, and your butt. Being able to let go of the handlebars to sit up and stretch your wrists and wiggle your back is just about the best thing ever. Being able to have both hands on your own handlebars to adjust your weight or get out of the saddle is probably the only thing that might feel nicer.  You can’t do either of those things if you have one hand on someone else’s bike.  

It was a noble gift to Bill’s memory, to take a piece of him back out on the road, and to share his story with people who don’t understand what it’s like.  Often we make this debate about penalties, taxes and money spent, but we leave out the friends we’ve lost, and how they suffered. 

There are definitely problems with the system now. It costs more than a monthly house payment to insure a family like mine, even with my husband’s employer subsidizing it.  At different times my husband or I have remained uninsured because we’re healthy, and it was cheaper to pay the penalty and for the occasional doctor’s visit than it was to buy insurance.  But through that I’ve watched my husband go to work with chronic back pain for months at a time, and suffer through things like strep throat and the swine flu without antibiotics. Even when we are insured,  the polict we had was so crappy it would only pay for something if you were about to die.  Even though the bill was created to help people like us, I feel people’s frustration with the Affordable Care Act. 

I’m fine with fixing the problems, looking at the legislation again and even repealing the parts that don’t work, but not with forgetting that all people need affordble health care.  How many people have to die from small complications before we are willing to negotiate around this issue? I wish I was wise enough to speak into the future and calm everyone’s fears about the possible solutions and how they might work best for our country. I wish I could say, beyond a doubt, what measures we needed to take to ensure that greed and corruption won’t triumph at the expense of the vulnerable and less fortunate.

I know we all have our strong opinions about what should be done, and that there are no perfect answers, but the answer can’t be nothing, nor can it be looking back to the time before the ACA with fondness, when millions more were uninsured.  This is not just a bill, it’s people’s stories and so we need people like Austin out there, sharing the ones that people can no longer share for themselves.  Because it’s friends and family like Bill who are lost in ferocity of this battle.  

It has not been effective for us to yell, argue and growl at one another, while we forget that we are capable of empathy and understanding. We need more stories. So we can understand about the family who’s son was saved from addiction and mental illness because it was an ACA provision to include substance abuse treatment.  So we can hear about the family that is already swamped with insurance payments, and dreads a trip to the ER because they have no room in their budget to also pay down the deductible. Tell people this story, or your story, or the story of your own friends. We need them. That’s what the debate should center around, because nobody ever sold the child to save the farm and because we need to find a way to treat something as simple as an ulcer.

A documentary clip of Bill in action…May he rest in peace.

 

“Dreamland”: Parenting Lessons From a Drug Epidemic

I have found that being a stay at home mom enables tunnel vision.  Are the kids learning and are they healthy? Am I still sane?  These are the questions that dominate domestic conversations.  The lifestyle is wholesome and protected for the kids, but the danger is that you too become sheltered.  It’s tempting to forget about the tragedy in the world, since it’s depressing and out of control, so instead we focus on problems that could possibly have solutions. Hence the abundance of articles about, “10 things to do in a healthy marriage” or, “Cleaning Your House in 5 Simple Steps.”

The world is out there, whether we’re ready to be aware or not, and ignoring it will leave us and our kids unable to handle it.  When we moved to the Shenandoah, I heard people complaining about heroin, and how they were finding needles around the playground, and seeing drug deals in parking lots.  I vaguely knew that people were using more heroin again, but I greatly underestimated the extent of the epidemic, especially in the Appalachians.  It’s not just me though, many people don’t see this problem until they’re living with it.  

The book Dreamland:The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones helps the oblivious public understand how the overflow pain pills collided with a well run heroin distribution system to create the epidemic that’s growing today.  I’ve read a lot on this topic, but I recommend this book because in addition to the facts and stories that led up to the epidemic, he also addresses the cultural trends that made our country susceptible.  Among these trends are several things for parents to consider, definite lessons, possible influences, and some just philosophical questions we should consider.  

Definite Lessons

Be aware of what’s in a pill bottle.   Do your research on what a doctor prescribes your child,  especially if something is possibly habit forming. Even if big pharma or your doctor tells you an opioid, benzo or amphetamine is not addictive, that it has a special time release formula or some other mechanism to keep people from abusing it, assume that it is still is addictive, because that’s the nature of these drugs.  

Shame intensifies the problem. In Portsmouth Ohio, the city that Quinones identifies as ‘ground zero’ of the epidemic, parents didn’t speak out about what was happening because they were embarrassed. They were trying to navigate things they knew nothing about: rehabs, prison systems, probation, but silently, without help.  They were too ashamed to ask for it, which was silly, because their friends and neighbors were going through the exact same things, but also silently and no one knew.  It took 10 years before a parent in town was able to speak up about it, and form a support group.  If one good thing comes from the opiate epidemic, it’s that there’s a light shining into the hidden worlds of middle and upper class addiction. Because it’s heroin, you can’t just send a kid to rehab silently and expect when they return, life will go back to normal.  Heroin is not just bad behavior at parties and DUI’s, it’s cops, multiple stints in jail, and ambulances in front of your house. You have to have help to support a person through recovery; knowledge and honesty from a community are essential. And since addicts are overdosing more often than people are dying in car crashes, there is no longer time for any parent to shame or be ashamed.

Possible Influences

Kids had their own rooms. Because of our increased affluence and the real estate boom, many kids had their own rooms, which was less common in previous generations.  Kids said that their room was the perfect sanctuary to get high in, away from the cops, nosy neighbors, tattling siblings and any other person who could tell their parents what they were doing.  

And their own cars.  Having a car gave suburban teens easy access to drugs.  You call a number, like you’re ordering pizza, you drive somewhere and meet another driver, and exchange money for drugs. Quinones mentions that the cars also had the added benefit of becoming a place to live when the parents wised up, and kicked their kids out of the house.  

Sports.  I hate to mess with something that has become sacred to so many people. I’m not denying that athletics can be beneficial for children, but that it can be overdone. Quinones noticed that in the middle and upper class communities he was studying youth athletics had been elevated to the point where the problems began outweighing the benefits.  After interviewing an addict in one upper-middle class town he said,  

“It was a place of gleaming mansions, but he felt no sense that education was of value in providing choices for life, much less a love of learning. These kids’ futures were assured. So sports were what mattered. Dads would brag to friends about their sons’ athletic exploits, then berate their boys for poor play, urging greater sacrifice. From the athletic director down to parents and teachers they heard, ‘you need good grades so you can play…’”(291)

Quinones saw that sports were becoming a gateway to opiate abuse because of the pressure and the injuries.  Because of how important sports had become, kids were playing year round starting in early elementary school, and were then more likely to have chronic injuries by the time they reached high school.  And because of the pressure to succeed, they were encouraged to play through their injuries and ignore their pain. They were often prescribed painkillers just so they could finish a season and Quinones noticed that the local football star was quietly becoming the face of teenage opioid abuse. Medicating injuries has always been done, but with oxycodone being prescribed for chronic pain, many sports teams, (and football especially since the players are prone to injury) were developing their own addictions.

Philosophical Questions

What are the consequences  of isolation?  The book is named for the community pool in Portsmouth, Ohio, where generations of kids would hang out all day every day over the summer, surrounded by their neighbors and elders.  It closed in the early 90’s because people began installing their own pools, tucked away neatly in their backyards. People stopped meeting their neighbors and letting their kids roam the streets until dinnertime.  The lack of neighborhood made it easier to hide a drug addiction, away from the watchful eyes and accountability of the community.  Quinones sees this as a metaphor, because it wasn’t just Dreamland that closed, people everywhere started staying in their homes and becoming more isolated. Closed doors made it easier for people to pretend they were perfect, which fueled secrecy and shame about all of their hidden defects.

What happens when we have too much stuff? Maybe not so coincidentally, the peak business years of pill mills coincided with the boom and bust of the housing market.  Quinones theorized that our increasing consumerism created a culture that was fertile for an opiate epidemic.  Unfortunately, parenting has not been immune to this, and the increase in teenage heroin addiction shows the consequence. In an interview with a man running a rehab clinic, the man explained,

“‘Spoiled rich kid syndrome’ seeped into America’s middle classes. Parents shielded their kids from complications and hardships, and praised them for minor accomplishments-all as they had less time for their kids….’You have a lot of kids who have everything and look good, but they don’t have any self-esteem. And you put an opiate addiction in the middle of that?’” (p.293)

Is it possible that minimalism could be an antidote to rampant drug use?  If we wanted less and were satisfied more would we still crave chemicals to fill the gap? While we all know that spoiling children is detrimental to their behavior, maybe we don’t understand the gravity of that consequence.  I tend to think of the consequences as behavioral.

What do we lose when we stop accepting pain as part of life? Our culture has also become less tolerant of pain, not just chronic pain, but any pain.  People started getting oxy prescriptions for things that Tylenol would normally take care of.  Quinones said,

“In heroin addicts I had seen the debasement that comes from the loss of free will and enslavement to what amounts to an idea: permanent pleasure, numbness, and the avoidance of pain. But man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain, and the deprivation that temper his behavior.” (p.37)

This idea has also trickled into parenting, because we can’t even handle watching our children feel pain, physical or emotional. The man Quinones interviewed from the rehab clinic thought that parents today are making recovery even more difficult than usual.  He believed there was a simultaneous epidemic of parents addicted to rescuing their children, and that their kids maturity was stunted because of it.  He had seen too many parents enable addictions by rushing to their kids aid with money, food and shelter when they should’ve been capable of providing it for themselves. People do this because its been their habit since birth, every time a child cries from a scraped knee or because someone was mean to them, we jump to their aid.  He warned, “I tell parents it’s real important to say no, but say no way back when they’re young.” (p.293)

I think most people have heard this before, but have not thought about it in this context.  Whose pain are we really medicating when we come to our children’s rescue, and could the consequences not only lead to irresponsibility, but also to their demise? Is it possible to walk the line of being compassionate toward our children without enabling them, starting when they’re still young?

I wish I could offer you a parenting guide, and not just a book review. My kids are still in elementary school still and not addicted to heroin, so I’m no authority, but I do know there’s no foolproof way to keep your kids from trying drugs.  I also know enough about addiction, to know that it’s usually not a parents fault, and as the book shows, the epidemic has many influences that are beyond parental control.  I’m sure there are many kids who had their own rooms, drove their own cars, played sports year round, had lots of stuff, and still grew up to be healthy adults. Just as I know there are kids who grew up with none of these privileges that are still battling addiction.  The influences above are just observations that the book brings to light, with the hope that history won’t repeat itself, and I share them here in case there’s any possibility that our behavior can help curb this trend.

Although you could never place the blame all on one influence, I do think the epidemic shows that it’s important to have conversations about the long term consequences of parenting trends. What do you think of his warnings? Have you seen these things enable addiction in our culture? Will you debate the consequences with your friends? I know it’s even less comfortable to talk about than marital problems, but we owe it to the parents who have suffered already, to respect the education they earned, and the pain they have endured.

To Fight a Scourge

I was only 19 when I became a bike messenger.  I didn’t anything about what I was doing, or the other people who I worked with, but I the lifestyle and the conmunity was fascinating.  They were all so radically different from each other, but were bonded together through the experience of doing such a weird, hard and exciting job.  There was a haunting among them though, that I was too innocent to understand.

In defense of my naivete, I had little experience with the power of addiction.  In my suburban middle class life, few people suffered from it publicly.  Occasionally someone’s parents would freak and they would disappear from school. Rumors would be whispered, but the official story would usually be something about boarding school, or visiting an aunt’s house.  Being a messenger exposed me to people who were desperately lost in their addiction, to abused by the world to care about my opinion of them.

Working as a messenger was different. Most companies hire you as an independent contractor, meaning you’re free to accept work or not, and can call out hungover without getting fired. Because you work on a voluntary basis, the job attracts as many drug addicts and alcoholics as id does thrill seekers and cyclists, although for many, these categories overlapped. Instead of hiding the truth or being embarrassed about their drug and alcohol use, many would flaunt it.

What I realized in time was that wherever addicts gather in community, tragedy follows. There was always somebody or something to worry about- a person in jail, an injury that might not heal, or someone living on the street because their girlfriend dumped them. Messengers die all the time, but not from getting hit by cars, or from drug overdose, as my parents assumed.  Some die from being poor, having treatable conditions that they can’t afford to get proper care for.  But more often they die from the side effects of addiction- usually chronic health conditions like cirrhosis, seizures, and cancer. Sometimes the cause is a tragic, intoxicated accident.  The first funeral I remember was for a boy that lost his life in a drunk bar fight, he hit his head funny as he stumbled around, and died in the hospital a few days later.  Since then, about a dozen people have passed away, at least one for every year I’ve been sober, making my own sobriety bittersweet.

Losing friends makes me angry.  While we can always do a better job of educating youth for prevention, many addicts already know that drugs and alcohol are bad. Mist sober stories begin with that very sentence, “I knew what I was doing was wrong, but…”  People usually know the consequences of their actions, but they do it anyway. Meanwhile those around them, who have been making an effort to act responsibly, are left bitterly carrying the burden. Addiction is a mental illness, but if you haven’t suffered from it, or watched a loved one try to break free, it’s hard to find compassion. 

0905-2017-08067014994580798Between the lost productivity, the health care costs, and the criminal justice fees, we spend an estimated $520.5 billion dollars (That’s just drugs and alcohol.  I won’t even go there about smoking.)  But of course the real pain is more than the money wasted; it’s the destruction of our neighborhoods, the broken families, and the damage done to children.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and that includes addiction.  It’s not a purposeful descent into madness to wreak havoc on the rest of us, even though it can feel that way to the survivors. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains,

“Many people don’t understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. They may mistakenly think that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to.”

So even if we’re cutting them off financially or emotionally, they still need encouragement to find real help. Currently, out of the 20 million people suffering from addiction, less than 3 million will actually seek treatment, which is pathetic.

Substance abuse has always been a problem in our country, but lately trends show that it’s getting worse, and the consequences have become deadly. It’s not just my friends that are dying. Overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999, largely to the opioid epidemic. Overdose is the leading cause of accidental death, surpassing deaths by car accidents, guns and AIDS at its peak. 

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 These statistics are horrifying, but they are only half the story.  Like my friends, people die twice as often from the long term damage of substance abuse. According to the CDC, the rate of alcohol related deaths is about about 88,000 people per year, and this article in the Washington Post cites research showing that this rate is at a 35 year high.

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The other reason it’s important to talk about substance abuse during Mental Health Month is that many people who are addicts have a dual diagnosis of another mental health issue, like depression, PTSD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.  When we’re scratching our head in anger, wondering why someone made the choice to abuse a drug, even though they knew better, this is often why.  It’s hard to determine an exact percentage of how many people are self medicating, but according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2014 (p. 32), at least 8 million people have co-occurring disorders.  In my experience, many addicts don’t fully realize they’re self-medicating until they’re sober, and others are unable to stay sober because they don’t realize they’re only addressing half their problem.  

It’s hard to know where and how a person can fight against it,  because what feels like helping an addict is often enabling them, and what’s actually helping they will insist is ruining their life. These are enormous problems, with roots that spread twice as far as the branches and trying to solve them, for even one person, feels like trying to rid your yard of dandelions. It seems like this evil is winning, that we are not powerful enough to fight against it, but we are not that way.

Pray.  “...We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”(Ephesians 6:12)  This is addiction.  It’s undiluted evil, and it’s a spiritual battle for an person to break free. I am stunned about how few people are publicly praying on behalf of addicts, especially when you consider that almost everyone knows and loves someone who is struggling. We can pray for addicts seeking treatment, that they will find the support they need to get clean, and we can pray for the families that are broken and suffering in silent isolation. The people surrounding them need our prayers, too. Churches need resources for outreach; therapists and counselors need wisdom to diagnose; people running treatment centers need strength and patience. Also, the police, the first responders, jails, local leaders, and elected officers who are overseeing community efforts to fight addiction are understaffed and underfunded.

Pray for this evil to be crushed, but also pray about how you can fight against it.  As I mentioned in my last post, there are grandparents now raising their grandchildren who need babysitters.  There is a nationwide shortage of foster parents. Rehab centers have waiting lists and need beds, money and volunteers. Mentors are needed to teach people in recovery life skills, like how to budget or write a resume. Support a newly sober person by offering them a job or a chance at friendship. Reach out to someone whose child or spouse is suffering. Sit with them at the hospital and teach them they don’t need to be ashamed.  Many families have no idea where to look for help or answers, and they may need a shoulder to cry on, or someone to pray with them.  

Educate.  I’m amazed at the people who have been caught off guard by the power of addiction and the drugs on the market today.  Heroin is a problem today is because people had no idea that oxycodone was almost the same thing in a perscription.  And how many people would have avoided their addiction altogether if they had known they were suffering from a mental disorder? The more we know about substance abuse, the stronger our communities will be against its influence.  The more we know about the warning signs of what addiction looks like, the less we will enable people to continue in it.   If we were an educated community, we would offer more support to the parents and relatives who feel isolated. Substance abuse is all over the news if you look for it.  Make an effort to research and read about what’s happening in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, and in your own state too. Don’t ignore this problem because you don’t see it happening to you.

Speak.  Lawmakers don’t tend to fund research for addiction recovery because it’s not on the lips or the minds of their constituents, so the cause gets shorted compared to other medical research, even though addiction is a major killer.  There are no big 10K races or silicone bracelets sold to raise money for research on subtance abuse.  But if we speak out, if we make this a major issue, lawmakers will fund more treatment centers. Advancements will be made to understand and help people find effective treatment. Teenagers may be more aware of the risks involved. So share articles you find that are important on social media. Talk to people in your church and community about what can be done for outreach. Speak out and make other people aware of what’s going on around you.

In addition to being a voice for legislation and action, you will also be a voice to people who need help.  One reason the number of people seeking recovery is so small is because of the stigma surrounding it. You can help to end that, by coming forward with your iwn recovery story or not judging those who have been through it. Sadly, stigma doesn’t end with addicts themselves, for the families that surround them are often ashamed to ask for help too.  In Portsmouth, Ohio (a town plagued by overdose), it took almost eight years of living with epidemic heroin use before the parents were willing to confess what was happening in their homes and form a support group.  Don’t let that be your town.  If you’ve recovered or have supported someone who has, tell your story.  Hiding it compounds the consequences. People who are struggling are listening whether you realize it or not, and they need encouragement, so speak out.

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Faces & Voices of Recovery is an organization dedicated to lobbying on behalf of recovery and ending the stigma, because its not just an issue for vagrants and rock stars. Respected people everywhere- leaders, politicians, businessmen, athletes, etc. are in recovery too.  To share your story on social media use #ourstorieshavepower or #recoverymatters or go to their website http://facesandvoicesofrecovery.org/get-involved/  to learn more about joining their movement.

Substance Abuse is a scourge, not just an epidemic. People are dying, kids are being raised by grandparents and towns across the country are crumbling under its pressure. How can we ignore that? Address it in your churches and with your friends, because evil grows in the presence of our apathy, anger, and resignation. Refuse to believe that the fight against addiction is hopeless, either for yourself, a loved one, or your community.  This is your problem, even if it doesn’t seem like it.  Everyone is involved somehow, because 1 in 10 people have a problem. So pray, educate, speak and step up to fight the scourge.