In a heart-wrenching tweet, Melissa Etheridge announced that her 21-year-old son, Beckett Cypher, succumbed to opioid addiction.
— Melissa Etheridge (@metheridge) May 14, 2020
In the post, Etheridge wrote that [she and her family] have struggled with wondering what else they could have done to save Beckett. Her fans responded with messages of encouragement and shared loss, emphasizing the fact that the loss was not her fault and there was nothing that she could have done differently.
Beckett’s older sister, Bailey Cypher went on to post a tribute to her brother on Instagram:
“I don’t know what to say.” Beckett wrote. “Today we lost my brother. Too heartbroken and overwhelmed to be eloquent but appreciate all those who have reached out. I love you Beckett. Fly high and watch over us.”
Since revealing David Crosby provided the sperm to conceive their children Bailey and Beckett, Etheridge and her ex-wife Julie Cypher have largely kept their children out of the spotlight – aside from a few humorous family anecdotes shared in interviews. As such, most of the details about Beckett’s struggle with opioid addiction were not highly publicized prior to his death. Still, it’s a struggle that’s all too familiar.
With the loss of Beckett, Melissa, Bailey, Julie, and David have joined the ranks of millions of grieving family members who have lost a loved one to the opioid epidemic that has rocked the US for decades. The first wave of the crisis hit in the early 90s due to the heavy marketing of drugs like Oxycodone. This led to the overprescribing of these drugs by physicians which quickly led to widespread dependence and misuse. As doctors began tightening the reigns on opioid prescriptions in the early 2000s, a second wave of the crisis hit, with dependent patients turning to heroin to feed their addictions. With the introduction of synthetic opioids, the number of opioid-related overdoses skyrocketed around 2013, as dealers began selling heroin laced with ultra-powerful synthetic opiates like Fentanyl to unknowing addicts.
Opioids: Changing the Face of Addiction
For all the heartache and loss it has caused; the opioid crisis has had one positive effect in that it’s helping reshape the way America views addiction. Previous addiction crises, such as the crack epidemic in the 80s and 90s, were met with public demonization of the victims and combatted with the legal system. For example, the so-called “War On Drugs” that the US government enacted in response to the crack epidemic saw the passage of misguided drug laws that called for harsher “mandatory” sentencing and the disproportionate targeting of Latinx and African American communities that were hardest hit by the crisis. This led to a dramatic increase in the already disturbing trend of mass incarceration of minorities. Those convicted of drug-related crimes currently make up 25% of the prison population, 80% of those incarcerated on drug charges were for petty possession and 70% of those incarcerated for petty possession are black or Latinx. The irony of all this is that the vast majority of the drug arrests, almost 90%, were for marijuana, not crack or cocaine.
At the other end of the spectrum, the meth crisis that has predominantly affected poor Caucasian Americans since the mid-90s went largely ignored allowing it to ransack rural white communities. This crisis was also left to the criminal justice system to solve. As with crack, ridiculously harsh sentencing guidelines were also imposed for meth possession, distribution, and manufacturing; but these communities are less targeted by police (and those caught are more likely to be given plea deals for softer sentences). This resulted in those struggling with meth addiction cycling in and out of the prison system with few treatment and recovery options available. This when combined with public awareness campaigns focused on deterring meth abuse through shaming it’s victims – such as Faces of Meth—resulted in those struggling with meth addiction being demonized and lacking the vital family and community support needed for long term recovery.
The opioid epidemic is forcing America to view the cycle of addiction in a new light. This is likely because, due to a long-standing bias against African Americans, Latinos, and poor people when it comes to pain treatment in medicine, the faces of opioid addiction aren’t black or brown or white & riddled with pockmarks and tooth decay. It’s that of grandparents, students, businessmen, and people from middle class and affluent backgrounds. Basically, people who other people don’t “expect” to become addicts. The opioid epidemic was declared a public health crisis in 2017 by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Public awareness campaigns aim at presenting people struggling with opioid addiction as victims with a disease rather than community destroying criminals.
The change in public perception of opioid addiction has led to increased funding to programs aimed at helping people overcome and cope with the disease rather than penalizing them for their addiction. The expansion of Medicaid has led to more treatment options for those struggling with opioid addiction, including increases in numbers of methadone clinics and greater access to in-patient rehab facilities. Those struggling with opioid addiction who do get entangled in the criminal justice system are more likely to be sentenced to mandated treatment than prison time. Those who end up incarcerated are more likely to receive addiction counseling.
The focus on the opiate crisis has had a trickle-down effect on other addictions and has forced society to finally realize that every addict is someone’s parent, child, grandparent, uncle, aunt, niece, or nephew. As a result, similar approaches to dealing with people struggling with alcohol, cocaine, and meth addictions have been enacted both in the legal systems and county health organizations. But there is still a long road ahead.
Opioids and COVID
The Coronavirus pandemic has presented a new hurdle to this process. People struggling with opioid dependency are now facing limited access to treatment due to social distancing – including the temporary closure of Methadone and Suboxone clinics and the exacerbation of the already limited resources at the facilities—and are having difficulties with online Narcotics Anonymous meetings whether it be due to economic hardship preventing them from accessing the internet or because a Skype/Zoom meeting just doesn’t have the same effect. This, when combined with the stress associated with social isolation and instability are leading many recovering addicts to relapse. Furthermore, the limited access to pain management clinics is leading many chronic pain patients to again turn to their local drug dealer for relief. The end result has been an explosion of fatal opioid overdoses across the nation.
Beckett Cypher is one of the thousands of people struggling with Opioid addiction to have lost the battle with this disease since the beginning of the COVID crisis. Counties in Ohio, New York, Florida, and Texas are reporting as many as 50-100% increases in the number of opioid overdoses since March of this year. With supply chains cut for the production of prescription opioids and Opioid substitutes like Methadone as well as the limited hours and closures of opioid treatment clinics, these numbers are expected to rise.
What is also terrifying is the fact that soon hospitals may be seeing a dramatic increase in the number of deaths associated with severe opioid withdrawal as even drug cartels are having distribution problems due to the increased travel restrictions and disruption of the supply chain used to create illegal opiates such as heroin. What makes this fact even scarier is that, people experiencing opiate withdrawal symptoms may be less likely to seek help because of fear of contracting COVID at hospitals. This could be leading to victims of opioid addiction suffering and potentially dying alone.
Since there is no end to the COVID crisis in sight, it’s important that we continue to pay close attention to the impact the pandemic is having on special populations, especially those struggling with addictions and chemical dependency.
Due to the painful and violent physical nature of opiate withdrawal—which can and often does lead to death—it’s imperative that anyone who is (or knows someone) who is experiencing withdrawal symptoms to seek medical help. There are medications available that can lessen the withdrawal symptoms and can be administered at hospitals with minimal exposure to COVID. In fact, in just about every hospital that has COVID patients, medical personnel treating COVID patients are not treating other patients.
If you (or someone you know) are in struggling with any addiction—opiate or otherwise—do not let COVID keep you from seeking help. There are many treatment options still available to help you on your road to recovery. If you are in recovery and find the stress associated with the current crisis is pushing you to relapse, please call your sponsor or your doctor or anyone who you can that can help you work through this. If you (or someone you know) are in recovery from an opiate dependency, please do not turn to street drugs to help with your cravings. As already stated, dealers are selling Fentanyl laced heroin and it’s killing people. It’s better to wait for 4 hours to get paged at an over-extended opioid clinic for some Methadone than to overdose cause some unscrupulous dealer wanted to pad their product.
Lastly, I want for the friends and family of people struggling with addiction to know that the message “It’s not your fault” and “there’s nothing you could have done differently” that Etheridge received from her supporting fans is true. It’s something every parent and family member of a person struggling with addiction needs to know. Especially when their family member loses the battle with addiction. The only thing you can do is love and support someone with an addiction, to the extent that love and support is not harming you. After that it’s out of your hands.
I say all this as the estranged illegitimate daughter of a 1980s “crackhead” and someone who the vast majority of people in her “friend circles” are made up of rural Georgians. This includes a lot of recovering “meth heads.” I am also someone who has experienced the shock of discovering her charismatic musician friend from college—who’d literally just graduated law school—had a secret opiate addiction that ended up taking his life due to getting Fentanyl-laced heroin during a relapse. I know things are scary and stressful right now, but please, take care of yourselves.
Please visit https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline for more information.