(Thirteenth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
We are living in particularly precarious times – for people born since WWII, unprecedented problems the world over – seemingly beyond our ability to control or to deal with effectively. With the Coronavirus pandemic, complex problems have arisen for our global society to attempt to solve, from the manufacturing and transport of medical supplies and personal protective equipment to the best medical treatments and the development of a vaccine – which is viewed by many as the magic potion but only if the majority of people could be convinced to ‘get the jab.’
During this extraordinary year pain has come into most of our lives in ways we have not experienced previously: physical pain from contracting Covid19, emotional pain from being isolated or from watching those we know or care for becoming sick and dying, and mental pain from the anxiety caused by all the unknowns surrounding the pandemic. For people living in poverty, these problems are compounded.
When life on this earth results in tragedy and loss – personal, communal, international – we are immediately faced with choices we did not anticipate nor plan for. An untimely death, an assault or abuse, financial ruin, a health crisis, relational trauma, anxiety: the list is endless. What do we do? Most of us want to just turn and run while we also know there is no place to run to or to hide from the turmoil within. So how do we take the next step forward when everything in us doesn’t want to and we are facing a challenge we have never faced before?
We remember that we all have choices even when it seems there are none. It is what makes humans unique. Referring back to my blog “Darkness & Light” and the thoughts from Jerry Sittser in his book A Grace Disguised, when we choose to move towards the darkness knowing we will eventually see the sun rise, we find gifts along the way that we could have never imagined. But we also find more choices. Sittser cites Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, reflecting on his time in a Nazi death camp and how “the prisoners who exercised the power to choose how they would respond to the terrible loss and darkness of their circumstances displayed dignity, courage and inner vitality. They found a way to transcend their suffering…and so grew spiritually beyond themselves…they learned that tragedy can increase the soul’s capacity for darkness and light, for pleasure as well as for pain.”
Andrew Sullivan’s 2018 article for the NY Magazine entitled “The Poison We Pick”, wrote: “…For millennia, the Opium Poppy has salved pain, suspended grief, and seduced humans with its intimations of the divine. It was a medicine before there was such a thing as medicine. Every attempt to banish it, destroy it, or prohibit it has failed…This nation pioneered modern life. Now epic numbers of Americans are killing themselves with opioids to escape it…According to the best estimates, opioids will kill up to half a million Americans in the next decade.
“Most of the ways we come to terms with this wave of mass death…miss a deeper American story. 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. Continue reading “America’s Love Affair with Opioids”
I am devoting this blog to a review by Shelf Awareness of an essential book in the battle against early exposure to opioids which has destroyed so many young lives – our son’s included – in the past 20 years. Please give a copy of this book to every teenager and young adult you know and love.
Journalist Sam Quinones’s lauded 2015 Dreamland was, according to our review, “a comprehensive and empathetic investigation into the Mexican pipeline feeding the United States heartland’s growing appetite for opiates.” This adaptation, pared down for a young adult audience, is a sharp, engrossing work of narrative nonfiction.
Dreamland snares the young reader immediately with the story of Matt Schoonover from Columbus, Ohio, who began using prescription opiate painkillers in high school, became addicted and moved to black tar heroin when the “street OxyContin” became too pricy. A day after returning from three weeks in rehab, at the age of 21, Matt fatally overdosed. Continue reading “Dreamland (Young Adult Adaptation): The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones (2019)”
In March, I wrote a blog about fentanyl that featured a poem by Carol Bialock: Breathing Under Water. I knew almost nothing about the author other than that she was clearly a deep thinker and an excellent poet. After that post, I was contacted by Fernwood Press, to let me know that for Carol’s upcoming 90th birthday, they were publishing a collection of her poems.
I have since learned more about this remarkable woman who was a sister of the Society of the Sacred Heart in Chile and a lifelong activist for human rights. (To learn more about her, please go to www.CarolBialock.com.) I want to share some highlights from Coral Castles, her newly published book.
From my earliest memories, I have had leg aches. They come on fairly suddenly for no apparent reason. It wasn’t until my 20’s when I figured out they related to the weather and changes in barometric pressure. I know, it sounds like folk-magic. But it’s true . As I was growing up, my parents would wrap my knees in stretch bandages and rub my legs with witch hazel. One thing they never did was offer me a pill for my pain. Never. In the pre-1980’s world, pain was part of life and mostly bearable.
My how things have changed. America–with 5% of the world’s population–went from consuming less than 5% of the world’s prescription opioids in the 1960’s to now consuming some of the highest percentages of prescription opioids such as oxycodone, morphine, fentanyl, etc.
In 2015, John Temple, an investigative journalist and journalism professor, wrote American Pain. It was one of three key books released that year in response to our opioid epidemic, the other two being Dreamlandand The Big Fix. The title is taken from the “king” of the Florida pill mills, American Pain, a mega-clinic expressly created to serve addicts posing as patients. From a fortress-like former bank building with security guards, American Pain’s five doctors distributed massive quantities of oxycodone to hundreds of customers a day, mostly traffickers and those addicted, who came by the van load. Former strippers operated the pharmacy, counting out pills and stashing cash in garbage bags. Under their lab coats, the doctors carried guns. Continue reading “American Pain”
One time when our son was camping with friends and their families in the wilderness, a friend of ours asked him why he used heroin. JL said: “Because it takes away all the pain.” Our friend shared this with us and several hundred other friends at our son’s memorial – and said he always wondered if JL was referring to physical pain, emotional pain, or both.
From my earliest memories, my knees and legs ached at random times and varying intensity. Sometimes I thought it was from running or playing too hard. At other times, it seemed like it happened when it rained. But, being in a large family growing up in the late 1950’s and 60’s, there were not many options for relieving that pain. My parents would sometimes rub my legs with witch hazel, which made my legs feel good at the time. Sometimes they would wrap my knees in an Ace bandage to help while I was at school. Yet there was one thing that never happened: I was never given any medicine to relieve my pain.
I didn’t realize when I was young that most likely even if my parents had known of a drug that would have relieved my pain, they would not have given it to me because they were not worried about me having to suffer a little pain. They knew that pain was an inevitable and bearable part of life, and an important part of forging resilience. Sadly, John and I — and many of our contemporaries — did everything we could to help our kids avoid pain. Now we areexperiencing the result of those mistaken values. We found the same thoughts expressed by Sam Quinones, as he discusses this at length in Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. (www.samquinones.com/books/dreamland/) He believes this dynamic is in large part responsible for the opiate epidemic because it is intertwined with our American culture of comfort and prosperity.
Yes, the pharmaceutical companies and their executives who shamelessly promoted drugs that they knew were highly addictive are responsible for much of what we are living with — and dying from — in America today. But we are responsible for facilitating a culture of pursuing a pain-free existence. It can be obtained, but at what price? Is it one more way we humans think we can overcome the perils of nature and living in an imperfect world?
We are not sure when our son first started using opiates, but we think that it started with prescription pills that were not his or ours. And we know that after a serious accident, when the doctor would no longer give him prescriptions, he bought Oxy on the street, then switched to BT Heroin. He just couldn’t deal with the pain and he was not motivated to do physical therapy — it was too much work.
I feel certain that JL was referring to both physical and emotional pain. What may have started as looking for relief from some physical pain when he was a young teenager, turned into a monster that was causing him shame and ruining his life — and that is painful.