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And the Fight Against Drugs Continues

A column dedicated in memory of my cousin Meaghan.

On Monday I had the honor and the awful task all in one, of giving the eulogy for my beautiful younger cousin Meaghan.

Like many before her, she suffered from a terrible disease called addiction. Writing her eulogy was one of the more difficult tasks I've ever undertaken.

As many readers of this column know, about once a week I sit down and offer my analysis of what's transpiring in the world. Sometimes I use humor, fictional settings to prove an overall point and at others, I simply articulate my argument and let it rip. Today, I am gonna let it rip. 

Addiction is a disease that some people have a problem calling a disease. Understandably, people have a hard time looking at the actions of an addict and attributing the same sympathy as they would for someone who has cancer or something as equally horrific. The argument can seem valid when stated like this, “People choose to do drugs, people don’t choose to get diabetes or cancer.”

When pontificated like that, sure, no argument here. The act is certainly an act of self-involvement, unlike any other disease that naturally and tragically manifests itself through someone’s body. But let us look at it from this vantage point. How many people actually make the "choice" to become an alcoholic or addict? I mean, is it truly a conscious choice to destroy one’s life, completely counter to our natural human instinct, which dictates we try and live and thrive? I would argue, no -- no one makes that choice. And medical opinion is clearly on my side here.

Another bias against people hooked on illicit drugs is the concept of where they live or what nationality they might be. In the 1980s, the image of a “crackhead” was most notably an African American male in the projects of New York City. Today, the image of an “oxy-junkie” or heroin addict is much harder to define, and this is good. When the oxy epidemic started about 10 years ago, a lot of media in the greater Boston area focused their attention on South Boston and Charlestown. In my opinion, this halted proper discussion and reinforced negative stereotypes people had about those two neighborhoods -- and did not cover the true problem of the epidemic.

For example, if a person living in say, Wakefield, saw coverage of the oxy epidemic, which included people robbing pharmacies, overdosing or doing other nasty things that are affiliated with addiction, what would they think of it? Would they recognize this problem for what it was? Or would they view it as something they are removed from? Subtly, how could they look at the epidemic any differently than their former opinions about two neighborhoods that already have a colorful criminal past? It would be easy for that person in Wakefield watching the coverage to assume it is simply an “inner city” problem or people from Charlestown and Southie are just “born crazy.”

But, here is what made this horrific epidemic a truly genuine nightmare. Although the media initially tried to format the oxy epidemic into a crazy Charlestown or Southie issue, because it draws better ratings and is simply easier to report on that way, that same person from Wakefield started noticing that his daughter or son was acting strange. Money missing, erratic behavior, etc. was becoming commonplace and, at times, seemed eerily similar to the symptoms he or she heard on the news about the “crazy people” in the city.  Eventually, the problem was realized and hopefully they sought help and didn’t have to endure what my aunt and uncle are enduring this morning.

Another common misconception is recovery for heroin addicts is impossible or even still a taboo subject. Most successful people who recover from that fight try and hide the fact it was ever a part of who they were. People in certain professions will try and distance themselves from any association from the nasty drug of oxycontin or heroin. I know what this stigma is like, having felt it on many occasions around so many so-called "successful people.” Understably, if one has not had to deal with a heroin addict, it would be easy for them to have a negative opinion, because how many people who are deemed “successful” by society have actually been known to be a former addict in recovery? 

Because of this stigma, people in recovery will try and distance themselves from their past because of the fear of what colleagues may think of them and fear of possible professional advancement. But as a society, we must continually progress -- nobody should ever be ashamed of battling addiction and overcoming it. In fact, the story should be told, if the person feels comfortable, so that struggling addicts and unaware or biased adults can see that recovery from a nasty fight from heroin is possible.

As some of you know, I had the pleasure of serving Charlestown as the mayor’s liaison for the past four years. Because of being associated with the mayor of Boston, I was able to meet some famous politicians, athletes and other assorted high-profile individuals. Moreover, I worked with many successful lawyers, developers, marketers and successful professional people who, like myself, were working hard and trying to take the career or life to the next level. Often I would attend corporate parties where alcohol flowed faster than the conversation. When offered, I always politely declined and at times, some people demanded why they never saw me drink at any of these events, even though “I was so young, and seemed like someone who would love to drink.” 

Usually, I took the politically-correct high road and just said I had to drive or some other excuse to avoid the topic. But, when I wanted to liven up the sometimes boring small talk at these events, I would say flat-out that I wasn’t drinking because I’m in recovery and used to struggle with an addiction to heroin. Most people were nice and supportive, but occasionally there were some rude responses.  One particular occasion a person asked “if the people of Charlestown and the mayor had known about my ‘bad’ past” and if not, “did I ‘lie’ in the interview process to get the job?” To which I stated, “maybe, I’m not sure, but hopefully they don’t. I do not want them as intrigued about my past as much as you are because it is already hard enough to walk down the street.” 

The point of this whole column is this: being in recovery is not a bad thing and you can be successful after a battle with heroin. Here is what this former addict has accomplished: Former Charlestown liaison, I have a successful DJ business, I'm a condo owner, I drive a nice car, I'm an elected delegate for the historic 2008 Democratic National Convention with 92 percent of the vote, I'm a published writer and there is more to come.

Someone once told me that since I work in a political environment, shouldn’t I "hide" what I was? Or what if I wanted to run one day, wouldn’t this hurt my chances? Maybe it would, but I don’t care. I am not ashamed of what I was. I have a disease and fight it every day. I am very successful while fighting it and have a good life. There is hope and a light from all the pain. I want people to see that a local successful public person can win this battle and join all of the other "successful" people.

That was for you Meaghan!

Lauren O'Brien August 17, 2011 at 12:24 AM
I went to high school with Meaghan and really enjoyed your article. Seamus O'Sullivan should consider himself very lucky that no one close to him has been touched by this horrendous disease. Most of us aren't that lucky. - Lauren O'Brien
Mary Doherty August 17, 2011 at 01:19 AM
My condolences on the loss of your cousin Meaghan. Thank you for your courage. Besides the great program of Alcoholics Anonymous I am so glad for Al-Anon family groups, which is for relatives and friends of alcoholics.
Hank August 17, 2011 at 02:06 AM
People in AA are great! Over the years I found they will do anything for you. Some will even pick up for you. RIP Meaghan
Elaine Donovan August 17, 2011 at 02:19 AM
God Bless You Jack. It's people like you who give hope to families of addicts and alcoholics. I am so very sorry for your loss. I Love that you are not ashamed. You should be very proud. You are a power of example to so many! You show us all what is possible. Thank You! Addiction IS a disease Mr. O'Sullivan, and if it hasn't touched your family YET, that's amazing! I must wonder if it has though, which is why you seem so bitter. Whether you choose to call it a disease or not doesn't change the fact that there is an epidemic in this country. Do some homework Mr. O'Sullivan, you may be surprised to find that many addicts aren't making the choice at all, it's being made for them by Doctors prescribing pain meds for surgeries or even simple ailments! Many elderly people are addicts and don't even realize it until they attempt to go off of pain meds after a time. Yes there are kids who pick something up too not knowing that it's gonna get them. Nobody walks into this with their eyes wide open.There's alot to this addiction thing Mr. O'Sullivan, stay tuned you'll learn. It comes in all shapes and sizes, and someone LOVES every one of them! Thanks Again Jack, look forward to hearing more from you Honey! -Elaine Donovan
Christen Wright August 17, 2011 at 03:12 AM
Jackie, My mother moved me out of Charlestown in my early teens to avoid drugs. However I still found myself caught up in the grips of addiction. I didn't loose the family, the house, the car, or materialistic things, but more importantly I lost myself. My morals & dignity went out the window real fast. Needless to say I'm 27 now & have 6 years clean. I'm not looking for a pat on the back however I hold on to my seat in the fellowship for dear life. Because for me it is life or death. Unfortunately sometimes that one more time is the last one more time & I have a healthy fear of that. Disease has destroyed so many people's lives in my family & hopefully I can be a power of example; that if this addict can get clean anyone can. I was saddened to hear about Meaghan, she grew up with my cousin Shannel & my heart goes out to u & ur entire family. You all are in my prayers. Thank you for writing this...it really needed to be stated publicly not just in the safety of the halls.
Dan Ryan August 17, 2011 at 03:44 AM
Jack- Thank you for writing so eloquently for those who wanted and needed to hear it. You know your audience and you should just keep writing for them. Mr. O'Sullivan is entitled to his opinion. Even if he never agrees with you, his voicing his thoughts in your column my have opened one more set of eyes, even slightly. Keep it up, buddy. -Ryno
Patty Driscoll Gould August 17, 2011 at 04:00 AM
Well said Elaine,, You are right oon the money on all points, This article and the work and example of Jack and Shannon brings hope and pride to those who know first hand the sorrow, pain and worry to those of us who are effected by substance abuse,
Stefania Sasso August 17, 2011 at 04:59 AM
I'm so sad to hear about Meaghan. I went to high school with her. This is upsetting since I also just lost my brother to an overdose on April 27th, he was only 29 years old. What Christen Wright said about the "one more time" is what happened to my brother. He got clean after my husband got sent to prison last year, they used to get high together. I think seeing him get locked up scared him straight. Unfortunatly he made all our nightmares come true... finding him dead in the bathroom. Jack, this was a great artical. I really enjoyed reading it & Im sharing it so more people can see this. I too am a recoverying addict & I'm PROUD to tell the world that I have over 5 years clean! This disease cost me everything, and its a disease Seamus, no one understands til it happens to them. I told my mom last week "why" I continued to sniff oxys, it wasnt because I wanted to, I hated doing them. It was because if I didn't I couldn't get out of bed, I counldn't shower & I couldn't go to work because my body shut itself down without it. Comparing an addict to a gang member is so ignorant. Yes most chose to do the drug for the first couple times BUT after that the drug takes over & you no longer have control, the drug has full control. I got arrested twice for distribution, you think thats something I wanted? I'll never be embarrassed for being in recovery though, I have a daughter that needs me & a husband who's in prison for relapsing... she will know what addiction did to her mom & dad!
Seamus O'Sullivan August 17, 2011 at 12:52 PM
Jack- I'll reiterate again that I have the utmost respect for you and people like you who beat addiction, whatever form it takes. In no way am I trying to take anything away from you or your niece. Likening drug addiction to diabetes, or any other disease for that matter, in my opinion, is a means for addicts and recovering addicts to justify their predicament. There's a certain cause/effect relationship with drug addiction not present in 99.9% of other diseases that breaks with your line of reasoning. People with (Type I, at least) diabetes don't actively cause their pancreas to stop producing insulin. Drug use, which as you know often leads to addiction, is a conscious choice someone makes the first time they use. I can say I'll never become an addict because I don't use drugs. I can't say I'll never develop cancer. Still, I realize drug addiction is an epidemic in Charlestown and across the city, and I appreciate you bringing your story to light. At the very least it's a problem that needs to be actively and openly discussed in a community.
Kristi Ceccarossi August 17, 2011 at 01:29 PM
I just wanted to thank everyone for commenting on this article. I agree with you all -- Jack rocks and Charlestown is lucky to have him. His willingness to be honest and outspoken about his experience is a gift, not just to the neighborhood, but for anyone touched by addiction. It's awesome that when someone like him speaks up, a bunch of other people give him props for putting himself out there.
Denise Bohne August 17, 2011 at 01:46 PM
Denise a very hopeful Parent.... Dear Jack: Kudos to you for being Candid..! i have seen this horrible disease since i was a child. Your article was an unfortunate inspiration as the loss of your cousin, like so many young beautiful boys and girls, in charlestown are staggering. It is ridiculous for any Adult to not have medical knowledge that """YES"" this thing called addiction is a disease passed through the """DNA"" like our FRECKLES.. I have nothing but admiration for all of the Lucky ,, Yes i will call Lucky whom hit Bottom and realize..It is a TRue Blessing from GOD. Continued success to you. And to all the young men and Women in """ANY TOWN"" who fights this addiction every waking minute..I know your Story is a very admired one, and so it should BE. I shout out now to Everyone that helps, any of the afflicted THANK YOU..! They need you...to the Jacks, Shannon's and Nicole's...Keep spreading the word as Younger kids are Listening. This is a Very Hopeful Mother whom has seen her son suffer horribly..I pray he will be a Good statistic...As the afflicted Are Human's and should be looked upon as Such....
Jimmy G. August 17, 2011 at 03:56 PM
Sorry just don't buy "There's a certain cause/effect relationship with drug addiction not present in 99.9% of other diseases" as you say.... Is not most cases of diabetes caused by a person indulging in bad eating "habits" Is not most cases of throat and lung cancer caused by a person indulging in a smoking "habit" Is not most liver disease caused by a person indulging in a drinking "habit" Those are just off the top of my head i had to pull over to write this...But if those are caused by a habit and are classified as a disease then why cant addiction which is caused by a "habit" also be called a disease...I guess all those folks with those other disease should be ashamed and not offered help either right Seamus
Seamus O'Sullivan August 17, 2011 at 07:34 PM
There's a profound difference between a disease your bring upon yourself and a disease you develop naturally. Also, to clarify, I never said anyone should be ashamed or is not deserving of help. Those were your words.
PattyK August 17, 2011 at 08:03 PM
Jack, your eulogy came from the heart and touched all of us. thank you for your honest ability to share your past, which attests to the fact there is always hope for an addict, only you know the key to your successes, and we are grateful that you came back to us, and picked up your life and spun it into something positive. Some addicts are like you, and some will never get the chance to come back because of overdosing, or not having the strength to pull themselves out. But no one should give up on themselves. You have to strive everyday to make the most of your life...as we see using meaghan as an example here, we don't always have a lot of time to do it.
Mary Doherty August 17, 2011 at 10:51 PM
Kind of timely--an article today in the Los Angeles Times on addiction: http://www.latimes.com/health/boostershots/la-heb-addiction-isbrain-disease-20110816,0,1680950.story
mm August 18, 2011 at 06:03 PM
Jack your words are truly inspiring and Meaghan would be so proud. You have over come so much and continue to help others stay on the right path and that is commendable. Keep your head up and stay strong don't let the words of anyone get to you. We are all proud of you and appreciate all you do.
Christina August 18, 2011 at 07:23 PM
Jackie, well said, well done! People will have positive remarks and negative remarks~ thats life. The eulogy must have been hard, it was hard for me to go. I did not want to remember Meaghan that way. Your eulogy wouldve def made me breakdown, also seeing others cry. I love Meaghan. She may have been an addict, but as I know Meaghan she was a good person. Wish we were in h.s. again and she was sitting right next to me. Meaghan would be proud of u as I am proud of you! Thank you for lifting up that rug that people just brush everything under it! Love you Meaghan n Miss you Meaghan~ may you Rest In Peace!
Diane Grant August 18, 2011 at 11:32 PM
Jack, It doesn't matter what some people may think about addiction. There are more people in Charlestown who realize that you should never look down on anybody, unless you are helping them up. Let's all fight the good fight, one day at a time. RIP Meaghan.
Donna O'Brien August 19, 2011 at 11:36 AM
Jack, This is a terrible loss for all of us. We all share your grief. I would like to give Mr. O'Sullivan an example of the disease of addiction; perhaps, an example many can relate to. My grand father was addicted to alcohol. My father, one of his sisters and three of his brothers were addicted to alcohol. Two of my brothers are addicted to alcohol. One of my cousins was addicted to drugs and died from her addiction; she was taken to the hospital by her brother who is addicted to alcohol. One of my cousins who is NOT addicted to alcohol has a child who is addicted to drugs. Mr. O'Sullivan, are you able to see a pattern here? We don't choose our genes, sir.
Abby Gray August 19, 2011 at 02:16 PM
Your column was amazing. I could add a thousand points after living through a very difficult marriage to my first husband; and then trying to make sure he did not die in a gutter somewhere. He did die, but in a hospital. He came from an affluent family, lots of siblings and cousins. He was the third brother out of six to die; yet his family still does not address addiction in their family. I know that no one would choose that life. My goal is to focus on prevention, education. As parents, we have to ban together and work together and not be afraid to speak up. I know my husband and I are committed to helping any way we can. We are deeply sorry for your loss. Thank you again for your very open, honest column. Don't ever give up!
Janet Dennis August 19, 2011 at 03:15 PM
Wonderful article! Honest,.. accurate,.. informative,..sensitive,....brave.
Mary Brock August 19, 2011 at 04:48 PM
Jack, I am so sorry for the loss of your niece. I will keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers. Some of us believe we were alcoholics before we ever picked up a drink or a drug. Some research confirms a genetic predisposition to the disease. I have heard people qualify as coming from an alcoholic family. Sometimes I qualify as coming from an alcoholic town. Usually gets me a laugh. Mary
Jim Mansfield August 19, 2011 at 06:54 PM
Jack Kelly, You Rock. I think you were candid and gave others the opportunity to learn. Regardless of the naysayers, addiction hits us all and honesty is the first part of helping to mitigate the pain. Keep on on Keeping on!
Karen Giordano Catizone August 20, 2011 at 02:41 PM
Let me say first, Jack so sorry for the loss of your cousin Meaghan. I hope that you are your family are doing as well as could be at this time. Second-Bravo bravo bravo on each and every word you said here. I honestly think a lot of the times part of the reason people don't get help is the stigma that comes with being in recovery as you said. And John you beat me to the punch with what you said about the different diseases that can be brought on by our own bad habits-such as certain types of diabeties, cancers etc. Anyone who gets lung cancer from smoking no more asked for that disease than someone battling the addiction disease did... I really wish people wouldn't look so down on people battling addiction. Ususally it takes that person having someone they know or love battle it for them to change their minds. I wish that wasn't the case. Again, so sorry for your loss, and beautifully written article..........
Pat Galvin August 23, 2011 at 11:40 PM
Mr. O' Sullivan, Like Jack said alcoholism and addiction is a disease recognized by the American Medical Association. While you say that you can never become an addict does also mean that you are not pre-disposed to the disease? Can you honestly say that no family member has ever had a problem with addiction? If so you are very lucky. Do you drink a cup of coffee every morning? If you happen to miss that cup of coffee do you get a headache or do not have the same spring in your step that you usually do. That is addiction. Caffeine is a drug. Some drugs like caffeine are not as addictive as others, such as heroin, but they are drugs just the same. Some people are pre-disposed to it, while some are not. The same as any other disease. Some people have a history of cancer in their family, and other have a history of addiction. A person may not know their pre-disposition and end up in an AA meeting (if they are lucky) nonetheless. Is that their choice? Or, were they doomed from their first drink? If a person is unaware that their family has a history of cancer and ends up having cancer, can you blame them for that as well? These are all hard & controversial issues. People can argue opinions all day long but facts are facts.
Donna O'Brien August 24, 2011 at 12:59 AM
Abby; Thank you for sharing your story with us. Your willingness to revisit a tragedy is a gift; and I thank you! xx
Debbie Evans August 25, 2011 at 01:26 PM
Interesting article: Last month, the New York Times visited campus to report on BU’s progressive approach to treating afflictions like alcoholism and heroin addiction as a physical ailment worthy of its own specialty. http://www.bu.edu/bostonia/web/bumc-addiction/
Kelley Stout (Wedge) August 30, 2011 at 03:37 PM
Jack, Great article. From the heart and written with integrity and honesty. I am so very sorry for the loss of Meaghan by you and your whole family. We need more people like to you and Shannon in Charlestown speaking up and speaking out on your success stories and what you know is possible! I am so proud of you, and of how far you have come in life. You are an inspiration for anyone battling with addiction in their lives or in the lives of a loved one. I will be looking for your book on the shelves within the next five years....a book that will change lives and perspectives forever.
Diane Grant August 30, 2011 at 05:46 PM
Kelly, you are so right. We need more people like Jack & Shannon working together to help any human being that is addicted to anything. It could be drugs, alchohol, gambling, all are destructive and misunderstood. We need more education and compassion, not judgement.
julie August 30, 2011 at 08:44 PM
Great article Jackie! Im so very sorry about Meaghan. Such a heartbreakng, horrible, lose. If more people like you would stand up & not be ashamed & tell their story, of addiction and recovery, the stigma may lessen & give struging addicts hope that they too can do something witb themselves & its not too late to become successful. Ive never been ashamed of my past because in a way, i feel i have a better perspective than most on life. I truly know how quickly it can end so i love deeper & show thst love every second among other things. Ive lost a lot, but gained also like my 3 gorgeous kids. Not everyone is going to understand addiction & acknowledge its a disease. Especially if they dont onow any addicts & you have to look at it from their perspective just as ur asking them to do & educate them. Its up to them to do the rest

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