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The Poppy Flower: A Memorial Day remembrance and an epidemic

The weather is finally breaking in the northeast. Over the weekend, I was out and about and ran into some veterans collecting donations as Memorial Day is approaching. I always make a donation, for it is their sacrifices that allow me to live a life of freedom today! I did not have any cash and told them I would be back. When I came out of the store they were gone. I felt terrible that I missed the opportunity to donate and thank them for their service. I walked out into the parking lot and found them loading their car. I gratefully handed them my donation and said, “thank you for your service, it is your service that allows me to live a free life today.” They said wait! Let us give you a poppy. Being a heroin addict in recovery I said “that’s ok, don’t worry about it.” They insisted and I did not want to dishonor their tradition. It is a pretty flower after all, even if it’s meaning is very different to me.

As I got in my car, I started to wonder why the veterans give poppy flowers? Google, of course, explained to me what I apparently missed in my younger years of schooling. (I was probably passing a note to my BFF or something.)

“In Flanders Fields” is a poem written by Dr. John McCrae, a World War I surgeon who wrote the poem after a chlorine gas attack by Germany killed half of his brigade including his best friend.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Three years after this poem was written, an American professor, Moina Michael bought a bouquet of poppies and handed them out at her local YMCA, asking people to wear them as a tribute to our fallen veterans. She vowed to wear one every day, and later came up with the idea to sell silk poppies to raise money for wounded veterans.

Around Memorial Day and Veterans Day the American Legion Auxiliary distributes millions of crepe paper poppies that show a sign of respect for veterans.

Ironically this same plant provides the resin used in making the opioid in today’s heroin epidemic. Heroin is not new, it has been around a very long time. The Sumerians called it the “joy Plant” and the poppies seeds have been found in excavations dating thousands of years before Christ. The milky sap of the poppy had been used to elevate mood, induce sleep and relieve pain since ancient times. Up until almost 100 years ago the recreational use of opium was largely tolerated. The DEA Museum Center states that Heroin was “First synthesized from morphine in 1874, the Bayer Company of Germany introduced heroin for medical use in 1898. Physicians remained unaware of its addiction potential for years. By 1903, heroin abuse had risen to alarming levels in the United States. All use of heroin was made illegal by federal law in 1924.”

Today addiction is misunderstood by many and there is such a stigma with heroin use. It is difficult for a non-heroin user to even understand the disease or the drawl to this drug. For many, it starts with a legal prescription from a doctor and progresses from there.

I recently read an article “the Poison We Pick” in NY Magazine by Andrew Sullivan who explains heroin like this…

“But unless you understand what users get out of an illicit substance, it’s impossible to understand its appeal, or why an epidemic takes off, or what purpose it is serving in so many people’s lives. And it is significant, it seems to me, that the drugs now conquering America are downers: They are not the means to engage in life more vividly but to seek a respite from its ordeals. The alkaloids that opioids contain have a large effect on the human brain because they tap into our natural “mu-opioid” receptors. The oxytocin we experience from love or friendship or orgasm is chemically replicated by the molecules derived from the poppy plant. It’s a shortcut — and an instant intensification — of the happiness we might ordinarily experience in a good and fruitful communal life. It ends not just physical pain but psychological, emotional, even existential pain. And it can easily become a lifelong entanglement for anyone it seduces, a love affair in which the passion is more powerful than even the fear of extinction… Unlike cannabis, opium does not make you want to share your experience with others, or make you giggly or hungry or paranoid. It seduces you into solitude and serenity and provokes a profound indifference to” life.

Heroin gives you wings, then takes away your sky. It will indefinitely steal your soul and your life if it can, no matter your age, social status, religion, race or creed.

So there you have it, one flower, two very different meanings.

Today, I proudly wear my Veterans Poppy on my lapel. THAT poppy honors the veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country so we may be free.

The other times of the year I hold a despondent respect to the poppy plant. While the flower is stunning and beautiful, the daemons that can be derived from it and the power it had over me are physically etched on my body and in my soul. I may have scars but they are part of me, a part of my story, they are my semi colon. A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is me and the sentence is my life.