Quick post today and sorry, it’s not that humorous. I haven’t done anything particularly dumb this weekend to post about. (Welllllll, that’s not entirely true, but it was minor dumb stuff — don’t know whether it’s blog-worthy yet).
Anyway, this is one is of my rarer serious posts and comes with a recommendation of another site for you to visit called What’s Not Fiction — it’s a site dedicated to reviewing interesting nonfiction books. The site owner writes excellent reviews covering a wide range of topics, so if you’re looking for suggestions for a good read, stop by her site.
Recently, she posted a review of American Overdose, by Chris McGreal. I haven’t read it yet, but apparently, it’s a sobering, emotionally intense look at the national opioid tragedy inundating the nation. The review got me reflecting on the problem of opioid abuse because I’ve met my fair share of addicts when I was on the road.
How the hell did we get here?
It’s insane to think how out of hand this problem has gotten in the U.S., hell even around the world, particularly prescription opioids. I remember reading a stat that every 19 minutes, an American dies from an overdose. That’s a lot of people taking a lot of drugs! A former co-worker of mine (I’d just moved on to a new gig) who was in her 50s at the time OD’d at her desk and no one realized it right away. (Luckily, she survived). We tend to pay more attention to the problem when a celebrity ODs. The recent death of rapper Mac Miller who died using drugs recreationally grabbed the headlines for a day or two before the 24/7 news cycle swept it away. But it’s more than just entitled celebs falling victim. Every day, an average of 115 Americans die from opioids, many of them accidentally overdosing on prescription pills (including Prince!) — that’s over 41,000 deaths a year. I’m curious how many of those are accidental deaths and how many are suicides because my brother took opioids when he took his life, so I’m sure the statisticians lump him in with all the others.
And powering this epidemic? You could say human weakness, but it’s more insidious than that. Corporate greed, medical mismanagement, and political lobbying and lip service help create the proverbial perfect storm that perpetuates this ongoing tragedy. Big Pharma has spent over $2 billion lobbying U.S. politicians over the past decade. There is no incentive to change because there are a lot of dollars to be made on addiction. These drugs are highly addictive and many people start taking them due to a genuine need. But next thing they know, they’re an addict. I had a former boss who wrecked his body doing extreme sports. He became addicted to opioid painkillers and would power through an entire bottle of pills in two days.
On the road with addicts
During my nine months of driving for rideshare, I met a number of current or recovering opioid addicts. How do I know they were opioid addicts? They told me. Usually, the conversation would go like this — They ask me if I drive full time; I say no, I’m a writer; they’d ask what I’m working on, and I’d tell them my current project was about my brother’s drug addiction. Bond established. Confessional floodgates opened.
Personally, when I was younger, I was intrigued by what an opioid high must feel like — but I was always too wary of addiction to ever try. In fact, several times over the years, I’ve had physicians prescribe opioids for me after medical procedures. But I’ve never taken them and have just toughed it out using Tylenol. (The latest being the so-called anal wart incident — don’t ask, just read about it.) I also had over 400 opioid pills from when my dad was dying of cancer just sitting in a cabinet. No thanks.
Before I curtailed my Uber driving, I picked up two young guys on a Sunday afternoon in Mesa. One a confident, smooth-talking ginger-haired fellow in his mid-twenties, and the other a gregarious teenager. He was living at some private facility, kind of like a half-way house for addicts.
The ginger-haired guy had just been on an epic week-long bender, which was sad because he’d been on the straight and narrow for six months; he went to church all the time, had a great job, and a beautiful girlfriend. And then he had one moment of weakness after he got paid. That moment had caused him to flush his new life down the toilet. In fact, I was taking him to the tow yard to retrieve his car that he’d abandoned during his week-long drug haze. Once he had his car, he hoped he could salvage things and maybe save his job.
Like several addicts I’ve met, he’d come to Arizona from somewhere else to attend a drug rehab program, though he’d stayed. He was friendly but there was an edge to him as he talked about his addiction and his struggle to straighten his life up.
“I’m not bragging, but back in Kansas, when I was on drugs, I was ruthless. I’d buy drugs from hard black men, the kind of dudes you don’t mess with. Later, I’d go back and rob them at gunpoint. I didn’t give a fuck about anyone. It was all about the drugs.”
And he didn’t come across as being braggadocious and said it matter of factly. A chill went down my spine as I wondered about the details he left out.
The young guy in the back seat chimed in with his story. Nineteen, he was primarily a prescription opioid abuser. Fresh-faced and friendly, he was on the cusp of ruining his life and probably didn’t realize what hung in the balance. I looked at him and knew how easily it could go either way for him. I tried to give the ginger guy a pep talk and the 19-year old a bit of advice — for all the good it would do. They thanked me when they got out at the tow yard, and it was definitely a sobering experience for me.
I actually picked up another guy the next weekend who had also come to Arizona to get away from his drug network. This guy lived a rigorous life that he didn’t deviate from. He’d been clean over a year. He talked about the hell he’d been through, and I hope he is still hanging tough and succeeding.
Anyway, these were just a few of the stories people told me.
Will things change? Not without a huge outcry. Neither party seems to have much political will to deal with it. There is a potential medical innovation being studied that would hopefully cut back on the need for opioids for pain management, which, combined with the over-prescription problem, is the main path to addiction.
Something has to give if we expect change — but will it? I dunno. I hope so. Unfortunately, that seems to be the course of inaction we’re taking as a nation — relying on hope. And it’s not working.