For some time, I’ve wanted to devote a column to raising awareness about the opioid crisis and addiction in our community, but I couldn’t find the right words, or perhaps, muster the courage. So, I found someone else with courage and wisdom to tell the story true. Stephen Dick was my teacher in middle school and he’s still teaching me.
His words: I am an addict. You won’t hear me say I’m an alcoholic, although I’m addicted to alcohol. You won’t hear me say I’m an opioid addict, although I am. You won’t hear me say I’m a grateful recovering addict although, on my good days, I am. I am an addict. Period. Always. Forever. If I lose sight of that, I’m putting another bullet in the chamber. I haven’t taken a drink in eight years or used narcotics in almost five. I once taught English and Reading at Athens Junior High, from 1989 until 2005. I got burnt out on teaching, not on the kids, the rest of it. The increasing emphasis on standardized testing took the joy out of it. I wasn’t living up to my own standards in the classroom. I became insubordinate. When I climbed into my truck after my last day at AJHS, I thought, “Life will be much simpler from here on in.” I was wrong. I didn’t realize how much I would miss the kids. There was a gigantic hole in my life and I didn’t know how to fill it. So I didn’t. I squandered an inheritance on opioids. I hurt everyone who loved me. I survived.
Every year now, in the United States, more men, women, and children die of opioid overdoses than soldiers died in battle during the entire 14 years of the Vietnam War. Of the 50 counties in the U.S. with the most opioids prescribed per capita, 14 of them are in Tennessee. Campbell County ranks third in the nation. All 14 counties are rural. All 14 are poor. Over a lifetime, the average cost of treating a child born into Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome is $600,000, most of that in the first few weeks. Tennessee is 15th in the nation in opioid overdose deaths per capita and an estimated 70,000 Tennessee residents are addicted.
The opioid epidemic is by far the largest drug epidemic in the history of the United States and it is the only one whose victims started out using the substance legally. Many who were prescribed opioids for pain found that that the pills made them feel smarter and more energetic.
They asked their doctors for more even after the pain was gone or even if the pills didn’t help the pain. Emerging research shows that opioids are not effective for long-term pain, primarily because the tolerance level climbs so rapidly.
After three to five days, alternating over-the-counter medications can be just as effective.
The opioid crisis has reached a turning point. Doctors are cutting back on the dosage of painkillers and on the length of time for which they’re prescribed. Fewer and fewer people will become addicted legally, but the scarcity of pills on the street and their increasing cost is leading addicts to turn to heroin, cheaper and more deadly, and fentanyl, even deadlier. Overdoses related to heroin and fentanyl now equal those caused by pharmaceuticals.
It is at this point that governments at every level, communities, non-profits, churches, and support groups should unite to make treatment more available. Brick and mortar rehabs are effective for many, but the once-standard 28 days is now seen as inadequate for most addicts. Medication Assisted Treatments with substances such as Buprenorphine are showing promise. Narcan, an overdose antagonist, can save a life within minutes. Narcotics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery preserve recovery in every county in the United States.
I attend recovery group meetings three to five times every week, even though I’ve been clean for almost five years and have never had a craving during that time. I go to the meetings to hold myself accountable, to insure that every day I seek to live a more spiritual life.
Those of us sitting around the tables may not have a lot in common, but we share one profound similarity. We have all been willing to throw away everything and betray the ones we love in futile attempts to recreate something that is already long gone. We can’t just quit; we have to change. It took me a long time to learn that. If we addicts hope to stay clean, we must live better lives, each in our own way. We become “stronger in the broken places.” The most inexpensive tool in recovery is unconditional love, both given and received. Communities, churches, and families can provide that, but first they must become more aware of how the addict’s brain works and better understand that addiction is not a moral failing but a disease. I still struggle with that myself. Talking about it helps, but not nearly as much as listening.
On Thursday, Nov. 15, at 6 p.m., at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, District Attorney Steve Crump will give a presentation on the opioid epidemic. He has made close to 50 such presentations and I have been to three of them. Each one has been more powerful than the last. Mr. Crump brings great passion to this and the time he gives is far above the call of duty. Please hear him.