We will all ignore the opioid epidemic until personal contact forces our eyes open.
On a daily basis, Americans scan the horrific, accelerating numbers. In 2015, more than 52,000 people across the country died from drug overdoses — more than from car crashes or shootings. Nearly two-thirds of those overdoses were from opioids, including prescription drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin, and illicit drugs including heroin and fentanyl.
There were 376 drug overdose deaths in Maine in 2016, which represents a 114% increase in four years. The scourge is truly race, class and geography blind. Continuing to insist “Not us, not here” is no longer viable.
Two winters ago, I received an e-mail from a once-lost young man. Renny and I had not communicated since his junior year in 2012. His promising on-field career featured bursts of brilliance, frequent injuries and a consistent tendency to fade from view for weeks at a time. He passively stepped away from lacrosse near the end of his third season and never returned to his team. As a senior, he quit without a word. Now, Renny was ready to take responsibility and confess what he could not reveal before.
He apologized for “how I handled things my junior and senior years.” He acknowledged being “too-stubborn and thick headed to understand how to act.” He then delivered a shocking admission. “I was struggling with demons bigger than I could have ever imagined. I did not know how to cope. Opiate addiction took over and I lost control of my life.”
It took me three months to process and craft a response to Renny’s revelations. We traded e-mails twice over the next year then fell back to silence.
On December 1, 2017, Renny and I spoke to each other for the first time since his junior year. With pride, he reports recently celebrating one year clean. He shares his story with heartbreaking specifics of his darkest days. Renny describes “dabbling with opiates in high school.” When he broke his ribs midway through his first collegiate campaign, his addictive predisposition met perfect opportunity.
Renny recalls how willing the ER physician was to prescribe an ample supply of Vicodin. Renny knew precisely how to acquire what he desperately needed. “I ate half of the entire prescription that night. The next day, I returned to the ER to tell them convincingly the pain kept me from sleeping and drive back to campus with twice as many Oxycodone pills.”
Satisfying his habit drove every thought, each action for the remainder of college. Renny concurrently abused his prescription Adderal, opiates and cocaine. He bartered his ADD medication for Oxy. The gifted player sold his Xbox, laptop and clothes to feed his habit. He stole from and lied to his best friends. “And,” he admits, “I never thought anything I did was wrong. I needed it.”
I ask how much Renny’s teammates knew. His answer reveals a lot about the dangerous, self-destructive mindset that compelled every decision. It also captures the self-fulfilling rationalization that pushes numerous risk-taking young athletes toward life-threatening circumstances.
“All of my friends knew something was wrong because I flaunted it,” he says.
From the moment he arrived on campus, he consciously played up the image of “crazy man.” From his perspective, the further he publicly pushed the extremes of unhealthy behavior, the greater his social status. He craved the attention and had no understanding of how far down this twisted quest would drag him.
Academic and athletic motivation were swallowed up. By the end of junior year, Renny’s ATM records sounded an urgent alarm to his parents. He entered his initial Suboxone-supported rehabilitation program in April of his senior year. Renny has pursued rehab six times since. He snorted heroin for the first time at age 23. His post-graduation path includes overdose deaths of numerous close friends and a cousin.
Renny’s treatment centers are frequently populated by former college athletes — hockey and football players who manage postsurgical pain with prescription opioids. They grow dependent. Their prescription runs out. Heroin is much cheaper and easier to obtain than OxyContin.
Why must we consider this story? Because I’m not the only college coach who missed this tragic disease in his midst. Because none of us knew Renny’s deepest struggles. Because it can happen here. Because 75% of those who get addicted to and die from opioid overdoses start through a legal, medically enabled prescription. Because nationwide 66% of these victims are male.
This month, the NCAA plans to release its most current research on college athletes’ drug and alcohol use. If 2014’s patterns hold, “student-athletes in lacrosse (will again) report substance use rates that are notably higher than in other sports.” Three years ago, 23% of all athletes confirmed using pain meds. Those numbers have unquestionably soared since — it’s worrisome to consider just how high they’ve risen.
Renny’s first clean year allows him genuinely honest reflection. “I’ve learned how hard I’ve worked to crush my fears with drugs. My disappointment in myself, my fear of disappointing other people, has led me to places I never thought I’d go.”
He finds himself taking responsibility for his problems in ways he never had. With the constant support of their friendships forged in rehab, Renny and his housemates, “Hold each other up, call each other out when needed.” One day at a time, all three men have been drug-free for more than a year.
The opioid epidemic does not discriminate. Military veterans, college athletes, wealthy and poor everywhere. Without significant investment in comprehensive treatment, we will lose 50,000 more this year. Do we care? Renny hopes that sharing his story helps others know they are not alone.
Lasagna's column appears in the January issue of Inside Lacrosse Magazine.