No matter the substance, addiction is a painful affliction with predictable results. We’ve learned about how it works in our brains and the effects it has on the rest of our organs, but we don’t have a cure. For the families and loved ones of addicts, it’s an ongoing nightmare that renders you powerless.
Your own experience with addiction may be entirely anecdotal. If you don’t know someone whose family has been touched by addiction, consider yourself among the lucky few.
The current opioid crisis didn’t start at our southern border. It started with a highly successful marketing campaign by a company called Purdue Pharma.
Take Mary, who spent her life working as a nurse. She began volunteering in her teens as a candy-striper at her hometown hospital, studied rigorously in school and graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in nursing. She married and had three children but later divorced. As a single mother working a full-time job, she went back to school to earn her master’s degree and went on to become the director of nursing at a prestigious hospital. She made her family proud.
Several years away from retirement, her back began to give her serious trouble, a common affliction among nurses and first responders. Between her grueling commute and her desk job, Mary’s back pain was wearing her down. After losing her pension in a round of unsuccessful union negotiations, she was bound and determined to make it to 65. She went to her doctor, who prescribed a new kind of narcotic used for chronic pain.
When asked about the potential for addiction, Mary told her family, “Well that’s the way it was with the old narcotic painkillers. This new one is specially formulated for timed-release in such a way they aren’t the least bit dangerous. You can’t become addicted because you never get enough of the drug at one time to trigger addiction.” She brought home the marketing materials from the pharmaceutical company she found at work so her family could see for themselves. “See? That’s what’s so wonderful about OxyContin pills. They aren’t addictive. It’s a miracle.”
Mary began taking OxyContin at age 62. Early on she recognized the pills indeed made her “a little bit loopy” but the pain relief was worth it. To be cautious, she took one pill in the morning about halfway to work, ensuring that by the time the meds kicked in she would be comfortably seated at her desk. The pill was supposed to work for 12 hours, so by the time she came home she was ready for another.
Only months from retirement, Mary struggled to stay awake at work. In three years her dose of OxyContin steadily increased in strength and frequency. Her mind was fuzzy, her memory shot, her work suffered and she knew it. She spent her last few months living in mortal fear of dismissal after a long and stellar career.
After retirement Mary declined rapidly, largely from inactivity. She was drugged up all the time. She became isolated. She spent most days in bed. Her doctor couldn’t prescribe her any more pills and referred her to a pain management clinic. The doctors decided an internal pain pump was the answer. She goes to the pain clinic monthly for her refills of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid far more powerful than heroin.
Mary is over 80 years old now. She didn’t ask to become a drug addict. OxyContin removed her choices.
The pain clinic administers random drug tests to ensure patients aren’t abusing. Things turned upside down when Mary tested positive for marijuana. “But it’s legal! I have a card,” she said.
While it may be legal in some states, it is not nationwide and Medicare is a federal program. She also tested positive for alcohol after drinking a glass of wine at a party. That gave her two strikes at the pain clinic and meant they could not legally refill her pump. She went into severe withdrawal and very nearly died. In too much pain to advocate for herself, Mary’s family stepped in to help her get into a different pain clinic.
The images we have of drug addicts probably don’t include your sweet grandmother. If it weren’t for the secondary societal problems drug addiction creates, like crime, homelessness, squatters and needles in the streets, we probably wouldn’t care about drug users.
We may disagree on solutions to this crisis, but it is certain that we have yet to see the wave crest.