The Unintended Consequence of Hate

This was a horrible craphole of a week to be a grown up, I’m guessing you probably felt the same way. At first it was just horror about real world leaders behaving like they’re in the Butter Battle Book by Dr. Suess. But today it’s just turned to shame and pity. How can I look my kids in the face and assure them that love wins, when people were marching through the streets just 80 miles south on behalf of racism and hate?

I had scheduled a post for today, before any of this hit the news, to post pictures of flowers and butterflies. I felt like it was important over the summer to address issues surrounding addiction and alcoholism, but it’s so depressing. I wanted to thank you all for taking the time to read and engage in conversation with me by tempering the despair with some beauty, but today it feels weird. After people have been mauled and wounded, it seems absurd to post pictures with a cheerful theme and palette. People are angry, and scared, and with good cause. It’s not okay to pretend like everything’s fine.

This summer I had the privilege of hearing one of my favorite artists, Makoto Fujimura, speak at a writers conference on the topic of an artist’s role in the church. The essence of the talk was that artists are as important to spiritual development as intellectuals, they’re the poetic Mary to the practical Martha, the ones who show us how to sit with the mystery of the gospel. He shared that it’s an artist’s job to stand under hope, and that to him, hope is the primary medium that we create out of. This is costly in most circumstances where we would normally react with fear, but it is worth it. The artist’s job is to cultivate people’s imaginations toward this hope, and then past it, toward love. The temptation he said we face, is that we are in constant danger of being not actors on this mission, but reactors. When react, we miss out on the entirety of the hope that’s possible; we only share our emotion which is as fleeting as hope is eternal.

He told the story of being in New York city on 9/11, and taking his son to school that morning a few blocks away from the twin towers. He shared about panic and fear that suddenly became tangible. But then he shared about the children who experienced it. His son remained friends with the kids in his class that day, even though they all grew up and went to different high schools. He said that all but one of his those friends was pursuing some form of the arts as an adult. The terrorists were sure that day that they were planting seeds of revenge and hate in the children who witnessed that tragedy, but what they created were artists, and it was the spirit of hope in the city that enabled the radical transformation of fear.

Another timely thing I heard this summer was a Ted Radio Hour episode on tolerance. The point they made was we put too much emphasis on being able to tolerate one another. At it’s core, it’s too easy because if you tolerate something, you can still hate it for as long as you can ignore it. For example, our neighbors dog barks day and night. We hate it, but it’s not worth the energy to create conflict with our neighbors, so we refrain from repeatedly calling animal control. There’s no reconciliation, empathy, or even open discussion, and it’s a half step above what we saw yesterday. I think that half step we’ve created around tolerance is not enough space, because we lapse in our self control, we’re by default intolerant and adding to the harm done in hatred’s name.

The episode explored so many touchy conflicts, conservative vs. liberal, black vs. white, pro-life vs. pro-choice, and Palestinian vs. Israeli, and found inspiring examples of people who were reaching beyond tolerance toward something greater. They embraced humility, listened, empathized, found common ground, cooperated, and humanized conversation. Today, it doesn’t seem possible, that we could be a society that chooses to embrace rather than threaten its minorities, but these are the values that will walk us away from that mindset. These were real stories of actual people who were able to overcome their prejudice, past the point of tolerance to something stronger. This is what artists have a higher calling to explore, and in turn what parents are called to share with their children.

Tonight and every night, as I put my kids to bed, I’ll read them good books about kind people and hopeful things. Even though it is a simple thing, in a culture full of fear and hate, it is an act of defiance. To read to them about love, as an act of my love for them, teaches them about holiness. It helps them see that’s who God really is, and gives them the discernment to see white supremacy as the opposite. Today we were already planning to go to to the Hirshhorn to see the Ai Weiwei exhibit about political prisoners. This too is an act of defiance, to share hope with my children.  The exhibit shows how standing up for love and freedom is costly, but still heroic and necessary. The act of raising up a generation, leading them toward hope through the arts and giving them the tools to create on their own, is more powerful than we realize. The arts are the language kids are most likely to understand, we see this in the way that fables and fairy tales have endured for centuries, but they only remember our lectures for about 15 seconds.  The arts are also our promise to them- that despite what they see on the news, there is a promise of something better. May their inspired imaginations, writing, music, visuals and drama be the unintended result of this weekends rally.

Maybe there is space for art in the world on a morning after a disgrace like this. It’s our reaction to not feel like it, to feel unworthy of it, but if we are intent on defying things like the KKK, maybe even something as simple as butterflies will show how deeply we disagree with them. Maybe it shows that you don’t have to be flawless to be beautiful, or that no one can truly lay claim to land, or that innocent beauty is the true essence of God’s creation and not a bunch of tikki torch carrying assholes. I was originally going to offer hope, that the Shenandoah is not close to, nor could it ever be overrun by addiction. That despite whatever problems we have as people, the beauty in nature will not fade from these mountains because God is with us. Or maybe that the purity of creation has incredible power to refresh the souls of the weary.

We confess the sins that have brought us to this point. Yesterday was domestic terrorism committed by white supremacists, we know because we have behaved this way many times before. Despite what people say, this is us. Some days people march, and we know where to throw stones, but most days we’re satisfied with tolerating one another, and both attitudes need forgiveness. We condemn racism and supremacy, but we do so as an action of hope, not as a part of our surprise or disgust. We trade in our tolerance for compassion, openness, forgiveness, reconciliation and most of all love. We dare to hope for something greater than what binds us now, and we extend that hope in every art form that we know how-books, movies, plays, music, paintings, photos, sculpture, anything, to inspire one another and to free our children from inheriting these sins.

If you’re not able to look at flowers and butterflies today, it’s understandable, I’m not quite there yet either. They seem insignificant compared to the grief we feel over what one human is willing to do to another. But I’m posting them anyways because I know my kids and I need this beauty.  And to acknowledge that while my heart is filled with the same emotions as yours, this is the truth we must hold onto: the hatred and fear that evil incites can be radically transformed by hope into love and beauty if we let them.  Possibly the transformation will be so startling that the white supremacy movement will shriek and shrink up in horror like the wicked witch of the west, and evaporate into our history books forever.

 

Searching for Mercy

This infographic from Utah Senator Mike Lee(R) shows the length and sequence of the opioid problem. I’m not tech savy enough to get the gif to transfer here, so please follow this link and watch as it spreads. Visuals like this help people realize the scope and the depth, and why opioids are the key poltitical issue right now…

The map begins to really grow in the 1990’s, when deaths were increasing in California and Border states, we even see the first bit of red in New Mexico. This reflects a group of enterprising farmers in Mexico making black tar heroin, and the rise of a franchised distribution ring they created to sell it over the border. Their network would eventually make its way all across the country, to rural communties that knew nothing about heroin, but during this time period they remained mostly in the southwest.  In 1997, when the map starts to turn red, marks the release of OxyContin. Large chunks of the red begin growing especially in areas where people opened pill mills, first in the Appalachians and then in Florida, where there was almost no prescription regulation to prevent addiction.  The rapid red growth at the end reflects people turning to heroin as it has become more difficult to get an Oxy prescription. It shows batches of drugs being laced with more potent opioids, like Fentanyl, causing mass overdoses wherever its sold.

What’s almost as troubling as the map were the comments people shared about it on social media.  So much anger and misunderstanding. Everybody had someone to blame, and very few accusations were based on anything factual. I know that’s the beast of social media, but it breaks my heart to see people being so careless with an issue as painful as this.

Whose fault is the epidemic? Everybody’s. Democrats and Republicans together have passed power back and forth over the last 20 years. They’ve both created policies, some that fueled the epidemic and some that helped to slow it. Meanwhile the rest of us said nothing about it, in debates or at the polls, and most of what happened was buried in beauracracy.  We enabled a culture of based on materialism, seclusion, and averse to pain; a place where the option to numb yourself to death has become more enticing than enduring the struggles for life and love. We embarrassed the people who needed help. We threw them in jail, labeled people with addiction as weak willed, immoral criminals, and shamed the parents that raised them.  We were stingy with jobs and second chances, ignoring our own mistakes to focus on theirs.

Oh Jesus.  Please let humility and cooperation triumph here. Please help us resist the temptation to become self-righteous and search for a place to lay blame. We’ve squandered so much of our blessing to pursue sin, but still we ask you to have mercy on our souls and our mistakes. Save us from our greed and pride that grew this epidemic.

Lord have mercy on the people who continue to write unnecessary prescriptions, and the people seeking them out to escape depression and frustration. Have mercy on the people whose prescriptions ended in addiction, who turned to heroin out of desperation. Have mercy on those living with chronic pain, that can’t get out of bed without a pill in the morning, but also can’t convince doctors that their pain is real. Have mercy on the child who took them at a party, not fully understanding the power of the drug they were comitting their life to.

Have mercy on our divided and spiteful politics, which are more interested in winning fights and being right than cooperating to help people. Have mercy on our tendency to despise the poor of spirit, the broken and the weary for not behaving in a manner, or making choices, that are acceptable to us.

Lord have mercy, for we are as lost in our complacency and apathy as these dark red counties are lost in their despair.  Teach us to understand the difference between needs and wants, and to be compassionate with our resources. Show us what love means, and how to extend it to those we are not naturally interested in loving. Teach us to do your will, to love kindness, show mercy and walk humbly with you.

May all your people be of one mind. Open the lips of preachers, pastors and leaders to unite in action and in prayer on behalf of the communities they serve.  Stir the holy spirit fires to break people out of their upper rooms, lead them into the streets, speaking the languages  of the disenfranchised, the immigrants, the unholy, the criminals, the recovering and those stuck in addiction. Break through all our fears, and empower us to fight this evil. Teach us to shine your light brightly so this is a culture where people would choose to engage, to be led from the temptation to just exist.

Oh Jesus, have mercy on us all.

And may all God’s people say, Amen.

 The Ghost Bike of Billthy

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_bike

This is a ghost bike. If you’re looking, you will see them around cities marking the places where cyclists have died. Car crash fatalities have crosses, piles of flowers, pictures, and ribbons memorializing a life lost on the road, and cyclists have this.  It’s simple. Just an old, busted bike, chained up at the scene of an incident, spray painted completely white.  They can be found worldwide, wherever cyclists die, and there’s a cycling community in mourning. People say it’s to raise awareness for drivers, to help remember to share the road with bikes, but people who don’t ride often don’t understand, or care, what the bikes are for.  For me, they stand as a bleak reminder of how vulnerable cyclists are, that a car doesn’t have to be fast to be deadly, and that friends can easily die tragic, preventable deaths.

 

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Photo c/o Austin Horse, in Philly, halfway through his ride to D.C.

This is Austin Horse. He’s a New York City bike messenger, adventuring cyclist, winner of a few world bike messenger championship races, and based on all accounts given by mutual friends, a decent human being.

 

Once upon a time he had another friend that was named Bill. He was also a New York bike messenger, as wild and scrappy as his long beard, which had helped earn him the nickname Billthy. He had a serious case of bikelust, and was cherished for his presence at the back of the RAGBRAI pack that cycles across Iowa every year. He was a brother, an uncle, a father, a friend to many, and also, by all accounts, a decent human being.

One day, Bill woke up feeling ill. He dealt with it, as most grown ups do, but he didn’t feel any better. At this early point in the story, he could have gone to see a doctor, received some medicine, and been fine.  Or maybe had a yearly check up, where the doctor would’ve told him he couldn’t heal without treatment.  But he didn’t see a doctor, or have physicals because he couldn’t afford them. He took a risk, and assumed that like whatever maladies he’d experienced before, it would eventually go away.  Instead it became worse, and then unbearable.  Bill finally went to the hospital, but it was too late. What had started as an ulcer had perforated, then turned into sepsis, commonly known as blood poisoning. At 52 years of age, on February 1, 2015, Bill died.  From an ulcer.

If you met Bill you might think he was an uncommon person, but stories like his have become so common to me that it holds no surprise.  DC messengers I worked with have also died young from treatable conditions that went untreated, cancers that weren’t detected early enough, or chronic conditions that weren’t properly cared for.  These weren’t bad people. Despite whatever personal baggage they may or may not have had, they worked hard and were usually willing to drop what they were doing and run a package. Even if the whole city was under a foot of snow and even the US Postal Service was closed.  Typical of bike messengers and other working class people, Bill couldn’t afford preventative care because he was uninsured, even with medicaid expansion, and even with subsidies in the marketplace.  For many in this position, survival does not allow sick days, because hourly pay is how food finds its way onto their table. Illnesses come and go, but the need for income remains the same, especially if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, hand to mouth.

Austin thought Bill’s death needed a ghost bike. He was a cyclist, and this was a tragic, preventable death, common to many messengers, and it warranted some public awareness.  But where would it be displayed? There was no crash sight, or landmark to place the blame.  So Austin decided that in honor of his friend, and to advocate for universal health care that might have saved him, to make Bill’s ghost bike mobile.  Instead of a random ghost bike, he would bring Bill’s actual bike which was already white.  He would ride it from Bill’s home in Brooklyn, in his hand, by his side, all the way to Washington D.C and up to Capitol Hill.  Austin and Bill’s bike rode the stretch all this week, while the senators were debating  behind closed doors legislation that would affect the future for millions of Americans like Bill. He took the bike and Bill’s story to the people in congress, hoping to remind them that what they’re creating is not just a bill. It’s a way to change people’s stories. It‘s a chance to give them life.

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Image c/o Austin Horse, In Brooklyn, starting out toward DC

Austin is an experienced cyclist, but riding a long distance in this way is no small task. Any amount of riding with your hand on someone else’s bike is awkward.  I’ve ridden bikes that needed repairs to a shop about a mile from my house. It was unpleasant. It threw off my balance and slowed me down.  I’ve also ridden the distances Austin traveled each day. It hurts. Not just in your legs, but in your palms, your wrists, your back, and your butt. Being able to let go of the handlebars to sit up and stretch your wrists and wiggle your back is just about the best thing ever. Being able to have both hands on your own handlebars to adjust your weight or get out of the saddle is probably the only thing that might feel nicer.  You can’t do either of those things if you have one hand on someone else’s bike.  

It was a noble gift to Bill’s memory, to take a piece of him back out on the road, and to share his story with people who don’t understand what it’s like.  Often we make this debate about penalties, taxes and money spent, but we leave out the friends we’ve lost, and how they suffered. 

There are definitely problems with the system now. It costs more than a monthly house payment to insure a family like mine, even with my husband’s employer subsidizing it.  At different times my husband or I have remained uninsured because we’re healthy, and it was cheaper to pay the penalty and for the occasional doctor’s visit than it was to buy insurance.  But through that I’ve watched my husband go to work with chronic back pain for months at a time, and suffer through things like strep throat and the swine flu without antibiotics. Even when we are insured,  the polict we had was so crappy it would only pay for something if you were about to die.  Even though the bill was created to help people like us, I feel people’s frustration with the Affordable Care Act. 

I’m fine with fixing the problems, looking at the legislation again and even repealing the parts that don’t work, but not with forgetting that all people need affordble health care.  How many people have to die from small complications before we are willing to negotiate around this issue? I wish I was wise enough to speak into the future and calm everyone’s fears about the possible solutions and how they might work best for our country. I wish I could say, beyond a doubt, what measures we needed to take to ensure that greed and corruption won’t triumph at the expense of the vulnerable and less fortunate.

I know we all have our strong opinions about what should be done, and that there are no perfect answers, but the answer can’t be nothing, nor can it be looking back to the time before the ACA with fondness, when millions more were uninsured.  This is not just a bill, it’s people’s stories and so we need people like Austin out there, sharing the ones that people can no longer share for themselves.  Because it’s friends and family like Bill who are lost in ferocity of this battle.  

It has not been effective for us to yell, argue and growl at one another, while we forget that we are capable of empathy and understanding. We need more stories. So we can understand about the family who’s son was saved from addiction and mental illness because it was an ACA provision to include substance abuse treatment.  So we can hear about the family that is already swamped with insurance payments, and dreads a trip to the ER because they have no room in their budget to also pay down the deductible. Tell people this story, or your story, or the story of your own friends. We need them. That’s what the debate should center around, because nobody ever sold the child to save the farm and because we need to find a way to treat something as simple as an ulcer.

A documentary clip of Bill in action…May he rest in peace.

 

How to Create a Crisis

Edmund was such a bratty kid the first time I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  I loved Lucy, since I was a girl her age, but his relentless effort to embarrass her only made him half villain.  What I found repulsive was his ignorance to temptation; he didn’t even try to defend himself against White Witch. How could a person so shamelessly seek after evil, trudging through snow with no coat, to sell out his siblings for candy?  I understood that he represented me as a sinner, but I couldn’t bear being lumped in with someone so oblivious to an evil plot.

That same feeling is rampant where I live in the Appalachians. People’s resentment builds as heroin bashes away at the infrastructure of rural life. It’s not that they’re unfamiliar with addiction, or the depression that leads people to it. They’re just tired of the unrelenting pain the heroin version brings, and of lacking the resources to fight back.  People wonder, why can’t these addicts just say ‘no’? They did DARE in school like everyone else, so how could they be so helpless against such an obvious evil?  Maybe if addicts just thought about their choices, money wouldn’t be wasted on Narcan, social services and jail.  Someone in a crowd will always suggest we save our resources by just letting them overdose and die.  It’s callous and simplistic, but people are so annoyed that heroin is even an issue.

It took 30 years and raising 4 little boys for me to appreciate Edmund as a universal character.  My boys didn’t see him as a spiteful bully, but as an emotional little boy, frightened by the war and annoyed by his seemingly perfect siblings.  As a parent I was finally able to see the wounds caused by circumstance, separated from his parents and scared for their safety.  Every day I referee squabbles created by a child who’s been squashed by his place in the birth order, trying to undo the resentment that it brings.  Adding to Edmund’s plight, he’s sacrificing joys he’s been entitled to since birth- sugar, chocolate, even new shoes and socks.  He wasn’t wandering Narnia seeking fortune or dominance, they just found him cold and lonely in the woods with an unsettled heart and offered themselves as solutions.  All it took was a small choice of food, and suddenly his greed was insatiable. 

The enchanted treats perverted Edmund’s character similar to the way heroin would.  The more of the treat he ate, the less remained of his virtue.  Reality became distorted to the point he could no longer decipher the good from evil, or truth from lie. His disposition became increasingly combative, even when he was obviously wrong.  Of the Turkish Delight, Lewis says, “…anyone who had tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed to, go on eating it until they killed themselves.” His greed for it left Edmund with an empty container, making promises he couldn’t keep, to a woman he couldn’t trust, all to dominate his siblings and live in a fantasy.   We scoff at people who fall prey to addiction, the same way we do at Edmund, but truthfully we know more about this scenario than we’d care to admit.  

The creation of today’s Heroin crisis is rooted in the same oblivion as Edmund’s.  He didn’t know that the Witch’s treats were enchanted.  He’d probably eaten Turkish Delight before without feeling the urge to sell his soul, so why should he suspect danger? The Witch may have been exuding evil, but it was just candy.  The increase in heroin use today is attributed to the mass abuse of OxyContin that began about 20 years ago. The pill was first marketed as non habit-forming, and for a decade doctors were encouraged to prescribe it to anyone with chronic pain.  It didn’t matter if you were prescribed pills from your doctor or bought them on the street, the lie was pervasive and convincing: there have been studies, it’s not habit forming, it’s FDA approved for all your pain.  Maybe we should have been more wary, but doctors prescribe all kinds of drugs that heal and help, so why should this be different? Even after 1000’s of years of experience with opium and its derivatives, we never stopped to question if these claims were true.

In the time that it has taken OxyContin and its generic oxycodone to rise and level off in popularity, our culture has seen an abundance of fraudulent schemes fail. Our economy imploded as the housing market crashed.  Record breaking athletes almost all turned out to be bogus, and our olive oil was fake.  We wanted so much, we even ruined kindergarten in an attempt to have smarter kids.  Ignoring fraud and then being horrified at the consequences is just about our new national pastime.  It’s in this way we know Edmund and the addicts on the street. We know them through our blinding greed.  

The story of how we legalized drug dealing reveals that greed as the real epidemic, and our opioid abuse as a symptom of it.  It would seem, according to the arrest records, that the White Witch villain of this story are the people operating pain clinics. To an extent this is true, Jeff and Chris George were like this, They were twin brothers from Florida who were both housing contractors and felons, but from 2008 to 2010 they owned and operated the U.S.’s  largest chain of pill mills, profiting $40 million in just two and a half years.  They hired desperate doctors who were bankrupt, either literally or morally, and told them if they wrote a lot of prescriptions they could make $2 million a year.  As soon as patients realized how easy it was to obtain drugs without getting arrested, their business exploded.   People drove down by the van full from as far away as West Virginia and Kentucky.  Each patient needed an MRI (done for $50 in a trailer behind a nearby strip club) and a clean cup of urine (didn’t have to be yours), but as long as someone followed the procedure they could go home with a month’s worth of pills.

Since pain is relative and mostly invisible, you can’t prove someone is lying, which made it difficult for the DEA to build a case. It wasn’t until the brothers violently threatened people that agents were allowed to wiretap their phones and prove the clinic was a sham.  At any point before that, the George’s certainly could have walked away with a fortune, but when recounting the story they said their love for profits and power became insatiable.  By the time the clinics were shut down and everyone involved was arrested, the DEA estimated that 20 million doses of oxycodone had been prescribed, an average of about 10,000 per day.

Most doctors, however, were less villainous than the Witch and as blinded as both Edmund and addicts alike. Dr. William Hurwitz, star of the documentary “Dr. Feelgood: Dealer or Healer”, had an impressive resume compared to the George brothers.  He was educated at Columbia and Stanford, and then volunteered with the Peace Corp in Brazil. When he came back to the States, he specialized in chronic pain, became an expert in the field, and opened his own clinic in an affluent D.C. suburb.  His patients were people whose pain was so crippling they were unable to do basic things, like walk or get out of bed. They were grateful for his support, but traditional treatment involved multiple types of surgeries and therapies in addition to some meager medication.  It was a long, expensive road with lined with tiresome insurance battles, and no promise of relief.  Everyone was desperate for an easier answer to the problem of chronic pain.

In 1996, sales reps from a company called Purdue Pharma showed up in doctor offices across the country, and a ‘hallelujah’ rang out.  They promised their new pill, OxyContin,  was the first non-addictive opioid, thanks to its fancy, new time release capsule. They wooed doctors during special conferences at fancy resorts, and cited a few loosely applied studies to substantiate their claims.  At these conferences they promised even a primary care physician could prescribe it safely.  It’s so harmless, people could use it after a tooth extraction.  Purdue trained its sales team to ingrain the message that the risk of addiction was “less than one percent.” They even made up a term to describe skeptics: ‘opiophobic.’

Hurwitz was so enamored with the idea of the pill that he became blind to its power. After years of repeated appointments with little progress, his patients were finally happy, and he was overjoyed. “It’s like a miracle from heaven,” they’d tell their friends.  They can go back to work, walk without a cane, and play with their grandchildren again.  But soon they would become tolerant and ask for a higher dose, and Hurwitz became as addicted to prescribing OxyContin as they were to taking it.  He started to ignore signs that his patients were abusing the drug.  When a nurse would point an addict out, he claimed they still felt chronic pain, so who was he to deny them relief?  If a patient ran out of pills before their prescription ended, Hurwitz would assume the patient was developing a tolerance and increased their dosage.  After two of his patients overdosed and died, the DEA opened an investigation. His abundance of patients taking abnormally large doses led them to shut his practice down.  Soon after the medical board revoked his license, and eventually he went to jail.

Even after losing everything, including his marriage and career, he still thought OxyContin was the answer for chronic pain.  When they interviewed his ex-patients, ones who were lucky enough to have recovered from their habit, they all regretted their addiction and understood how needing the pills had made them suffer more.  Hurwitz showed remorse for the people who had died, but was unwilling to assume any blame. He was sad that people had taken the drug incorrectly, mostly because it ruined the chance for others to use it for relief.  In his post jail interviews, he still did not feel that large doses, extended use, or increasing tolerance had anything to do with creating epidemic addiction. He shows we can be greedy with excellent motives, and what’s scary is that will blind us all the same.

Closer to the White Witch in this story is Purdue Pharma.  In the early 90’s they were still a small company, whose primary product was a painkiller called MS Contin given mainly to dying cancer patients. It was profitable, but the patent was about to expire, and with it’s limited market it wouldn’t be able to compete with its generic versions. The company needed something new to keep them afloat, preferably something with a bigger market so they wouldn’t be in the same position ten years later. OxyContin, was their answer and chronic pain patients would be their market.  Soon enough, its popularity turned them into superstars, and opioids became a billion dollar a year industry in just a few years.  Today their reach is global, and the Sackler family who owns the brand, is the 16th richest in the nation according to Forbes.

It’s unclear what their original intention was other than trying to stay in business. Did they create their product to help people or did they know they had found a way to legalize heroin? Probably the truth is somewhere in between.  By 2000, people began to realize that OxyContin actually was addictive, and started filing lawsuits.  In 2007 The U.S. Attorney General’s office took up the case, and Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to criminal   ‘misbranding’, for mislabeling theb drug, fraudulently promoting it, and marketing for an unapproved use.  They paid $635 million dollars in fines to stay out of jail, which was the biggest pemalty at the time, but has lost its meaning compared to the $35 billion in revenue that ; earned from OxyContin to date.  Several other affected places have successfully filed for damages since, including Kentucky, New York, Ohio, West Virginia and Canada.  Most recently the town of Everett, Washington has filed a new lawsuit, this time claiming the company purposely fueled the black market in order to increase profits.  

Why did it take almost a decade for Purdue to admit their guilt or do anything about it? Could they really not see that their product was destructive? Their actions have created a state of unending winter without Christmas for large chunks of our country, just like in Narnia. As satisfying as it would be to see every CEO responsible in jail, it’s difficult to judge where the distinction between evil intention and ignorance lies.  The CEO’s themselves were so caught up in the success of their product, it’s possible they didn’t understand the long term consequences of their actions.  Even once the effects became undeniable, they were still too blinded by profits to admit the pill was causing problems.  29 claims for damages were fought off before a single case was settled.  With bank accounts growing into the billions, their morals became more polluted than those addicted to the drug they were selling.

When Peter confesses that he was partially to blame for Edmund’s actions, Aslan doesn’t deny it.  The contributing sin is in my soul as much as it is that of addicts, over-prescribing doctors and Purdue Pharma’s.  Living with four little boys helps me see how deeply embedded in our human nature greed is.  Every day begins a new challenge to shepherd them through their desires, trying to teach them to see others needs before their own, and to be content with what they already have.  Everything else, from their friends to our junk mail, teaches them they need more: more activities, brains, ambition, muscles, toys, fun, food, gifts and then also more money, to pay for it all.

In the aftermath of OxyContin we find ourselves like Edmund, standing alone in a frigid castle, desperate for hope and lamenting the greed of our actions.  Heroin addicts may receive the worst of our scorn, but those that can find recovery are the most blessed, for they’ll have seen their sin clearly enough to be freed from it.  Unfortunately, the epidemic of greed pushes us to behave like headstrong teenagers.  We suffer the consequences for a while, but when they’ve run their course, we’ve learned nothing.  If freedom is to be found, we must see our problem as clearly as an addict at rock-bottom, with an awareness of the disasters we’re causing, humility to admit our imperfection, and acceptance of contentment with our reality.

After Purdue Pharma was convicted, their profits and the rates of pill abuse continued to increase for 3 more years.  Even with the landmark court case, opioids were not a top news story in 2007, or listed in the top 10 headlines for any year before or after.  Most headlines were about elections and their related issues, the war on terrorism, sports or celebrity gossip.  The housing crisis and the ensuing recession have been a top story almost every year since 2008 because of the mayhem it caused, but opioids have devastated almost as many.  It’s estimated that 7 million have struggled with dependency since the release of OxyContin, many cases resulting in death.  On the surface this seems about equal to recession unemployment or foreclosures, but the statistic grows exponentially when we realize that addiction is a family problem.  For every dependent person counted, there are several more suffering the consequences, like kids in foster care, babies in withdrawal, and/or relatives spending a fortune on their loved ones in rehab.

After such a traumatic experience, you would think we would make an elaborate effort to keep history from repeating.  Some progress has been made; OxyContin now has a tamper resistant coating, and databases have been formed to track prescriptions and prevent abuse.  Doctors now have strict guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain. Rates of abuse have leveled off, but at the same time so have profits.  Instead of being satisfied with the money that’s been made, there is now a global campaign for OxyContin, using the same misleading and aggressive marketing techniques that proved so successful in the U.S. In a terrifying quote from a promotional video, the company claims, “We’re only just getting started.” 

After we finished our trip to Narnia, the boys and I read The Blessing Cup by Patricia Polacco.  It tells the true story of a poor Russian Jewish family that had been gifted a beautiful  tea set for their wedding.  The set came with a note saying, “Anyone who drinks from this will have blessings from God. They will never know a day of hunger. Their lives will always have flavor. They will know love and joy and they will never be poor.” The mom pours the family tea in it every week, while reciting the blessing, and pointing out all the ways it has come true. Though they are meager peasants, fleeing persecution, fighting off pneumonia and living as refugees, they believe her.  The persecution has given life flavor in the form of crazy stories and new friends who help them along the way.  They may not have always had enough to eat, but they were never hungry for love.  They may not have had sufficient money to provide for their needs and yet they were still rich in family, even in through the three generations the tradition continued after the first blessing was recited.  

May we, as individuals and a culture, have that blessing too, that we can preserve one another for generations. Let us be so full of contentment and thanksgiving that we could clearly see the temptation set before us.  The heroin epidemic probably won’t be a catalyst for lasting change. History would indicate that it won’t, since our policies created this same exact problem when heroin was released by Bayer Pharmaceutical in the early 1900’s.  But it might, and we should pray that it will.  For now, our power against the greed is in choice as individuals to be satisfied, and our ability to teach our kids, friends, and neighbors to do the same.  May these values be the heritage we cherish above all, not ease, fortune, power or fame.

“Dreamland”: Parenting Lessons From a Drug Epidemic

When we moved to the Shenandoah, I heard neighbors complaining about heroin, how they were disgusted about finding needles around the playground, and watching drug deals take place in parking lots.  I’d heard that heroin was popular again, but I greatly underestimated the extent of the epidemic, especially in Appalachia.  My own kids found a few needles in places that were supposed to preserved for their innocence and for community, and I couldn’t get my head around how this had become such a problem. When I was growing up, I was terrified by heroin.  Mostly it was the needles, ‘Trainspotting’ and that scene in ‘Pulp Fiction’ that made me never want to go near it; even in my teenage arrogance I respected its deadly power.  My stupidity about trying different substances always stopped at heroin because people said it would kill me, and I actually believed them.  I couldn’t understand how the generation following me could not see through its thin veneer of bliss to understand these same things, especially to the point where heroin use has become an epidemic.

The book Dreamland:The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones helps people who didn’t personally witness opiate use escalate around our country understand how it happened.  What sets this book apart is that in addition to the facts and stories that fed into the epidemic, he also theorizes about the cultural trends that made us susceptible.  It’s a pretty depressing read for parents, but these theories offer important insight about what we teach our kids. We may not be able to help directly with helping people fight their addiction, but parents are on the frontline of making cultural changes to prevent it. What has happened makes it’s clear that our part is more than just warning about the dangers of drug use. We have great influence in teaching and modeling to our kids what is valuable and what is not, and maybe in this way we can help reverse the trend.

Definite Lessons

Be aware of what’s in a pill bottle.   Do your research on what a doctor prescribes your child,  especially if something is possibly habit forming. Even if big pharma or your doctor tells you an opioid, benzo or amphetamine is not addictive, that it has a special time release formula or some other mechanism to keep people from abusing it, take it with caution and lots of education.  Assume that it is still is addictive, because that’s the nature of these drugs.  

Shame intensifies the problem. In Portsmouth Ohio, the city that Quinones identifies as ‘ground zero’ of the epidemic, parents didn’t speak out about what was happening because they were embarrassed. They were trying to navigate things they knew nothing about: rehabs, prison systems, probation, but silently, without help.  They were too ashamed to ask for it, which was silly, because their friends and neighbors were going through the exact same things, but also silently and no one knew.  It took 10 years before a parent in town was able to speak up about it, and form a support group.  If one good thing comes from the opiate epidemic, it’s that there’s a light shining into the hidden worlds of middle and upper class addiction. Because it’s heroin, you can’t just send a kid to rehab silently and expect when they return, life will go back to normal.  Heroin is not just bad behavior at parties and DUI’s, it’s cops, multiple stints in jail, and ambulances in front of your house. You have to have help to support a person through recovery; knowledge and honesty from a community are essential. And since addicts are overdosing more often than people are dying in car crashes, there is no longer time for any parent to shame or be ashamed.

Possible Influences

Kids had their own rooms. Because of our increased affluence and the real estate boom, many kids had their own rooms, which was less common in previous generations.  Kids said that their room was the perfect sanctuary to get high in, away from the cops, nosy neighbors, tattling siblings and any other person who could tell their parents what they were doing.  

And their own cars.  Having a car gave suburban teens easy access to drugs.  You call a number, like you’re ordering pizza, you drive somewhere and meet another driver, and exchange money for drugs. Quinones mentions that the cars also had the added benefit of becoming a place to live when the parents wised up, and kicked their kids out of the house.  

Sports.  I hate to mess with something that has become sacred to so many people. I’m not denying that athletics can be beneficial for children, but that it can be overdone. Quinones noticed that in the middle and upper class communities he was studying youth athletics had been elevated to the point where the problems began outweighing the benefits.  After interviewing an addict in one upper-middle class town he said,  

“It was a place of gleaming mansions, but he felt no sense that education was of value in providing choices for life, much less a love of learning. These kids’ futures were assured. So sports were what mattered. Dads would brag to friends about their sons’ athletic exploits, then berate their boys for poor play, urging greater sacrifice. From the athletic director down to parents and teachers they heard, ‘you need good grades so you can play…’”(291)

Quinones saw that sports were becoming a gateway to opiate abuse because of the pressure and the injuries.  Because of how important sports had become, kids were playing year round starting in early elementary school, and were then more likely to have chronic injuries by the time they reached high school.  And because of the pressure to succeed, they were encouraged to play through their injuries and ignore their pain. They were often prescribed painkillers just so they could finish a season and Quinones noticed that the local football star was quietly becoming the face of teenage opioid abuse. Medicating injuries has always been done, but with oxycodone being prescribed for chronic pain, many sports teams, (and football especially since the players are prone to injury) were developing their own addictions.

Philosophical Questions

What are the consequences  of isolation?  The book is named for the community pool in Portsmouth, Ohio, where generations of kids would hang out all day every day over the summer, surrounded by their neighbors and elders.  It closed in the early 90’s because people began installing their own pools, tucked away neatly in their backyards. People stopped meeting their neighbors and letting their kids roam the streets until dinnertime.  The lack of neighborhood made it easier to hide a drug addiction, away from the watchful eyes and accountability of the community.  Quinones sees this as a metaphor, because it wasn’t just Dreamland that closed, people everywhere started staying in their homes and becoming more isolated. Closed doors made it easier for people to pretend they were perfect, which fueled secrecy and shame about all of their hidden defects.

What happens when we have too much stuff? Maybe not so coincidentally, the peak business years of pill mills coincided with the boom and bust of the housing market.  Quinones theorized that our increasing consumerism created a culture that was fertile for an opiate epidemic.  Unfortunately, parenting has not been immune to this, and the increase in teenage heroin addiction shows the consequence. In an interview with a man running a rehab clinic, the man explained,

“‘Spoiled rich kid syndrome’ seeped into America’s middle classes. Parents shielded their kids from complications and hardships, and praised them for minor accomplishments-all as they had less time for their kids….’You have a lot of kids who have everything and look good, but they don’t have any self-esteem. And you put an opiate addiction in the middle of that?’” (p.293)

Is it possible that minimalism could be an antidote to rampant drug use?  If we wanted less and were satisfied more would we still crave chemicals to fill the gap? Thanks to ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ we can see that spoiling children is detrimental to their behavior, but maybe we don’t understand that the gravity of the consequence goes far beyond the warnings given by the Oompa Loompas.

What do we lose when we stop accepting pain as part of life? Our culture has also become less tolerant of pain, not just chronic pain, but any pain.  People started getting oxy prescriptions for things Tylenol would normally take care of.  Quinones said,

“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.” (p.37)

This idea has also trickled into parenting, because we can’t handle watching our children feel pain, physical or emotional. The man Quinones interviewed from the rehab clinic thought that parents today are making recovery even more difficult than usual.  He believed there was a simultaneous epidemic of parents addicted to rescuing their children, and that their kids maturity was stunted because of it.  He had seen too many parents enable addictions by rushing to their kids aid with money, food and shelter when they should’ve been capable of providing it for themselves. People do this because its been their habit since birth, every time a child cries from a scraped knee or because someone was mean to them, we jump to their aid.  He warned, “I tell parents it’s real important to say no, but say no way back when they’re young.” (p.293)

I think most people have heard this before, but have not thought about it in this context.  Whose pain are we really medicating when we come to our children’s rescue, and could the consequences not only lead to irresponsibility, but also to early death? Is it possible to walk the line of being compassionate toward our children without enabling them, starting when they’re still young?

I wish I could offer you a parenting guide, and not just a book review. My kids are still in elementary school and unaware that heroin is even a thing.  I have no credentials other than being able to keep four boys from destroying a house, but I know there’s no sure way to keep kids from trying drugs.  I also know enough about addiction to know that the blame never lies in one place, or on one parent’s shoulders.  The book also reflects that the epidemic has many influences that are far beyond parental control.  There are many kids who had their own rooms, drove their own cars, played sports year round, had lots of stuff, and grew up to be healthy adults. Just as there are kids who grew up with none of these privileges that are still battling addiction.  The influences above are not ways to place blame on the last generation of parents, only cultural observations that the book brings to light with the hope that history might stop repeating itself.

Although you could never place the blame all on one influence, I do think the epidemic shows that it’s important to have conversations about the long term consequences of parenting trends. What do you think of his warnings? Have you seen these things enable addiction? Will you debate the consequences with your friends? I know it’s not a great conversation starter, but we owe it to the parents who have suffered already- to respect the education they earned, and the pain they have endured.

To Fight a Scourge

I was only 19 when I became a bike messenger.  I didn’t know anything about what I was doing, or the other people who I worked with, but the lifestyle and the conmunity were fascinating.  Everyone was so radically different from each other, but still they were bonded together through the experience of doing such a weird, hard, adrenaline-inducing job.  There was a haunting among them though, that I was still too innocent to understand.

In defense of my naivete, I had little experience with the power of addiction.  In my suburban middle class life, I know people struggled with it, but never publicly.  Occasionally someone’s parents would freak and they would disappear from school. Rumors would be whispered, but the official story would usually be something about boarding school, or visiting an aunt’s house. But being a messenger exposed me to people who were desperately lost in their addiction, who didn’t have the stigma caused by class, and who were to abused by the world to care about what I thought of them.

Working as a messenger was different than an average working class job. Most companies hire you as an independent contractor, meaning you’re free to accept work or not, and you can call out hungover without getting fired. Because you work on a voluntary basis, the job attracts as many drug addicts and alcoholics as it does thrill seekers and cyclists, although for many I knew, these categories overlapped. Instead of hiding the truth or being embarrassed about their drug and alcohol use, it was a safe place to flaunt it. Everyone was just as drunk as you, so a night of bad behavior would be something to laugh at the next morning and not a mirror to reflect the truth about your habits.

What I realized in time was that wherever addicts gather in community, tragedy follows. There was always somebody or something to worry about- a person in jail, an injury that might not heal, or someone living on the street because their girlfriend dumped them. Messengers die all the time, but not from getting hit by cars, or from drug overdose, as my parents assumed.  Some die from being poor, having treatable conditions that they can’t afford to get proper care for.  But more often they die from the side effects of addiction- usually chronic health conditions like cirrhosis, seizures, and cancer. Sometimes the cause is a tragic, intoxicated accident.  The first funeral I remember was for a boy that lost his life in a drunk bar fight, he hit his head funny as he stumbled around, and died in the hospital a few days later.  Since then, about a dozen people have passed away, at least one for every year I’ve been sober, making my own sobriety feel bittersweet.

Losing friends makes me angry.  While we can always do a better job of educating youth for prevention, many addicts already know that drugs and alcohol are bad. Most sober stories begin with that very sentence, “I knew what I was doing was wrong, but…”  People usually know the consequences of their actions, but they do it anyway. Meanwhile those around them, who have been making an effort to act responsibly, are left bitterly carrying the burden. Addiction is a mental illness, but if you haven’t suffered from it, or watched a loved one try to break free, it’s hard to find compassion. 

0905-2017-08067014994580798Between the lost productivity, the health care costs, and the criminal justice fees, we spend an estimated $520.5 billion dollars because of people’s addictions (That’s just drugs and alcohol.  I won’t even go there about smoking.)  Although, the real pain is more than the money wasted; it’s the destruction of our neighborhoods, the broken families, and the trauma it influcts on our children.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and that includes addiction.  It’s not a purposeful descent into madness to wreak havoc on the rest of us, even though it can feel that way to outsiders. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains,

“Many people don’t understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. They may mistakenly think that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to.”

So even if we’re cutting them off financially or emotionally, they still need encouragement to find real help. Currently, out of the 20 million people suffering from addiction, less than 3 million will actually seek treatment, which is pathetic.

Substance abuse has always been a problem in our country, but lately trends show that it’s getting worse, and the consequences have become deadly. It’s not just my friends that are dying. Overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999, largely to the opioid epidemic. Overdose is the leading cause of accidental death, surpassing deaths by car accidents, guns and AIDS at its peak. 

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 These statistics are horrifying, but they are only half the story.  Like my friends, people die twice as often from the long term damage of substance abuse. According to the CDC, the rate of alcohol related deaths is about about 88,000 people a year, and this article in the Washington Post cites research showing that this rate is at a 35 year high.

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The other reason it’s important to talk about substance abuse during Mental Health Month is that many people who are addicts have a dual diagnosis of another mental health issue, like depression, PTSD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.  When we’re scratching our head in anger, wondering why someone made the choice to abuse a drug, even though they knew better, this is often why.  It’s hard to determine an exact percentage of how many people are self medicating, but according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2014 (p. 32), at least 8 million people have co-occurring disorders.  In my experience that’s a low estimate, many addicts don’t even fully realize they’re self-medicating until they’re sober, and others are unable to stay sober because they don’t realize they’re only addressing half their problem.  

It’s hard to know where and how a person can fight against it,  because what feels like helping an addict is often enabling them, and what’s actually helping they will insist is ruining their life. These are enormous problems, with roots that spread twice as far as the branches and trying to solve them, for even one person, feels like trying to rid your yard of dandelions. It seems like this evil is winning, that we are not powerful enough to fight against it, but we are not that way.

Pray.  “...We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”(Ephesians 6:12)  This is addiction.  It’s undiluted evil, and it’s a spiritual battle for an person to break free. I am stunned about how few people are publicly praying on behalf of addicts, especially when you consider that almost everyone knows and loves someone who is struggling. We can pray for addicts seeking treatment, that they will find the support they need to get clean, and we can pray for the families that are broken and suffering in silent isolation. The people surrounding them need our prayers, too. Churches need resources for outreach; therapists and counselors need wisdom to diagnose; people running treatment centers need strength and patience. Also, the police, the first responders, jails, local leaders, and elected officers who are overseeing community efforts to fight addiction are understaffed and underfunded.

Pray for this evil to be crushed, but also pray about how you can fight against it.  As I mentioned in my last post, there are grandparents now raising their grandchildren who need babysitters.  There is a nationwide shortage of foster parents. Rehab centers have waiting lists and need beds, money and volunteers. Mentors are needed to teach people in recovery life skills, like how to budget or write a resume. Support a newly sober person by offering them a job or a second chance at friendship. Reach out to someone whose child or spouse is suffering. Sit with them at the hospital and teach them they have nothing to be ashamed ofa.  Many families have no idea where to look for help or answers, and they may need a shoulder to cry on, or someone to pray with them.  

Educate.  I’m amazed at the people who have been caught off guard by the power of addiction and the drugs on the market today.  Heroin is a problem today is because people had no idea that oxycodone was almost the same thing in a perscription.  And how many people would have avoided their addiction altogether if they had known they were suffering from a mental disorder? The more we know about substance abuse, the stronger our communities will be against its influence.  The more we know about the warning signs of what addiction looks like, the less we will enable people to continue in it.   If we were an educated community, we would offer more support to the parents and relatives who feel isolated. Substance abuse is all over the news if you look for it.  Make an effort to research and read about what’s happening in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, and in your own state too. Don’t ignore this problem because you don’t see it happening to you.

Speak.  Lawmakers don’t tend to fund research for addiction recovery because it’s not on the lips or the minds of their constituents, so the cause gets shorted compared to other medical research, even though addiction is a major killer.  There are no big 10K races or silicone bracelets sold to raise money for research on subtance abuse disorder.  But if we speak out, if we make this a major issue, lawmakers will fund more treatment centers. Advancements will be made to understand what addiction does to your brain and how we can counter those effects to help people find effective treatment. Teenagers may be more aware of the risks involved. So share articles you find that are important on social media. Talk to people in your church and community about what can be done for outreach. Speak out and make other people aware of what’s going on around you.

In addition to being a voice for legislation and action, you will also be a voice for people who still need help.  One reason the number of people seeking recovery is so small is because of the stigma surrounding it. Every single sober person can help to end that, by coming forward with their own recovery stories. People who have never struggled can help by listening, and not judging those who have been through it. Sadly, stigma doesn’t end with addicts themselves, for the families that surround them are often ashamed to ask for help too.  In Portsmouth, Ohio (a town plagued by overdose), it took almost eight years of living with epidemic heroin use before the parents were willing to confess what was happening in their homes and form a support group.  Don’t let that be your town.  If you’ve recovered or have supported someone who has, tell your story.  Hiding it compounds the consequences. People who are struggling are listening whether you realize it or not, and they need encouragement, so speak out.

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Faces & Voices of Recovery is an organization dedicated to lobbying on behalf of recovery and ending the stigma, because its not just an issue for vagrants and rock stars. Respected people everywhere- leaders, politicians, businessmen, athletes, etc. are in recovery too.  To share your story on social media use #ourstorieshavepower or #recoverymatters or go to their website http://facesandvoicesofrecovery.org/get-involved/  to learn more about joining their movement.

Substance Abuse is a scourge, not just an epidemic, but as a church we don’t treat it this way. When we first moved out here, we visited different churches for a year before I heard someone praying for recovery, or that had a program that was actively pursuing people who needed support.  Spirituality, finding the higher power, is the second step to any recovery, but only a small minority of Christians were acknowledging this, usually the ones that had experienced the pain of addiction personally. 

People even within our congregations are dying, kids are being raised by grandparents and towns across the country are crumbling under the cost. Spiritually speaking, how can we ignore that? Address it in your churches and with your friends. Pray about it and talk about what’s happening, because evil grows in the presence of our apathy, anger, and resignation. Refuse to believe that the fight against addiction is hopeless, either for yourself, a loved one, or your community.  This is your problem, even if it doesn’t feel like it.  Everyone is involved somehow, because 1 in 10 people have a problem which means no community is unscathed. So pray, educate, speak and step up to fight the scourge.