V Interesting

Throwback: The Worst Club in the World

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In this best-of episode, V opens up about something very personal that has shaped the last seven years of their life. Through this tragedy, V found comfort and support in Lemonada’s mission to help “make life suck less” and decided to leave their dream job to pursue a higher purpose. At a time when V didn’t have all the answers, they leaned on one of the most stabilizing forces in their life to help make sense of a loss. In this powerful and insightful conversation, V meets with Lemonada co-founder and Last Day host Stephanie Wittels Wachs to talk about substance use disorder, harm reduction, and grief. We’ll hear about the healthy ways of managing an addiction and the resources available to help you or your loved one get through those tough times. 

Follow Stephanie at @wittelstephanie on Twitter and Instagram, and be sure to catch her series Last Day and Call For Help.

Keep up with V on TikTok @underthedesknews and on Twitter @VitusSpehar. And stay up to date with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @LemonadaMedia. 

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V Spehar, Stephanie Wittels Wachs

V Spehar  00:05

Hey friends, I asked you pretty much every day to trust me, and I appreciate so much that you do. You come here to be smart together, to feel safe to learn something new, and to hear the truth, but overall, to not feel alone. And in honor of that relationship, that agreement we’ve made with each other of mutual trust, I’m going to trust you with something that truly just scares the shit out of me. I get interviewed a lot now. I mean, I was just featured on The Today Show, which was incredible. But the first question folks always ask me is okay, so you were a caterer in DC, and then you switched over to do food security. And now you do compassionate news programming? Why did you make that change? What happened? And the answer I used to give was, well, I accomplished everything I wanted to in the food world. And so I wanted to move into a helper space. And that’s why I started doing the food equity work, which is true, but it’s not why this is the story of the last seven years of my life. And the things that brought me to this moment right now. And it all begins on the worst day of my life. August 13th, 2015. I was at the height of my career doing big hundreds of 1000s of dollars, sometimes million dollar events in DC, when in the middle of my work day, I got a call. And the person on the other line simply said, V are you there? Listen to me. Your brother died. And I responded, no, he didn’t, he didn’t knock it off. Come on. No, he didn’t. And as I was convincing myself that this wasn’t happening to me, I started to recognize that voice on the phone was my mother’s voice. And then she handed the phone to a man who at this point, I’m not really sure if it was my dad or one of the cops that was at the house. But this man’s voice came on and said. Hello. Yes, it’s true. Your brother died this morning. And I just said, Okay, well, you know, I have a very busy day, and I’m going to have to call you back. Yeah, he struggled. Things were difficult. This is fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. I can’t deal with this right now. I have to go. And I hung up, like that was gonna, like fix it, like hanging up was gonna, like, change anything. I worked that entire day. At a point the cops had called my CEO at the time, and she came into my office and was like, knock knock, hey, I think you actually kind of maybe do need to go home. And I responded with like, no. And I just wanted to go on like nothing had happened. And she let me work that whole day. Later that night, the owner of the catering company had called me and said, hey, I know some stuff is going on for you at home. And I think maybe you’re in shock. But I do think you probably have to go home for a few days. So why don’t we do this, we’ll give you three days bereavement to deal with this. And then you could come right on back and you know, you pick up like nothing happened? Three days. So that is why I left the industry, an industry I had given every part of myself every weekend, every holiday, every evening. Give me three days. So I did go home. I went home from DC to Connecticut, and I entered into what would be several weeks of just absolute chaos. And there is no other way to say it. My mother wouldn’t let anyone in the house. So there were people just like camped out on our front lawn grieving. At a point my dad had to pull the phone out of the wall because it was just outrageous. The way that people will clamor at the family who is grieving for details that we just did not have. So the details that we did have, were first, the police had ruled his death as suicide. And a couple of weeks later, they called us from the medical examiner’s office and said, You know what? We’re actually thinking maybe it was an overdose, but we can’t find anything in the autopsy that indicates what he might have overdosed on. And so I don’t know, maybe it’s like a little bit of both, maybe we don’t know, maybe you will never know. And so I lived the emotions of both the death of a sibling by suicide, and then lived the emotions of a death of a sibling by overdose. And then they ruled it accidental overdose so that they could put something on his paperwork, so that my family could close out his affairs. But what they basically said to us is, we don’t know. Sorry.

V Spehar  04:54

And the thing that was just so shitty about all of the reasons that these people gave is that they were all so believable. Suicide, okay, you know he struggled with finding his place in the world and for how popular and handsome he was, he just like could not make it click, he could not make the world makes sense in a way that he felt truly comfortable. And he used to say things like men aren’t allowed to have the full human experience. They’re only allowed to fuck, fight, or cry during the national anthem. And that’s it. And I wish that I had heard him more clearly. He struggled with feeling smart. He struggled with feeling heard. And it was a joke in our family used to tell you say all the time, like, oh, you guys don’t listen to me. I feel like you talk over me all the time. And so I thought, you know, all right, one day, he just woke up and he said, fuck it, that’s it. I’m going to clock out, I’m going to push the reset button. I could see my suicide seemed like an option to him. And then with the overdose thing, it was like, alright, yeah, you know that’s possible. He had shoulder surgery. And they prescribed him some very strong medicines. And you know, people get addicted to that kind of stuff. Maybe he got addicted. Maybe I didn’t know him as well as I thought I did. Maybe we didn’t know him at all. Maybe he was addicted to drugs, and he got a bad pill. And, and we just didn’t know, your mind is incredibly cruel to you in these times when it’s trying to put pieces that don’t fit together, together. And it’s trying to say like, okay, yeah, this is why because you think if you know why you’ll get some relief, but you don’t. So you tell yourself terrible lies. Anything was possible. I am now seven years past the day that he passed away. And over those years, I’ve come to settle on death by misadventure, which is a term I had never heard before. But when you spend a lot of time in your head looking for answers, sometimes you learn that in England, they have this term called Death by misadventure, which just means like, you know, somebody went out that day to do something, and they just had a little misadventure along the way, and transitioned out of this world, and into the next.

V Spehar  07:04

What was extra hard about all of this, as there are just no resources for this kind of thing. There is no guidebook for the kind of grief and confusion that comes from unexpected death or death of a sibling. My entire body chemistry changed from that experience, I am not the person that I once was, and I can’t be I couldn’t be. So I ended up leaving my dream job and events planning that truly in the end could not give a shit about me, right. And I moved into a helping profession, because when you can’t help yourself, or the people around you, the people you love. Sometimes the only thing that makes sense is to try and help a stranger. And so that’s what I did. And I was really good at it. And I’ve been so afraid to tell the story about the last seven years of my life, because it feels like a weakness. And I just didn’t want to be known as that person whose brother died. So I worked really hard alone to build out under the desk news as a safe space for news. And through that work, I got asked to guest on an episode of I’M SORRY, on the Lemonada network. And then I got to meet Steph and Jess who are the co-founders of this network, who also lost their brothers tragically and unexpectedly. And through that experience, I started listening to their podcast Last Day and I read Steph’s book, everything is horrible and wonderful. And I learned that the motto of Lemonada network is to make life suck less and I knew that the journey had taken me I’ll be at the long and hard way. But the journey had taken me to this place right now to the mission of making life suck less. So that’s what we do. We’re gonna take a quick break. And when we come back, I am so excited to introduce you to the woman I call my emotional support producer. Stephanie Wittels Wachs who in many ways through her storytelling gave me the strength to tell my own and to be less scared. We know so much more about suicide, about substance use disorder and about grief. And we’re gonna get into those solutions with you after the break

V Spehar  09:40

So, before the break, I was talking about how I call you my emotional support producer, because you’re so helpful to all of the crying that goes into starting a podcast in the first place. Nevermind all of the crying that goes into, like, you know the pop ups ads that happen when you have lost a sibling and like the weird things that you remind of it. And I was telling folks that one of the first things that you said to me was welcome to the worst club in the world. And it was like, oddly comforting to me because you feel so alone in these feelings. It’s so weird to lose a sibling. And then here was this person who I didn’t know. But I really felt like I got to know through the last day podcast, who was like, welcoming me to the worst club. But it felt right, it sounded wrong, but it felt right. What made you say that, like what?

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  10:32

You know, I didn’t have any time between losing my brother and deciding to talk about it, I dove into the deep end, with some sort of, outside of my body or outside of my capacity to choose, need to process what was going on, in the way that I process things, which is through storytelling. And I didn’t want to be on social media. After my brother died, it was like, there was a lot of layers there. He was really well known. So there was that part of it, where it was a new story, which was really fucked up. And triggering, and then the part of social media where everyone was happy and fine. And I was like, your, I hate you. How are you, okay. How are you posting about your dinner, my, my life is done, it’s dead, I’m dead. My soul is died, it will never, it will never come back to life. And you are posing for a picture, you know, with your best friend at a bar. I mean, it was just so I couldn’t be on social media. And I had a baby at the time. And so she was napping in the car all the time. And I started writing it all down on a Notes app, and just writing, getting it out, like throwing it up out of me. And my husband, God love him was like, why don’t you put that on the internet for all disease? And I don’t know why I couldn’t talk to people I knew. I mean, I literally people were, you know, people would want to drop dinner off or do something. And I was an I wouldn’t even respond to their texts. Like leave it on the porch. I don’t live here anymore. I can’t, I can’t talk to or see anyone I know. And yet, I can publish an entire essay pouring my soul out onto a website. What happened is that I did that. And strangers were like, Oh, my God, that happened to me. How did you, thank you for saying that? I didn’t know how to say this. This hell is my hell. Welcome to my hotel. And I was like, Wow, I’m seeing I’m hurt. I’m felt. And I that was the first time I realized that there was a club, and that there’s just something really bonding about knowing somebody else has lived through your trauma. And when I met you, I was like, hey, there’s another member? How are you? I’m sure you’re absolutely, like, traumatized and funny and full of tragedy and jokes.

V Spehar  13:14

It’s just so unusual, when you’re trying to process your own grief the way that you have to process and hold the grief of your entire community. And I just don’t think folks are ready for that. I know we weren’t ready for that. One of the kindest things that was said to me right afterwards was by my friend […] because I had a handle my work over to her so she could like handle it for the measly three days bereavement they gave me and she was like Ricky, I’m so sorry, I know that this is going to be a burden on you. And she was like, No, it’s not an I’m going to hold your hand through this. And that is a quote that I have, like, I remember like, the sound coming out of the room and I was like, okay, I’m gonna let Ricky hold my hand through this. And then someday, I’ll probably have to hold someone else’s hands through this, but it just made like so much sense. But it was one of the few things that made sense in the early days.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  14:07

When you hang on to those things, right? It’s like those little moments that sear into your brain. I can remember. I mean, what a mine was. There’s so many but like writing an obituary, and oh, and then learning that it was gonna cost like $100 a word or something and, and, like stopping the crying and looking at Mike my husband and being like saying The Big Lebowski line like I may be grieving, but I’m not a SAP or whatever. I’m like, cut that shit down. Like make that. Let’s see, let’s say who he wasn’t 25 words. Do you know what I mean? Like, let’s just like be judicious here with her with our word choice. And you just remember those moments where something breaks through because what it is just a wave of hellish motion, I don’t know, I’ve never experienced anything like it. And when you can break that up for a second when you wake up for a moment, because I just think you’re in a daze, you’re just in another world.

V Spehar  15:11

I know, like you said earlier, you couldn’t be on social media because you couldn’t see people be happy. I find myself grieving, not just the death of my brother, but also the death of like, my ignorance, like my just silly, dumb, I could just go about in the world, and think everything was just going to be fine. And it was over, I would look at people. And I’d be like, well, I can’t come to your wedding, because I’m not going to make through the best man speech. I can’t be your friend anymore. Because you talk about how annoying your brother is, or your sister. And I just literally cannot talk to you anymore. And it’s just so complicated sibling death. It’s unusual.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  15:49

Very unusual. But you know what I think the other end of that is, and I’m curious if you have gotten to this place, I think you have, but you have a rebirth. That’s why I’m talking to you today, we’re both talking to each other because our brothers died. Neither of us would be here doing this, had we not been forced into carving out a new identity. And once you carve out that new identity, you are able to realize, like what matters what doesn’t matter. And then it gets you to this new level of being able to appreciate the best man speech in a way that like maybe you weren’t before. And I’m not talking about like immediate grief. I’m talking seven years out, right?

V Spehar  16:42

I hid my grief for so long. And I think that’s why it took so long. Yeah. And that’s why we’re here now. Because we’re not hiding it anymore. We have to just out you have to be able to talk about it, we’re coming out, it just feels like coming out in some ways.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  16:55

I found that I was prone to anger and my grief more than anything meant I was furious. When I first found out that he had passed away. I wasn’t immediately sad. I was rageful angry that he did this to me, and my family and my mother. And I was like, how could you do this? You know, and like, it wasn’t his fault. It turned out in the end. But it was like, man, I was so angry, and there’d be so many times when I would get angry and then to be mad, I was angry.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  16:55

And then you’re like, I don’t know, I’m like nearly eight years in and I’m driving to the airport an hour and a half away a couple days ago. And I never have time to listen to music because I’m never alone. And I’m never not listening to a podcast and a song comes on. And I’m just like, on the one on one. Weeping like the guy just died yesterday.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  17:48

Yeah, I was really mad too. And what was so wild is that I did write all of that down, and I captured that anger. And when I wrote the book, and a lot of the book was it was written in nine months, the year after he died. And I remember going back to edit the book two years later. And I told the editor oh god, I can’t put this out. I sound like an asshole. I’m like, angry, dead person, I have to change all this, I have to tone it down. Luckily, I had an amazing editor that was like, please do not do that this is so authentic. And it would be a real disservice to what you’ve made to rewrite the story. And I think like we don’t feel like we’re allowed to be angry. But of course, you’re angry the part of it is this like, misunderstanding, I think that I think we’re gonna get into about the stigma around it. And that you did this to me, You did this to our family. And that is, I think a feeling that is I don’t know, I don’t know I so I can only speak to having an overdose death as a loss. But the feeling that that it didn’t have to be this way. And that you rewrote this, you wrote this in, in your in your way, you wrote the story in a way that wasn’t supposed to go. And I didn’t have a say in it. Whereas like, if you have some kind of illness, which spoiler alert, addiction is an illness, but I didn’t know that at the time it but if you have like a physical cancer or something a heart disease, it feels like you weren’t in charge with addiction. And I think to some degree suicide, it feels like you are in charge. And you made this decision. And you did this to us. And that’s a rough thing to admit. And it’s part of the work that I do today. I mean, it’s like hey, that’s totally normal and it is a disease and here’s how we can address it. You know what I mean? Like it’s complicated.

V Spehar  19:47

The people within the town within the circumstance. We’re also on that side of this is somebody’s fault. And for this moment, this person who can’t speak this brother of mine that had passed away it was his fault, because they originally told us That was suicide. And then they told that it was overdose. And at the time, there’s just not a lot of kindness that goes into treating somebody who is marked by the police or by the medical examiner is either an accidental overdose or overdose at all. And so we’re going to talk about that we’re gonna take a quick break. And we’re going to talk a little bit now about harm reduction, the truth of addiction, the truth of just what is going on with the Fentanyl crisis, like there’s just so much that we never got educated on. So the only reaction we had was frustration, but we have better info now. So when we come back, we’re going to talk about how things are now and how we can make them better. Can’t wait.

V Spehar  20:59

Okay, we are back. And we are talking about sibling loss. But we are also talking about just figuring out the things that we didn’t know because these are really ugly, scary topics. And nobody wants to talk about them, let alone be incredibly honest about them, let alone be incredibly compassionate about them, because they’re scary, and we want them to just not happen. So we’re just going to lock them out, we’re going to lock suicide out, we’re going to lock substance use disorder out, we’re going to lock the people who do those things out. And we just can’t, we can’t because we can’t control it. And he passed away in 2015. And they couldn’t figure it out. Right. They were like it’s a suicide, it’s an overdose. It’s an accidental overdose. But at the time, they couldn’t find anything in his system that they could point to and say like, well, this is why like there wasn’t like, you know, a volume of heroin or of Percocet or whatever in a system. But they also at that time, were not necessarily testing for synthetic opioids, they were not testing for fentanyl. And that is what I want to spend a little bit of time on here. Because as we’ve learned, there is so much going on right now, with a fentanyl epidemic and crisis that goes even beyond a substance use disorder crisis. And for folks who aren’t aware of fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is about 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. But a lot of times somebody who maybe was a heroin user or escalated to that if they can’t get that drug of choice will defer to fentanyl. And the problem is the dosing fucks you up.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  22:32

A little bit goes a long way. And fentanyl is being put into a lot of things. And people don’t know that they’re taking it often, which is also happening. They’re accidentally consuming fentanyl and not knowing it.

V Spehar  22:43

Because it’s a cheap drug. So kids who are going out, you know, to a concert.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  22:48

I mean, the problem is we grew up on abstinence we grew up on, there’s one way to do it. And that is to not do it. And I was like, wait a minute, you’re telling me not to do it? Well, of course, I’m gonna do it, you know that you are actually daring me. So I did. So there is there is there is something that is fundamentally wrong with the concept of abstinence only right? It’s just not an effective strategy. It doesn’t take humanity into consideration. People do drugs for 100 million reasons, right. And we know that like, there’s more than 2 million people in the world who are not in the world in the US who have an opioid use disorder. That’s a lot of people. It’s not that they’re doing drugs, because it feels bad. They’re doing drugs, because it’s benefiting them. It’s for whatever reason, it’s fun. It’s numbing it, there’s some benefit that that they are deriving from it. It’s hurting them in ways, right. So like, people are gonna use drugs. And if we could flip the script, and except that human beings are going to have things that they do for a variety of reasons, and how do we keep them safe, then we would lose less lives. period, full stop, end of story. You know, when I started doing last day, I didn’t realize we were making a harm reduction podcast. And now I very much do. Now when people were like, what do you do? I’m like, first I was like, we thought we’d do a podcast about dead people, or people dying, why people are dying. And now I realized that we do it, we do a podcast about harm reduction. And at the really simply, it’s just a way to keep people safe, when they are doing something harmful. What we’ve done with the drug crisis is that we have not prepared because there is so much judgment and stigma and shame. And we don’t want to tell people you were using and we don’t want to let people down and we have approached it from this, you know, intervention, you know, you quit drugs or you’re out of the family, which is the complete opposite of what we should do. And there’s a lot of casualties.

V Spehar  24:58

You’re a bad guy and you have to be locked up, you’re gonna go to jail.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  25:02

And that is internalized, that is internalized. There is nobody that hated themselves more than my brother, who was like, and I know this because I would I read his journals that he would do in in his 30 day rehabs, that were also incredibly ineffective. And he felt a tremendous amount of shame, and sorrow, and self-loathing that he was doing this thing that was hurting his family, and hurting the people he loved most and yet couldn’t stop. And I always say, like, if drugs were a matter of willpower, dude would be alive. I mean, today, no question. So if we just say like, it’s not about willpower, and how do we just accept it? That was a huge turning point for me during the show, and I had this aha that like, oh, wait a minute. So he actually could have kept using, we could have put him on medication assisted treatment, we could have given him Naloxone, we could have done all of these things that we didn’t do. And he’d still be alive.

V Spehar  26:06

Like that is I would do it in a second.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  26:08

Oh, it’s so sucks to know that there was another way. And we just didn’t know we just didn’t have any idea.

V Spehar  26:18

We had this idea of tough love, right, as a lot of people do, which is intolerance of just pull yourself together, just knock it off, just stop doing that. Just go to acupuncture, if your shoulder still hurts from surgery, stop taking the pills that are prescribed to you by a doctor, because they’re making you weird or whatever, there was just such, because you don’t think it’s gonna happen to you or like, you don’t think oh, he’s gonna slip off the edge, you just think like, Well, I’m just going to push them a little bit harder because I care. And we were taught that tough love or the silent treatment was the way to go. And it just isn’t. And as I was listening to last day, which when we got to the part and you were talking about that medically assisted.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  26:58

Medication assisted treatment, or medication for opioid use disorders, what people are calling it today, but yes, MATOD.

V Spehar  27:06

There was a part in there where you are the are the expert was saying that there are some people that they will do a drug once, maybe it was prescribed to them for their shoulder surgery, and it will forever alter their brain chemistry, and they will not be able to not do that thing. And we can help them by letting them do small doses of that thing in a safe way forever. And I listened to forever. And I listened to that part over and over and over and over. And it was that same thing where it was like, what? So if we would have listened, right? Anybody would have listened and been like, Okay, I’m not going to vilify this, I’m not going to say why can’t you just or make it about like, the willpower, then so many more families wouldn’t go through what we went through. And I just hope that people who still have a family member alive that’s going through these things, hear that? And no, it’s nobody’s fault. It just is the chemistry. I was like, fuck, it was just the chemistry.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  28:00

It was just yeah, that was Garth. That was that was Garth from Canada. And he is a drug user. So if we would listen to people with lived experience, if we would listen to you know, not Google, how do I get my person off drugs immediately, or whatever, you know, what’s the 30 day treatment that cost the most? Yeah, that moment was a huge aha, for me. I remember he was talking about being on methadone forever. And my jaw fell on the floor. And I was like, wow, holy, wow, we really, we really did it wrong. And it’s not my fault. And I need people to know, because nobody knew no, why would you? It seems so counterintuitive, right? Harm Reduction doesn’t sit well, with our way, you were talking about tough love or the pull yourself up by the bootstraps that mentality of like, just get through it, you know, just grind through it, and you’ll be fine. But there are safe injection sites and things that people are doing globally, that are effective, that are evidence based, that are reducing death and reducing harm. And yet it feels like to us well, that’s permission. We’re giving people permission.

V Spehar  29:17

It makes me nuts now, having listened to your private because once you know something right, then you can’t unknow it then I have to tell every single person on the earth. That’s why we’re doing this podcast today, because 250,000 people downloaded it and I’m like they all need to know about harm reduction right now. I’m not afraid to tell my story. I’m not afraid to tell anything I want every single person to know, because it affects so many of us. I mean, the number one demographic of people who are dying because of accidental fentanyl poisoning is White men who are between the ages of 25 and 35, which is exactly our brothers. I mean, this age, it is difficult. It is difficult for people to get through that particular clip of 10 years and the rate of overdose has increased. It’s something like 63% since 2015 Like, yeah, at some point, we have to say enough is enough is doing the work enough is enough. And luckily, there are so many people that are doing the work and who are trying to push this legislation the way that everybody has heard that saying no, right, it’s okay to not feel okay. The last two decades have been focused on mental health. And it has done so much for people, like you said, like, just to understand that there’s a chemical imbalance that needs fixed, and we can go for a walk, but sometimes that just isn’t gonna go.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  30:30

I will go for a walk every day. And I do, right, like, I will take my pill and I’ll go for a walk and I’ll drink my water and I’ll do my water, you know, like, yeah, you got it’s a multi-tiered approach, trying to live through this mess. This is not easy. And what my brother did to cope was to use heroin, right, that was his way of getting through it. And this was a successful, talented, funny, relatively famous, beloved comedian, right. And still wasn’t able to sort of cope. So I think there’s just so much like this lack of compassion, like you said, and humanity for just like, what it takes to be a human being on this spinning planet. It’s just really hard. And if you are using drugs, or want to use drugs, or have loved somebody who’s using drugs, there are things that you can do to make them safer to make yourself safer. And like, let’s we should tell them that we’ll be there.

V Spehar  31:39

Yes, please tell them.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  31:40

Okay, so first of all, my so I have like a few things that I I’ll get on my soapbox and say one of them is just don’t use alone, right? Like, that’s a big a big, big, big thing that I took out of doing the show. My brother died alone. You know, he was at a comedy show doing stand-up came home used and died. And if you are afraid to say to somebody, listen, I’m going to use that’s that shame part. But this is why I think we need to have overdose prevention sites and things like this, but that’s a whole other story. But find a friend phone a friend, you know, tell somebody you love. I know you’re gonna be mad at me, but I’m going to use drugs and can you just sit in the other room because like you will, you might stop breathing. We just talked about fentanyl. We talked about all of the things that might be in the drugs. Speaking of fentanyl, there are fentanyl testing strips yet are like they’re great. You test the stuff that you’re gonna take and then it goes positive up. Don’t put that in your body.

V Spehar  32:48

And you can get them for free. And we will link in the show notes where you can get them one of the greatest things because I’m on TikTok. So I hear from the kids a lot. One of the greatest things I had a conversation with the girls from the dare we say podcast recently, all very young live in LA, very successful girls. And they were like, yeah, so we gotta get our fentanyl testing strips before we go out stay safe, girly. And I was like, what? And they’re like, oh, it’s very like, Absolutely. Why wouldn’t do, 100% a thing and I’m like, you talk to your girlfriend’s like that. They’re like, da Of course we do. Like, why wouldn’t we? And they were so normalized in their conversation in the podcast about shouting them out. And I was like, wow, good for you.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  33:26

Like we change it. Yeah, that’s amazing.

V Spehar  33:28

Yeah. And it’s not encouraging people. That’s the thing. People aren’t going to come to you for fentanyl testing strips, because they want to just like, unless they were already considering doing the thing. You’re not giving them permission. You’re not encouraging them. You’re just helping them stay safe. Nobody deserves to die because they went out to a party one time or because they were young and they were interested or curious or whatever the case may be. You don’t deserve to die because of those nails and there are ways to prevent it. But the fentanyl.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  33:52

Fentanyl testing strips are great. Naloxone Naloxone, naloxone. Narcan. Narcan. Yes. Yes.

V Spehar  34:05

And what does that do? So that’s like if somebody stops breathing, this helps them start?

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  34:10

Nasal spray. It’s like a Flonase. You just squirt it on up there. You carry your Narcan with you. Harm Reduction advocates are so vocal about this because it’s truly lifesaving. It’s like bringing somebody back.

V Spehar  34:27

So because it stops. I just, there’s so many questions about Narcan. I want to make sure folks get it that Narcan. It’s a small thing. It’s easy to do. There’s no needle to it. It’s not crazy. You essentially insert the tip of it into somebody’s nose. You shoot it like Flonase like Steph said, and then what that does is it stops the opioid from constricting your breathing like it’s a breathing helper.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  34:53

Your breathing slows down to a place where you just stop at some point.

V Spehar  34:57

When you go into a coma and then you die. It’s Exactly.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  35:00

That’s right. So it reverses that. And again, it buys you time to get to the hospital and get treatment. So if you know somebody, actually, no, there’s a lot of great programs out there right now I’m seeing it everywhere, so much more than when we started the podcast in 2019, where restaurants and bars and I saw Austin, Texas has an initiative now.

V Spehar  35:23

My hairdresser has a sign that says, asked me about Narcan.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  35:26

It’s just, that’s amazing. And in 2015, when Harris died, I had never heard that word ever. So that is progress. You know, I remember really distinctly the statistic that 72,000 people had died in 2017. And I kept thinking about that, and I equated it to a football stadium in terms of capacity. And now that number is around 110,000, right? Like, nearly, you know, what is that 5 years later, so. So it’s not getting any better. That’s, that’s the bad thing. But we have better solutions and tools. That’s a good thing.

V Spehar  36:14

I agree. And we’re gonna take one more quick break. When we come back, we’re going to talk a little bit about the mental health crisis that folks are facing both in the weeks of tragedy, but also just in general, man, the world is cruel and hard sometimes. And there’s some new help for folks in that space, too. And so we’ll talk a little bit about the resources that are available for folks who are in that boat because again, we don’t want tragedy to strike you. That makes you a person who’s a better listener. Just be a better listener today and don’t have the tragedy. Maybe hopefully, we’ll see.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  36:49

Honey, we are talking. How you doing? Are you okay?

V Spehar  36:54

I’m okay.

V Spehar  36:55

Are you sure?

V Spehar  36:56

No, I’m good.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  37:01

I live in this space of discomfort. I’m constantly fucking talking about this shit. You’re not, so like I’m let me check in how you doing.

V Spehar  37:11

It’s like being invited to your house for a pool party. Like, yes, I have this water at my house. And I don’t go swimming in my pool. But going swimming in your pool feel safer, because you have more resources. Like I could see a lifeguard and I know you’ve got nice, and it’s more shallow. Because you’ve dealt with it more, ya know what I mean? And there’s like more people around to make sure I don’t drown. So like, I can’t go in the water in my house. But you’re, I can go in the tragedy pool at your house.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  37:33

You’re doing really great. I’m really proud of you.

V Spehar  37:58

Now, we’re going to take you away from some of the stuff that we’ve been talking about, because we could talk about that forever, and never get to the end of the grief and never get to the end of the harm reduction opportunities. And I want to ask you stuff, you have a new show and you are exploring the National Suicide Lifeline has turned over and it is now 988. I’ve been a big advocate of 988. I think it’s so important. Even in the wake of what happened with my brother, I struggled with my own suicidal ideation because you I wasn’t suicidal, but I just wanted to get to him to ask him what happened, right? And you’re just crazy sometimes, and you need to talk to somebody. And I in fact, did call this line. And as the Maximizer helper that I am I actually at the end of the call ended up becoming a volunteer for the text line. I was like, I’m having these thoughts, I knew I didn’t want to like necessarily take my life, but I wanted to be with him. Right, right. Or I wanted I felt helpless. I felt like those ideas were starting to creep up. So I called and I was talking to this person. And they were like, you know, ask me, am I in act of crisis? Do I have a plan? Do I have the means? Is there someone I could talk to? And they were just such simple questions. But tell me about 988. And you’re exploring the good, the bad, the ugly, how it’s rolling out the human side of putting this together. Just tell us a little bit about it.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  39:27

Yeah, I mean, listen, the idea of suicidal ideation and suicide. It’s something we don’t like to talk about. We did a whole season of it of last day, which was season two. And it’s not about like, I want to die. It’s about I want to end the pain. And for many people, they will say to themselves, I don’t know if I’m that bad, right? And you start doing this thing with yourself where you’re judging your own level of crisis. You can just call this line, you can call this line and it doesn’t matter, right? If you are in a moment where you are questioning whether or not you should call, you just pick up the phone and call. And the difference is that now, it is a federal line 988, it was the National Suicide Lifeline that was functioning sort of on its own. Now it is mandated to be rolled out statewide, every state has a different level of funding, which kind of gets into the pitfalls of 988, where you could see if you are in a state that that prioritizes mental health funding, you’re going to have a more secure, structured staffed, trained, well-oiled machine, then if you’re in some part of the country that doesn’t prioritize mental health, and then that funding isn’t going to go where it needs to go. End of the day, though, every place that you call will have somebody trained to pick up the phone, and 85% of the time, you will solve the call on the phone. You know, there’s been a lot of misinformation about geolocation and if the police are going to be contacted, and there’s a lot of fear around that, and the actual fact it is not that is not what is happening. 988 is not tethered to geolocation. Now in some cases, if your life is severely in danger, they can call 911. They can send an ambulance out to be dispatched. So those kinds of things are still being worked out. But those are in severe, life threatening situations. There is a layer of mental health crisis response that that we know is best practices, which is essentially someone to call someone to come and somewhere to go, those are the three categories. So there’s someone to call is 988, the someone to come would be a mobile crisis team, right where you’ve got, in 15% of cases where you’re having some sort of severe mental health emergency, you’ve got a peer specialist and a mental health professional that are coming in a van to you, to coach you in person through that moment, right. Amazing, amazing resource also needs to be funded. So all of these things take money. And then the final piece of the puzzle is somewhere to go where just like some sort of mental health emergency room, if you’ve ever been to an emergency room, not the most relaxing place. Like kind of my nightmare, there’s so much sensory overload. And you can imagine if you’re in the midst of the worst day of your life, it’s not gonna be great. So they are great with physical trauma, mental trauma, not necessarily but yet that is where the majority of mental health emergencies are treated, other than in jails and prisons.

V Spehar  42:48

So just not where we want you to go.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  42:52

No, it’s not. And we just like we just have not ever prioritized mental health in this country. It is why we now find ourselves in this crisis of like, overwhelming deaths of despair happening. We are meeting people in crisis, instead of doing upstream intervention, a lot of what we talk about on last day is how do we get people to a point where they are not reaching that moment of crisis? What is the prevention, we’re doing? What is the like, Hey, if you have a place to live, and a living wage, and food to eat, and security, and health insurance, and all of these, you know, social determinants of health, that we also don’t like to sort of address here, you are more likely to be safe and secure, and not reach that point of crisis. There’s so many things we can do. And 988 is like the tip of the iceberg. So like the way that it was described to me when we first started talking about it was it’s like the door that we’re opening to like normalizing that mental health is an emergency. Awesome, we need to take that step. And then we need to fully flesh out what our mental health system is in America, which at this point is non-existent.

V Spehar  44:05

But yeah, now they have the funding to get somebody right on the line with you so that you can go through it with them. It just it just is generally about being a compassionate human and finding help in knowing that people do actually want to help you. I think so often we’re taught by the news and by politicians that we are individuals and we’re supposed to be bootstrappers and you’re alone, and it’s me against the world and I have to get mine but so often people are so much better than we give them credit for and they do want to be helpers.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  44:34

It’s true. They want to be helpers and they need help. So that’s a really important thing. I think it’s just getting rid of that layer of like, should I just do it, just call it’s there. Just call the line if you feel like you need to call the line. You can make it through that moment. Like that’s the thing that we got to write which is that if you have this feeling right now that, I need the pain to end, just wait five minutes, just try to get. And that’s what the line can do, right? If you can make the call, then you will put space between this moment of crisis and some sort of action.

V Spehar  45:14

And if you could just wait that five minutes, if you could just give it that five minutes here.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  45:18

And the other big thought is like, I’m a burden, right? And I really need people to hear me on this. But both you and I have lost loved ones. It has permanently fucked our lives. I mean, I, every single moment, I am acutely aware of this loss, I miss my brother, every second of every day, you know, if you have this thought that your family will be better off, they will not. They will not, I promise. And every single like, I think like the first day of school stuff kicks it up for me every year too, because my kids keep growing up, and they keep starting a new year. And I look at them. And I’m like, you’re special, wonderful, magical creatures. And all I want to do is share you with this person who I love the most, who loved you the most. And, you know, it’s an it’s a constant sorrow. And I think that I fill that sorrow with trying to like help, you know, and trying to do this kind of work. But the pain doesn’t go away. So I promise, you got to stick around.

V Spehar  46:30

It is heartstoppingly that and it’s ah, Steph fine. And the motto of this network is make life suck less. And I think that that is such I mean, I went and got the tattoo and everything like my first day. Because it was just like, a such a thing. You know what I mean?

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  46:48

It’s so true. I mean, we take for granted that just like life sucks, right? Like, we’re just, we just like set our baseline, it’s hard. And how can we like make it suck less and bring more joy to people and we got to be here, let’s be here and be joyful, you know, if we can, let’s help each other and do podcast where we talk about let’s do podcast.

V Spehar  47:13

I am so grateful that you were here with me today to hold my hand through telling what has been for seven years, like a kind of big secret. And there might even be people out there that think this is like a silly thing to think should be a secret. Like, I’m sure a lot of people are like, why would it be a secret like, so your brother passed away, it was so just like intimately connected to my sense of self. And it felt like such an Achilles heel that like somebody would find out and they would think bad or they would think I failed him or any number of things. And so I’m glad that we had this time to talk about it. And now I’m going to cry.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  47:50

No, we don’t stop when we cry.

V Spehar  47:53

I know. I just went to come from that moment to this one. And to have the community in the audience that we do. And just like, man, it was worth it. You know, it wasn’t worth it. I do think that the universe could have taught me this lesson without taking my brother for me, but maybe it couldn’t right. And there is so much good that comes from being able to see the world through kinder eyes and through a more present place. And through a place of like I’m willing to be so much more compassionate and forgiving than I ever was before. Because when you lose something so big, you’re like, nothing else matters. It became a superpower of being completely unafraid. Because when the worst thing that you could never think of in the whole world happens to you, man, it rocks you and like I said, I wish the universe had taught me this lesson in a kinder way. But maybe it was trying to when I wasn’t listening.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  48:48

The universe is a giant asshole for sure. But like, I don’t know, I said this to you during the break. But I’m very proud of you. And I know that this isn’t easy. And I know it sucks. And you wish this wasn’t your story, but it is and you’ve done like really amazing things with it. And I think you’re amazing. I just, I just love you so much. I’m so grateful for you truly.

V Spehar  49:17

I’m so grateful for you Steph truly. And now it’s out and now it can’t hurt us and it’s not a secret. And it’s okay.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  49:25

Thank you. I really, I enjoyed this. This was actually this was this was good. Thank you for having me.

CREDITS  49:36

V INTERESTING is a Lemonada Media Original. Our producers are Rachel Neel, Xorje Olivares, Martín Macías, Jr. And Dani Matias. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Mixing and Scoring is by Brian Castillo, Johnny Evans and Ivan Kuraev. music is by Seth Applebaum. Please help others find the show by rating and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us across all social platforms at @VitusSpehar and @UnderTheDeskNews, also, @LemonadaMedia. If you want more be interesting, subscribe to Lemonada premium only on Apple podcasts.

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