An American Opioid Tale

By Royce J.

“You all go ahead, I’m not feeling so hot right now.”  

Mark tossed his phone aside and sunk back underneath the blankets of the guest bed–there was no way on earth that he’d be able to join the others at the bars tonight. How long had it been since he’d had a fix? More importantly, how much longer could he last without one? Trembling, he reached over and checked the back pocket of his jeans again—still nothing.  Damnit.  He was almost certain that he’d dropped two Roxy pills in there last night before making the long drive from West Virginia to Maryland.  His buddies must’ve snatched one when he was showering this morning—you can’t trust anyone these days. He was sick—real sick, but staying here was out of the question.  To hell with his friends.  Where were their connections? He’d have to make the journey back home to score again.  

It began a year ago for Mark—snorting lines of Roxycodone (a fast-acting version of hydrocone) prior to getting tattoos.  The heavy wave of blissful numbness and relaxation being met with an equally fierce one of agitation and irritation upon wearing off—the tide of craving never seeming to ebb.  No one sets out to get addicted, but at some point, the bull fighter becomes the bull, charging recklessly at the red cloak of chemical destruction.

Mark ended up overdosing in a Wendy’s parking lot of a few weeks later.  He was fortunate enough to be revived and delivered to a reputable rehab center. Two years later, Mark has stayed clean and held down a job working in the service center of a local dealership.

Thousands of others aren’t so lucky.  

Reaching over 50,000 overdose deaths in 2017, the opioid crisis is in full effect.  Even the life-expectancy of Americans has begun an annual decline after steadily rising for decades—similar trends haven’t been seen since WWI.  Similarly, studies have revealed that the amount of preventable and unintentional death has risen in the past 15 years, largely as a result of the opioids.  

Interestingly, modern medicine deserves most of the credit for the extension of life, but now it owns the lion’s share of the blame for the reversal.   

Although powerful synthetic opioids such as Fentanyl are responsible for about 30,000 overdose deaths, prescription pain-killer opioids such as oxycodone (OxyContin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin) account for around 20,000.  Today, you’re statistically more likely to die from an opioid related death than a vehicle crash.

According to Dr. Anna Lempke of Stanford University, after previously being reluctant for fear of addiction, doctors began to prescribe opioids to patients for minor and chronic pain in 1980.  The pharmaceutical companies were behind much of this strategy, pushing the falsehood that opioids had no addictive properties.  

In 1995, Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin to the public.  This pain-killer is just oxycodone, a substance first developed in 1917.  According to Smithsonian magazine, authorities had rejected it as being unsuitable for public consumption dating back to the 1940’s. However, Purdue was successful in getting the drug approved by stressing how its time-release qualities would mitigate potential addiction.

Doctors reported reps approaching their offices and dumping large quantities of the drug on their table like halloween candy.  According to a story in the New York Times, counties where gifts and payments were lavished upon doctors for pushing the painkillers experienced more overdose deaths than counties where the marketing was less aggressive.  Purdue is no longer marketing to doctors.

Today, Purdue Pharma is standing trial for misleading consumers about the dangers of their product. In an email from 2001, former company president and billionaire Richard Sackler included instructions to, “hammer on abusers in every way possible—they are the culprits and the problem.”

America still wages a war on drugs.  This is evidenced by the federal governments stance against marijuana, increased drug-related arrests by law enforcement agencies, and President Trump’s proposed border wall extension being a deterrent to illegal substances entering the country.  But the drugs only follow the demand, and whether legal or illegal, our country craves them.  As you read this, the majority of Americans are lining up at pharmacies around the nation to fill their myriad prescriptions. 

A Consumer Reports survey of 2,000 adults from 2017 shows that 55% of us are regularly taking prescription medicine.  Of course, this doesn’t account for all the people who self-medicate illegally.  But who can blame us?  Ever try watching TV or opening a magazine without a flood of side-effect laden prescription drug ads washing over you?

Many conditions, including: ADHD, mild depression, heartburn, insomnia, pre-diabetes, back and joint pain, overactive bladder and obesity have been proven to respond positively to lifestyle changes before medication is attempted.  But how many times do you see preventative ads for lifestyle changes or coping mechanism right before another eerily wholesome low testosterone or joint relief commercial pops up?  I can’t remember ever seeing one. That’s because they take time and have nowhere near the profit potential as legalized medicine.

What’s more, many of our medications are gratuitous. In the same study, about half of the participants asked their doctor if they could discontinue medications—71% were told they could.

Even over the counter medications are to blame. A recent Zantac (heartburn relief) spot boasts that you can: Eat your way, Treat your way. How about the less sexy but more accountable: Eat the right way, avoid the treatment. I’m sure that take-out restaurants nation wide would revolt. This all goes back to our need to be more preventative and proactive. But why change anything when there’s a readily available pill to bail us out?

There is no quick fix, whether it be: weight loss, anxiety reduction, or pain relief.  But in this age of instantaneous gratification and a premium on time, who can wait for anything else? 

Opioids are marketed as the quick fix.  They can throw a heavy blanket over years of emotional or physical pain in the amount of time it takes to pop the pill bottle.  But when their effects eventually erode, we’re still left with the unresolved pain, as well as a mounting dependency and urge to return to this easily reachable blissful state.  If that becomes too expensive legally, the black market offers a cheaper, and far more powerful method to shut-off our agony.  With the amount of Fentanyl pouring into our borders, there is no telling how high the death toll could rise.  

Widespread information of opioid dangers is a step, but that is only a temporary solution. There will always be another destructively addictive substance, luring in the vulnerable, unabashedly disguised as affordable hope.

Removing certain preventable experiences that leave our youth prone to addiction such as: stress, environmental illnesses (physical, mental, and emotional trauma), drug use during brain development, and drug abuse within families is a great way to fight back.

In order to truly heal, we need to create the conditions in our communities that produce people with enough internal resolve and external support to experience life’s inevitable physical and emotional pain without trying to kill it.

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