The Opioid Epidemic

I’m sure you are aware of the opioid crisis our country is facing.  People are becoming addicted to prescription painkillers that were previously considered safe, heroin use has skyrocketed (at least in part due to addictions rooted in prescription meds), and new, dangerously potent synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are appearing.  Look up any of the statistics and you’ll see the grim reality our nation is facing – addiction is rampant and people are dying.  Many people.

Yesterday I attended a legal symposium hosted by the law review journal of our local law school.  A symposium generally will have a range of speakers from, for example, the legal profession, government, private industry, and academia to discuss broad legal policy issues surrounding a particular topic.  The topic usually is based on a current event that raises legal questions and opportunities for research.  This year the topic was the opioid epidemic.

The speakers included lawyers, physicians, law enforcement officers, academic researchers, health industry representatives, public health experts, and a few others.  A practicing attorney who is in recovery from a heroin addiction gave his testimony.  By design, the symposium didn’t provide tangible solutions or answer many questions.  It was designed to raise questions and drive further discussion and analysis of what should be done.

Various speakers presented sobering statistics.  The first speaker announced that during his short presentation two people died of an opioid overdone.  Others compared the massive amounts of opioid medications the United States consumes every year to other countries’ consumption.  Another explained how many people can be killed by an incredibly tiny amount of fentanyl.

While likely more than I would realize, I suspect there weren’t many of us lawyers in the room who have abused or been addicted to opioids.  I have, and it gave me a surreal feeling at times, knowing that people around me don’t fully understand.  But I understand what it’s like.  As an example of the lack of understanding, one man in the audience proposed having society naturally work out the opioid problem by just letting addicts die instead of treating them (I saw audience members nearly gasp, and the panelists very strongly refuted that idea).

During the day I reflected on my own opioid use and pondered the “what ifs.”  I started abusing prescription opioids in order to get high to temporarily relieve the suffering of depression.  It was a daily habit.  When I got treatment and stopped using, I was on the cusp of something very, very bad.  I stopped because my doctor told me that if I continued to use, in two weeks I would have an addiction that would eventually be fed by heroin.  And that would lead to death.  I would be dead.  And you know what?  I believed him.  I realized right there in his office that I had been telling myself a lie – that I would just quit using when I ran out of pills.

I wrote earlier about my drug use.  I wrestled with whether my drug abuse was really an addiction.  I was right there on the cusp, one foot over the starting line.  Some of the aspects of addiction discussed at the symposium didn’t apply to me; however, I found myself nodding in agreement to others.  When I speak with people who suffered from serious addictions, the same occurs – in some ways, I can’t relate to their experiences.  But I can to other experiences.  The bottom line is, I err on the side of caution and consider my opioid use an addiction.  Just like someone who is in recovery from a more serious addiction, I need to have the tools to prevent relapse and learn to take proper precautions.  I was on the cusp, and it wouldn’t take much for the second foot to cross the starting line.

People start abusing opioids for various reasons.  In my case, it was a direct result of a mental health condition – I was desperate to relieve the suffering of depression.  If your story is like mine and you are contemplating drug use or are in the beginning of drug use to ease the pain of your mental health condition, STOP NOW.  Proper treatment takes time and effort, but it results in a life of sobriety and power over your mental health issues.  Drug abuse does not address your underlying mental health issues and will lead to addiction and quite possibly a painful death.  I’ll say that part again because it’s incredibly important:  Drug abuse does not address your underlying mental health issues.  If you are in the pit of serious addiction, do not lose hope.  There are ways out.  I know this for a fact, because I see the results every week at our Celebrate Recovery meetings.

Opioids are a serious problem.  There’s no simple solution.  I’m doing my part by speaking out about my experience in hopes that I can lead at least one person suffering from depression or another mental health issue to turn away from opioids.

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