Sit down and take the time to read this powerful story from The New York Times about a New Hampshire family’s struggle with opioids. The headline says a lot: “1 Son, 4 Overdoses, 6 Hours”. Here’s how it starts:
The first time Patrick Griffin overdosed one afternoon in May, he was still breathing when his father and sister found him on the floor around 1:30. When he came to, he was in a foul mood and began arguing with his father, who was fed up with his son’s heroin and fentanyl habit.
Patrick, 34, feeling morose and nauseous, lashed out. He sliced a love seat with a knife, smashed a glass bowl, kicked and broke a side table and threatened to kill himself. Shortly after 3, he darted into the bathroom, where he shot up and overdosed again. He fell limp, turned blue and lost consciousness. His family called 911. Emergency medical workers revived him with Narcan, the antidote that reverses opioid overdoses.
Throughout the afternoon his parents, who are divorced, tried to persuade Patrick to go into treatment. His father told him he could not live with him anymore, setting off another shouting match. Around 4, Patrick slipped away and shot up a third time. He overdosed again, and emergency workers came back and revived him again. They took him to a hospital, but Patrick checked himself out.
Back at his mother’s house and anxious to stave off withdrawal, he shot up again around 7:30, overdosing a fourth time in just six hours. His mother, frantic, tried pumping his chest, to no avail, and feared he was dead. Rescue workers returned and administered three doses of Narcan to bring him back. At that point, an ambulance took him to the hospital under a police escort and his parents — terrified, angry and wrung out — had him involuntarily admitted.
I didn’t think something like that was possible. Later in the story, Patrick estimates that he has overdosed 30 times since he started using. More:
In Patrick’s home state of New Hampshire, which leads the country in deaths per capita from fentanyl, almost 500 people died of overdoses in 2016. The government estimates that 10 percent of New Hampshire residents — about 130,000 people — are addicted to drugs or alcohol. [Emphasis mine — RD] The overall burden to the state, including health care and criminal justice costs and lost worker productivity, has ballooned into the billions of dollars. Some people do recover, usually after multiple relapses. But the opioid scourge, here and elsewhere, has overwhelmed police and fire departments, hospitals, prosecutors, public defenders, courts, jails and the foster care system.
Most of all, though, it has upended families.
That’s what the story is about: how Patrick’s addiction has devastated his family. (His younger sister, 29, is also an addict, but in stable recovery.) Listen to his mother, Sandy, who, like Patrick’s father (they’re divorced), spends her days and nights dealing with her son’s addiction:
“It’s a merry-go-round, and he can’t get off,” Sandy said of Patrick and his overdoses. “The first couple of times, I started thinking, ‘At least he’s not dead.’ I still think that. But he’s hurting. He’s sick. He needs to learn to live with the pain of being alive.”
Read the whole thing. Imagine yourself in that family’s situation. My God.
He needs to learn to live with the pain of being alive. Patrick was bullied as a young teenager, the story reports, and started “self-medicating” on beer and pot when he was 14. He quickly moved on to harder things.
Here’s what gets to me about this family’s situation, and about the opioid crisis in general. Why is life so painful to endure that people turn to shoving needles in their arms and surrendering to the opioid demons, which possess them? Nobody can deny that life is painful. Suffering is part of the human condition. I know wealthy people who are suffering terribly in their private lives, from disease, from depression, from a lack of love. I think of my late sister, who was not rich, but who had a wonderful life … and then, out of the blue, she started coughing, and 19 months later she was dead from lung cancer. She never smoked. The doctors can’t be sure why she got it. She was a good woman who had no vices, and who left behind a husband and three children who had to figure out how to put their lives back together.
This is life. You never know when pain and suffering are going to hit you, but they will.
We live in an age of what everyone prior to the 20th century, say, would call an age of miracle and wonder. We have not eliminated suffering, and we never will, but there has never been a society in which more people have been able to live with as little material misery.
And yet … look at us. How was it that previous generations — pre-1960s, I’m thinking — were able to struggle through much more difficult lives, materially speaking, and yet not succumb to things like this? No doubt about it, alcohol addiction was a serious problem, and consumed many lives. But was it as bad as this?
In fact, it might well have been. In Britain between 1860 and 1920, the rate of alcoholism soared. Britain’s history with drunkenness goes back centuries. For example:
It was in Tudor times that this all became a problem. Widespread inebriety was chronicled in Elizabethan England, where drunkenness first became a crime. Jacobean writers described drunkenness among all classes and in 1606 Parliament passed “The Act to Repress the Odious and Loathsome Sin of Drunkenness”. The response of polite society was to pronounce wine as medicinal. Hops, which were primarily medicinal plants, had been added to beer some time before. Now all kinds of things were mixed with wine. …
But wine could not withstand the onslaught of gin. The Navigation Act of 1651 dictated that European vessels were only allowed to import goods from their own nations into England. Since most ships in those days were Dutch this dealt a severe blow to the French wine trade. Gin was invented in Holland around 1650 by distilling grain with juniper berries. It was cheap and the supply was fed by laws in 1690 to encourage the distillation and sale of spirits to increase incomes of the landed aristocracy. It was around this time Scotland and Ireland were developing reputations for whiskies. What flooded the market was the spirit that led to the Gin Epidemic. When the law was passed gin production stood at a million gallons a year. Within seven years the English population, of less than seven million, was drinking an annual 18 million gallons.
The epidemic lasted 30 years. “Drunk for one penny, dead drunk for two,” the adverts said. Pharmacists sold it to women to “soothe the nerves”; it became known as Mother’s Ruin. In 1736 Parliament tried passing a law taxing gin and prohibiting its sale in quantities of less than two gallons. There were riots, and production of gin continued to rise.
Eventually gin consumption waned as beer became better and cheaper, and tea and coffee became available. But in the industrial revolution factories needed a reliable work force. Drunkenness became a threat to industrial efficiency. As towns grew rapidly around factories problems such as urban crime, poverty and high infant mortality increased. Gross overcrowding was the root cause but alcohol took a lot of the blame.
That particular story talks about the two different European drinking cultures: the Roman, which treated alcohol primarily as something to be partaken of with meals, and the Germanic, which prized binge drinking as part of revelry. In Germanic cultures, people drank to get drunk.
The story of alcoholism in Britain — whose drinking culture, unsurprisingly, ours more resembles — shows that even when its culture was more saturated with Christianity, Britons drank to excess. If opioids had been easily available in Britain or the United States in past generations, would the kind of people who tended to alcoholism (Patrick’s father used to be a heavy drinker, the Times story says) have instead gone for harder stuff? Is what we’re seeing now with the opioid epidemic more or less a contemporary version of what we saw in the past, but with much more lethal substances involved?
Or is there something different about this? Like I said, prior to the 20th century, people had much harder lives. It isn’t hard to understand why someone would find it hard to bear, and would turn to alcohol to cope. But most people today have nothing like that kind of material and physical suffering to deal with. And yet, look.
I find myself thinking this morning about Michel Houllebecq’s novels, and their depiction of life without God, which is to say, in part, of life without a sense of transcendent meaning and purpose. People in Houellebecq’s novels just move aimlessly through life, drinking, having sex, shopping, and doing their very best to deny death by distracting themselves, and obsessing over their bodies. I wonder to what extent the opioid crisis is a crisis of meaning, a crisis of the spirit?
There is no sense in the story about Patrick and his family that God and the church plays any role in their lives or imaginations.
Oh, and by the way, look at this excerpt:
For anyone in New Hampshire seeking heroin and fentanyl, a ready supply awaits, just over the state line in Massachusetts. The old mill towns of Lawrence and Lowell have long served as hubs of major drug distribution networks that funnel opioids throughout New England. Law enforcement officers say that dealers there often drop baggies of drugs into the open passenger windows of cars stopped at red lights.
… Sandy and Dennis have an older daughter, Jane, 37, an apprentice carpenter, who is not addicted. She has tried to distance herself from the family drama and has moved out of the area. Although she visits often, moving away has left her with what she describes as survivor’s guilt.
“I had to make a conscious effort to put space between myself and them, for my own self-preservation,” she said. “I’d already come to terms with the fact that my brother was going to die — I’ve already mourned him.”
Jane has thought long and hard about why some people from the same background become addicted and others don’t. She thinks she was spared because she never tried opioids in the first place.
“I don’t know anyone who just ‘tried’ it and then stopped,” she said. “Watching Pat do this was heartbreaking, but watching Betsy — who was outgoing, did well in high school and was planning on college — was super frustrating. I wanted to shake her, and say, ‘You know how this goes. Knock it off.’”
Even the kids who have a lot going for them fall into this. It’s interesting that Jane Griffin judged her hometown as a kind of heroin shithole, and moved away to be free of it, to save her own life, or at least for her “self-preservation,” as she puts it. Was she wrong to leave her mother and father to deal with the mess alone? What should her mother and father do, given that Patrick seems pretty clearly caught in the jaws of something that is almost certain to kill him? (The final couple of paragraphs of the Times story is a punch in the gut, and lets you know how profoundly corrupting this addiction has been to the family.) Or did Jane Griffin do the right thing?
How, by the way, would legalizing drugs do the Griffin family any good? For all the faults of the drug war, how can you read a story like that and think that making it legal to buy heroin, and recreation Fentanyl and oxycontin, would be a good idea? You read stories like this and you start to feel some sympathy for the outlaw Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, who encourages the extralegal murder of drug dealers.
UPDATE: I’m going to re-up here my long blog post from three years ago in praise of Sam Quiñones book Dreamland, about the opioid epidemic. I don’t normally search out books like this, but a friend recommended it to me as the best and most important book he had read in ages, so I picked it up. Wow, wow, wow. It is a stunning piece of work, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Excerpts from the book (taken from that 2015 post):
In heroin addicts, I had seen the debasement that comes from the loss of free will and enslavement to what amounts to an idea: permanent pleasure, numbness, and the avoidance of pain. But man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain, and the deprivation that temper his behavior.
In fact, the United States achieved something like this state of affairs … in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century. When I returned home from Mexico in those years, I noticed a scary obesity emerging. It wasn’t just the people. Everything seemed obese and excessive. Massive Hummers and SUVs were cars on steroids. In some of the Southern California suburbs near where I grew up, on plots laid out with three-bedroom houses in the 1950s, seven-thousand-square-foot mansions barely squeezed between the lot lines, leaving no place in which to enjoy the California sun.
Excess contaminated the best of America. Caltech churned out brilliant students, yet too many of them now went not to science but to Wall Street to create financial gimmicks that paid off handsomely and produced nothing. Exorbitant salaries, meanwhile, were paid to Wall Street and corporate executives, no matter how poorly they did. Banks packaged rolls of bad mortgages and we believed Standard & Poor’s when they called them AAA. Well-off parents no longer asked their children to work when they became teenagers.
In Mexico, I gained a new appreciation of what America means to a poor person limited by his own humble origins. I took great pride that America had turned more poor Mexicans into members of the middle class than had Mexico. Then I would return home and see too much of the country turning on this legacy in pursuit of comfort, living on credit, attempting to achieve happiness through more stuff. And I saw no coincidence that this was also when great numbers of these same kids — most of them well-off and white — began consuming huge quantities of the morphine molecule, doping up and tuning out.