I shouldn’t have been ashamed of my brother. Eliminate the stigma around opioid addiction.May 17, 2019
The nation’s opioid epidemic was the furthest thing from my mind on the sweltering Washington afternoon in late July that turned out to be the last time I saw my brother pitch a baseball. A small crowd of parents erupted in a roar as Jonathan, then 17, dropped a devastating curveball for the final out of an all-star game. As a brother, beaming with pride, I admired the self-control and poise Jonathan showed as he confidently strode off the mound.
Ours was a relationship forged in the pressure cooker that is life as a military kid. Enduring five moves in six years strengthened the already robust relationship commonly shared between most brothers. As our father rose to be the second-highest ranking military officer in the nation, we formed a strong mutual understanding of high morals and values.
What I failed to understand as we grew up together was the crippling anxiety and depression afflicting Jonathan. These underlying issues were partly mitigated for most of his life by our tight relationship.
My brother was fighting for his life
But after I moved on to college, Jonathan lost his decompression partner and began to look toward other means to deal with his anxiety. He started first with alcohol, then marijuana and, finally, stronger drugs.
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Later, sitting across the table from my brother at a rehabilitation facility, I failed to find the same feelings of pride and admiration I held only months before at the baseball field. To me, being a drug addict was the result of a fundamental moral failing, and the purpose of rehab was to fix this moral failing. Indeed, I was ashamed, and when friends asked about him I would fake a smile, explain he was taking a gap year before college, and change the subject.
While Jonathan was in a fight for his life, I had a conversation with my mother that will haunt me for the rest of mine. I vividly recall telling her I was ashamed of my brother for putting our family through this ordeal. I stopped just short of revealing the anger I felt toward my brother for breaking our moral code and betraying our family’s trust. At this moment, I had placed the blame squarely on my brother’s shoulders.
James "LJ" Winnefeld III, left, and brother Jonathan hiking in Breckenridge, Colorado, in August 2015. (Photo: Family handout)
Meanwhile, over the course of 15 months, spanning two different rehab facilities, Jonathan had made an astounding turnaround. He got a job, became a nationally qualified emergency medical technician, and made plans to attend college. Jonathan had regained his ambition to serve and had helped save the life of a man who overdosed on a McDonald’s bathroom floor.
Yet, just when everything seemed to be going his way, Jonathan relapsed. On Sept. 7, 2017, he died from an accidental heroin overdose in his dorm room, one week after he started college. He was 19 years old.
No one grows up wanting to become an addict
I came to learn that Jonathan was another victim of perhaps the most stigmatized disease in our nation’s history. Traditionally, we think of a disease as something that is either communicated to the body via infection or that grows inside the body as a cancer.
Addiction, on the other hand, is something that changes the brain because of the intentional introduction of a substance, be it alcohol, nicotine or the morphine molecule. Moreover, given the large number of people who become addicted to opioids prescribed by a doctor or dentist, it is hard to argue that becoming dependent is a choice.
Nobody grows up wanting to become an addict, including my brother. A substance-dependent person should be viewed as someone who has a treatable but chronic disease, much like a cancer or diabetes patient, rather than a weak-willed individual with a moral failing. Firmly eliminating this stigma will lead to more public support for — and thus more pressure on the political class to provide — the vast resources, effort and policies required to defeat this epidemic.
In the final sentence of his freshman essay, Jonathan recalled when he helped save the man on the McDonald’s bathroom floor. “I now live my life with a newfound purpose: wanting to help those who cannot help themselves,” he wrote.
It’s time for our great nation to help those who are stricken with substance dependence and who cannot help themselves — starting with eliminating the stigma that envelops this deadly disease.
James “LJ” Winnefeld III is a second lieutenant with the Marine Corps in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. After Jonathan’s death, the Winnefeld family created SAFE Project, a nonprofit organization working to reduce fatalities from addiction.
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