American ZOMBIES

She seemed to sleep all the time. Though it was Christmastime with all the magic of feasts and decorations and carols and gifts, and she was in the prime of life, she hardly left her bed. When she did emerge, bleary and unfocused, her words were slow, deliberate, lacking the peppery zest that made her truly magnetic—impossibly attractive or maddeningly repellent depending which side was facing you.

Asked what was wrong, she demurred. “Nothing,” she’d say, “I’m just tired.” And the bedroom door would close us off from her again.

I knew, of course, that she wasn’t really tired. No healthy person in their 20s could be that tired. Something was wrong. Something awful.

She was an addict. Her dealer, her doctor.

The slide into oblivion started innocently enough, in therapy. Childhood events had inflicted deep, abiding wounds; in early adulthood, she attempted to root out the rawness so it could finally heal.

For a time, she found salvation from the angst and misery gnawing at her insides with little cylinders in white, then peach, then blue, then even larger blue, so big she had to break them into pieces … at first. In the early days, they leveled off the frightening highs and even more terrifying lows that made her hideously unpredictable; it was exhilarating to see her seemingly content for once.

Eventually, that dream-like peace became a catatonic nightmare. On visits, she spent more and more time in her room until the year she came home for the holidays and we hardly saw her at all.

Unlike so many, happily, miraculously, my sister woke herself up, got herself clean, and started living again. I guess she decided that feeling the joy and the hurt was better than feeling nothing at all.

In the years since, I’ve wondered what might’ve happened to her if she hadn’t kicked the habit. Possibly (hopefully), the quack would have been arrested, lost his medical license, or, less likely, seen the light and stopped doling out deadly quantities of numb.

She’s been dead now these eight long years, stolen from us at 32 by the goddam flu; if she hadn’t kicked the habit, I do not doubt that the drugs would have stolen even more time from us, whether by overdose, accident or incarceration. I suppose if the latter, she might be alive today. Still, I shudder to think what might have happened to her in prison.

Drug addiction is a disease. Hardly anyone contests this fact. Yet we continue to criminalize what is, at best, a victimless crime; at worst, the symptom of a chronic illness.

Although my sister’s poison of choice was benzodiazepines, because most opioid addicts start down the road towards oblivion with pharmaceuticals, the opioid epidemic that is robbing families throughout our community makes me think of the zombie that slept chunks of life away in the room across the hall for a time all those years ago.

Addiction has always claimed victims, but with the flood of the synthetic, incredibly powerful opioid fentanyl, which is often mixed with heroin for an even greater high, the disease has become more deadly than ever.

Last year, in Jacksonville, one of the state’s murder capitals, there were four times as many deadly overdoses as homicides. St. Augustine, Green Cove Springs, even idyllic Fernandina Beach are grappling with the epidemic. Local rescue workers are going through Narcan, also known as Naloxone, which can reverse the effects of an overdose, shockingly fast. In March, News4Jax reported that Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department gets a heroin or opioid overdose call every two hours.

Sadly, after being pulled back from the brink of death by Narcan, many return to the drug that almost killed them right away, sometimes ODing again that very night.

In an effort to avert the crisis, Jacksonville City Councilman Bill Gulliford is leading the charge to launch a six-month opioid epidemic pilot program that will treat the addiction, rather than just the overdose. It is sensible and necessary legislation that is certain to save lives.

But make no mistake: This is just the beginning of a long and protracted battle in a war that we will never entirely win. For as long as there are drugs, there will be drug addicts. No law can change that.

Nevertheless, in typical callous indifference, this year, the Florida Legislature passed, and Governor Rick Scott signed, new mandatory minimum sentences for possession of fentanyl aka carfentanil. Now anyone caught with four grams of a substance containing fentanyl, whether they know it or not, goes to prison for three years. For 14 grams, they get 15 years; 28 grams or more, it’s 25 years. It’s supposed to criminalize traffickers, and it does, but it also criminalizes addiction.

We’d have a far greater chance of curing the disease if we stopped treating sick people like criminals.