A New Day

February 27, 2014

On February 11, our darling 24-year-old daughter Elisif Janis Bruun died of a heroin overdose while in the loving care of the CooperRiis Healing Community in Mill Spring, NC. She had been there three months, and to all appearances had been doing extremely well: working on understanding herself, striving for recovery, embedded as a loved and loving member of the community.

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So many who suffer from mental disturbance and addiction sit in jail cells.

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When Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he had contracted the HIV virus, a cultural shift began. HIV/AIDS could no longer be seen as a disease of gay people… as a disease punishing immoral people for immoral choices.

This inflection point was part of a larger cultural awakening that homosexuality is not a choice, but rather something innate. Today, 21 years later, gay marriage is increasingly commonly accepted in culture and law.

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The passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman prompted not only media attention on the heroin epidemic sweeping the country, but also universally positive tributes to the departed actor. His fate has been framed not as some sort of punishment for immoral or weak character, but as the result of a tragic affliction.

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Elisif underwent a genetic test on the make-up of her brain as part of her treatment at CooperRiis. As explained to us by her psychiatrist, the results basically added up to her having been hardwired for opiate addiction.

The play between genetics and environment in behavioral health is still a new field, but there is no question: substance abuse and its accompanying destructive behaviors is more sickness than choice.

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Stigma remains a huge barrier for those suffering from behavioral disorders; those with addiction and related conditions are too often still seen as weak or morally flawed.

My daughter was neither weak nor morally flawed. She was beautiful and strong, and she succumbed to a tragic affliction.

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I choose not to be hushed about the circumstances of Elisif’s death. What killed her is affecting thousands like her all around the country, and there is no shame in that.

Public policies and attitudes toward addiction are all too wrongheaded: too little understanding, or ready access to treatment, or acknowledgement of addiction’s heartbreaking complexity and complexion. It is a disease that has been criminalized, and we are only just beginning to crawl out of that barbaric view.

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Elisif was lucky enough to have received supportive love throughout her struggles and (by near the end) the right kinds of treatment. As is the nature of the disease for many, it was not enough to save her. The disease won out.

“The disease won out”—this in some ways is the headline on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing, and for that I am grateful. I am grateful because it speaks of an attitude of compassion… of humanity… a humane outlook that perhaps bespeaks the dawning of a new day… a new day not unlike the day that began breaking when Magic Johnson announced he had acquired the HIV virus.

The memory of Elisif—and so many others like her—deserves nothing less than this new day.

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