Is there a particular reason that opioids have such an appeal to Millennials? In an article in the New Yorker Magazine (http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/02/americas-opioid-epidemic.html) entitled “The Poison We Pick,” Andrew Sullivan discusses the modern American life that we pioneered and how “epic numbers of American are killing themselves with opioids to escape it.” Sullivan goes on to say: “It is a story of pain and the search for an end to it. It is a story of how the most ancient painkiller known to humanity has emerged to numb the agonies of the world’s most highly evolved liberal democracy. Just as LSD helps explain the 1960’s, cocaine the 1980’s, and crack the 1990’s, so opium defines this new era. I say era, because this trend will, in all probability, last a very long time. The scale and darkness of this phenomenon is a sign of a civilization in a more acute crisis than we knew, a nation overwhelmed by a warp-speed, postindustrial world, a culture yearning to give up, indifferent to life and death, enraptured by withdrawal and nothingness.”
This is why it is important to understand how opioids affect us, and especially those to whom the effect is particularly pleasurable. The feelings of happiness, bliss and peace is the appeal for opioid users along with disengaging from the world around them. And, although the feeling doesn’t last, its lure is enough to bring the user back for a second and third time, after which, their body and mind can’t live without it. Sullivan draws the same conclusion my husband and I drew a decade ago: our society is so packed full of stimulation and pressure and, for many children of us Baby Boomers, a future with uncertain prospects of being able to live the affluent lifestyle they were raised in––or a better future for those raised in poverty. And, even if they were, would it satisfy them? Isn’t there more to life?
While reading about adolescent development, we learned that when a boy is among the first in his peer group to begin the process of maturation, they are at risk for emotional and mental turbulence in their teen years. Because they are developing normally cognitively, socially, and emotionally, but physically they look older, it creates a mismatch that can initiate difficulties with internalized symptoms (such as anxiety) and externalized symptoms (such as tobacco and substance use and risk-taking).
Our son, JL, fit this description perfectly, which is one reason he was attracted to opioids. They were a way to have peace and quiet and not have to deal with social anxieties and incessant thoughts and ideas. As a person also given to anxiety, had I not learned the spiritual disciplines that have been part of my life since I was a teenager, I would have walked down the same path as my son. Prayer and meditating on God’s words brought peace and hope and a sense of place in this world for me that have kept me sane. Yet, I wonder, how is it that for all my hopes and prayers, desires and effort to pass on these spiritual practices to our son so he could cultivate a fruitful and joy-filled life on this earth, I am now having to accept that they were not able to outmatch “the joy plant” as the ancient Sumerians called opium?
As a society, a community, “a civilization in a more acute crisis than we knew,” we need to consider what we are chasing after and why––and work to minimize non-beneficial pressures while we also teach our children the skills they need and the tools to handle external stress and internal anxiety. I believe that we also must teach our children and young adults the joy of service to others––to take this privileged American life and bless others as we have been blessed. Whenever I do, I find my anxiety and stress are replaced with peace and joy.