Poverty. Lack of education and opportunity. Big pharma. Unscrupulous doctors. A broken justice system. These are just a few of the usual suspects dragged into the court of public opinion when we talk about today's opioid crisis. Before that, in the 90's, it was all about meth. And before that, in the 80's, it was all about crack cocaine. The ugly truth is that the wide-spread use of narcotics is hardly news, at least for those of us who've been partaking of them for God knows how long.
What's changed, I think, is public awareness of the magnitude of our growing numbers. And that magnitude, I'd suggest, is directly related to the magnitude of the sheer amount of drugs pouring onto the streets and suburbs of America. Increased availability equals greater access. And greater access equals an ever increasing likelihood of the use and abuse of opiates and other narcotics and ultimately
our addiction to them.
I'm reminded of that old movie "Field of Dreams" where the main character hears a voice telling him to "ease his pain," that "If he builds it [a baseball field], he will come," only in this case that baseball field is a field of drugs, and that "he" is a "they." In building this field of drugs, they'll come all right, the users and abusers, in numbers far larger than every baseball stadium in America could ever hold. The price of admission is also a whole lot cheaper than a ticket to a ball game.
Where a bag of junk in the 70's used to cost, say, $30 or $40, now you can get it for $10, sometimes $5. That's not even factoring in for inflation. By any measure, it's a better deal than dropping $60 on one 80 milligram tab of Oxycontin off the street. The quality of illicit drugs is up, too. Way up. Which accounts, in part, for the record breaking number of overdoses. The other part is that so much of today's heroin is cut with its far more potent cousin known as fentanyl. If it sounds like I'm being flippant, I apologize, because in fact I'm deadly serious. Because the opioid crisis is in fact a deadly serious issue. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 70,200 died of overdoses in 2017. That's a two-fold increase in a decade. And unless something changes, particularly the supply (demand, sadly, is a self-perpetuating, built-in component of the product itself), more will continue to die in ever increasing numbers.
So how do we stop this plague?
I don't have the answer, but let me tell you a story.
Twice a month for a couple of years I used to visit a prison in San Bernardino and speak to the men there about drugs and alcohol, how they destroyed me, and how, once I got clean and sober, my life changed immensely for the better. I don't think I've ever talked to a single prisoner with a serious drug or alcohol problem who hadn't been dealt a bad hand in life. Mother an addict. Father AWOL, assuming he even knew him. Beatings. Childhood molestation. High school drop-out. Joining a gang. Getting knifed. Shot. Living on the streets. I didn't exactly have a carefree childhood, either, but this isn't about me. The point I'm trying to make is that I could identify with much of what these men told me, and after listening to the horrible things they endured and empathizing with them, I still had to ask them the same hard question I eventually had to ask myself.
"Damn," I'd say, "after all you've been through, it's a miracle you're even alive. But what are you going to do now?" This is the part where they look at me like I didn't hear a word they said, as to say what do you mean now? Don't I know how hard they had it? Don't I see why they shoot up, drink, hit the pipe or snort that line?
Of course I do.
Except the drugs and alcohol you used to numb your pain and
escape your troubles has become its own problem. And it's very possible that it's a much bigger and uglier problem than anything you've encountered in the past.
Like so many addicts, I started using when I was a teenager, and like so many teenagers I was stupid and reckless. I didn't need school, parents or the government to tell me that drugs were bad. That you could get addicted. I already knew these things, but, frankly, I didn't give a damn. Because I also knew that once I pressed the plunger on that syringe, or snorted or smoked that powder, that I'd be in nirvana. For a few hours anyway. Then I'd have to do it again. And again.
It's all about the now.
Feeling good in the here and now with no regard for the future consequences. Don't let anyone tell you different: Addicts become addicts because, in the beginning, anyway, drugs make you feel good. Even great. As kids, I don't think any of us started out saying, hey, when I grow up I want to be a drug addict. But that's not what the drug says. Give it a few months, in some cases weeks, and it'll do all the talking for you. And once it's taken over the conversation, no amount of riches, education, or job opportunities are going to shut it down.
The only one who can change the conversation is the addict.
But he first has to want to change. Sincerely. He first has to want to quit. Sincerely. Of course it'll help our long, uphill
battle to get clean and sober if we have greater access to medical attention, rehabs and recovery homes. As for more early education, myself aside, it could well reduce the size of the next generation of addicts. And if the access and availability of narcotics is related to addiction, as it most certainly is, then we must do whatever is necessary to stop the flow of drugs into our country, whether they're made here by big pharma and distributed by unscrupulous doctors, or smuggled in from China or across our southern border. If the drugs weren't there, I never could've used them. But they were there and I made the bad choice to use them and now it's up to me, and those like me, to make the right choice and stop. I have no answer to the opioid crisis, but I can tell you that there's hope for each and every addict who's fallen prey to it.
I'm living proof.
Like it or not, once we take all the usual suspects out of the line-up, we're left right where we started. With ourselves. No more looking back. No more pointing fingers. In the end, for the addict, it's only about the here and now. And it's the addict, and only the addict who has the power to kill the addict inside them and turn their lives around or become another casualty in the next study for the National Institute of Drug Abuse.