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Why He Doesn’t Do Opioids (But Might)

A middle class reader living a life of quiet desperation reflects on his Stoic choice

A very moving e-mail from a reader:

Please don’t be offended, but I get more out of the letters your publish from your readers than most of your other blog entries. They speak to me in the foggy bottom where I live as a Christian and a conservative. No, I don’t work for the State Department (ha ha). I am a middle-aged academic who teaches at a good college, and who enjoys it, despite the fact that many of the problems you often write about re: university life and culture seem at times to be overtaking my institution.

I’m writing to you because I was reading something this evening about the opiate epidemic among white working-class Americans of my generation. The gist of it was that there is a collapse in the spirit of these people, who are giving up on life and turning to pills and worse (heroin) to take their spiritual and emotional pain away. It struck me that if I were not protected by certain things in my life, I would likely fall victim to the same curse. A college professor who enjoys a comfortable middle-class life is a world away from a Rust Belt factory worker strung out on Oxycontin, but we are much closer than I have thought.

Because I write anonymously, I will lay my cards on the table. I am a church-going Republican who has been married for 18 years, with two children. I have never been unfaithful to my wife, and have a close relationship with my children, who get high marks in school, and by all indications are well-adjusted. My life looks attractive from the outside, but within, I am in a substantial amount of pain.

My marriage has emptied out. Our firstborn came shortly after our one-year anniversary. My wife, who holds a master’s degree and planned to teach, wanted to be a stay at home mother, because she wanted our children to have what she had not. Though this plan was not without obvious sacrifices, I readily agreed to it. We could get by on my salary alone, and I could see the benefits to our child, and future children. It made her happy … for a while. Our second child came, and soon my wife began to complain that she was unfulfilled at home. She began to show resentment towards me for my work. To make a long story short: we decided that she would take a job. Given the complications of the academic job market, I had to resign from my position to take one at another college that offered my wife a teaching gig as part of a package deal. We moved a thousand miles away.

The results have been unsatisfying, to put it charitably. Professional life has not been the cure for dissatisfaction that she had hoped it would be. She complains about her colleagues incessantly, and resents me for the pleasure I take in my teaching. I can do no right by her. Though I enjoy my students, and get on tolerably well with my co-workers, I grieve for the old friends I left behind in our previous residence. My colleagues are pleasant, but if I dropped dead tomorrow, nobody would miss me. People here keep to themselves. I am not permitted within my marriage to talk about my loneliness. I am not permitted to do anything but listen to my wife, angry at the world, blame me and others for her unhappiness. I have to force myself not to think for long about this, or I would derail myself with my anger. Self pity is a luxury I cannot afford.

I thank God for my dear children and my religious faith, because I could not endure this otherwise.  I am a Catholic who is faithful to the sacraments, but my experience of parish life is profoundly lonely. We attend a relatively large but shrinking suburban parish. The priest is a decent man, but his homilies are terrible, and it looks as if he sees his job as trying to get through the days and weeks without offending anyone. I try not to judge him harshly. I could not do what he does. Nevertheless, it is impossible to look up to him as a spiritual father of any kind, and it is equally impossible to conceive of my Catholic self as part of anything cohesive or coherent. We are a gathering of strangers in that parish. We don’t know where we are going, or why we are going there. When my family first began attending it, I tried to get involved in the parish’s life, but I couldn’t sustain my efforts in the face of so much religious lethargy and indifference.

As in the case of my pastor, I try to withhold judgment of my fellow parishioners. However, this is what my experience has been. I have reconciled myself to the fact that loneliness is my fate in this parish. Yes, I am a theological conservative in a relatively liberal church, but I’m not interested in doctrinal combat, and I can’t say with confidence that the vibe in this parish would be much different if it were more conservative. The life of faith has become a grind. Our Lord did not promise that it would always be easy, and I persist because of His grace. But it is so much harder than it ought to be.

I remember first encountering the famous Thoreau quote (“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”) as an undergraduate, and thinking, “That’s my father, but it will never be me.” Now it is me. I have no realistic hope that things will improve. Church life is moribund, as I’ve said. I am mostly without friends at work or outside of work, and have been worn down by loneliness for so long that I no longer think about what I might do to improve things. I have accepted that this is simply my reality. Given the academic job market, my wife and I cannot realistically expect to move somewhere else, not at this stage in our lives and careers. This is as good as it is going to get. I have accepted that my wife despises me, and that this is part of the contempt she has been building up for the world over the past decade. There is no way out of this. She refuses to see a therapist, together or individually. Everything is my fault, and the fault of others in the world. It is a terrible thing to witness, and a terrible thing to live through. But I made a sacred vow, and I would do nothing to abrogate it, or to be disloyal to our children. Thus have I become a Stoic.

The real test will come when our children leave for college and then settle in their careers. It is unrealistic to expect that they will establish their homes around their mother and father. We do not live in an economically dynamic part of the country. It could be that in retirement, we will be able to move to be closer to one or both children. Then again, without the children to hold us together, will my wife and I be able to endure as a married couple? If not, then naturally I will not marry again. I am a believing Catholic — stronger than my wife, but I say that not out of pride, but in recognition that she would easily marry again with no scruples. That path is not open to me.

Mr. Dreher, the reason I go into all this detail with you is not to whinge or otherwise to engage in self-pity. I rather assume that Thoreau’s observation still holds true. My reason for writing is the realization that if I did not have Christian faith, as feeble as it often seems, and if I didn’t have meaningful employment, and children whose welfare means more to me than my own, then I could easily see myself falling prey to the same opioid addiction that has ensnared so many of the middle-aged white working class. [Note: I assume that this is what the reader is talking about. — RD]

Why not booze? Gin ensnared my father, who medicated his disappointments and failures in life with it. I have never been much of a drinker, because alcohol makes me physically ill without giving me any pleasure. Whether this is a gift of genetics or the psychosomatic result of fear of turning into my father and so many of his fellows of the “Mad Men” generation, I can only guess.

If opiates deliver their users from the existential pain of living with loneliness, defeat, and despair, it is not at all difficult for me to imagine their appeal. In fact, I frightened myself this evening by imagining how easy it would be for me to medicate my own emotional and psychic pain in that fashion (assuming I wouldn’t have a negative physical reaction to the drug, as I do to alcohol). What wouldn’t I give to be free from the crushing burden of defeat without surcease, if only for an hour or two?

I wouldn’t give my life. I wouldn’t risk the happiness of my children, nor would I compromise the stewardship I owe them as their father. The truth is, I have a strong ethic of self-discipline built into me, from the way I was reared, that makes such a temptation easy to resist, despite the (non-physical) pain I endure every day. I am a middle-class college professor who is respected and dependable, and who comes from a long line of respectable middle-class people who do not fall apart in “unrespectable” ways. (You see why I am grateful that alcohol is inimical to me.) I have many barriers around me to protect me from addiction: the interior narrative of my life, my religious faith, my love for my children, and maybe most important of all, the plain fact that opiate addiction is something beyond the barriers of my social group. Please don’t misunderstand: I have no doubt that there are people in my circles who are opiate abusers of some sort of another. It’s just that it is socially taboo, and I find restraint in that. To be blunt, opiates are for hillbillies, or so people of my class tell ourselves. I am fairly sure that is a lie, but it is a lie that keeps people like me from indulging our curiosity.

I suppose this letter is a roundabout way of commenting on the “shithole” controversy that has caused such a stir on your blog, but which has also generated stimulating discussion. If I were living in a “shithole” neighborhood, which is to say in a social environment where opiate use were less stigmatized and drugs accessible; if I didn’t have a stable job that I enjoyed; if I lacked  religious commitment and a deep conviction that “our sort of person” does not do drugs … what, then, would stop me, quietly despairing as I am, from becoming an opiate addict? It is hard to say, and that frightens me.

It gives rise to two contradictory responses within me. The first says, Do everything you can to keep the culture of opiate use far away! The second says, God, help me to be merciful to those poor souls, because there but for Your grace go I. 

I do not know how to reconcile those two warring impulses. I wish I had a priest, a partner, or a close friend that I could talk to about them, but you know…

Thanks for listening. It did me some good to write about these things.

Man. I was reminded over the weekend, in personal conversation, that the burdens many people, even happy people, carry in life are immense. Vale of tears, indeed.



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