We live in a world of technology, 24/7 connectivity, and a time where the first question we ask the waitress has nothing to do with the day’s special but focuses on the Wi-Fi password. The news cycle is constant yet forgetful; a scandal that would’ve ended a career decades ago now becomes a distant memory in mere moments because something else comes up. That something else becomes the headline, pushing the scandal to the ticker at the bottom of the screen scrolling by so often that it distracts us from the headline, but only briefly.

Newspapers focus so much on the whole world that it takes something HUGE to make the front page. I avoid the negativity of the news as often as possible, but with our constant social media interactions, I am able to read articles from newspapers across the globe. A particular article that popped into my newsfeed recently prompted me to explore something I’ve thought a lot about with the recent death of a young lady who attended high school with me.

In a similar way to our addiction to information and connectivity, America has a drug problem. I was engaged in a discussion with someone about the messiness of the U.S.-Mexican border where the person before me made a remark to the effect of “Sure, tell me that the supply doesn’t follow the demand.” The argument was a fair one. The argument, however, infuriated me. I was frustrated by the fact that with all of the information and news that exists, people still find a way to become addicted to substances of all kinds. Find a 15-year-old who doesn’t know that snorting cocaine once could lead to addiction or death. Present me with an 18-year-old who went to a high school where they didn’t lose someone to what is often published in the obituary as ‘an unexpected death’.

I’m not an experienced researcher. I am also not a conspiracy theorist, but I do believe that information can always be twisted to benefit a particular point that someone is trying to make. I typically try to take an objective look at data presented as fact from both sides. In testimony to Congress during the 2014 Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, Dr. Nora D. Volkow provided a lot of information that my gut tells me is common knowledge. Addiction to heroin and prescription drugs often starts because of an injury requiring the prescription of powerful painkillers.

In her presentation, Dr. Volkow indicates that the reasons we see this trend “…include drastic increases in the number of prescriptions written and dispensed, greater social acceptability for using medications for different purposes, and aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies.” I took a few minutes to reflect on those lines. I know that statistics often bore people, but please go and read the article and review the associated charts. Think about them as people, not merely numbers. According to the data Dr. Volkow provided, more than sixteen thousand people died in the United States in 2010

Written and Dispensed

The problem with medication (not addiction) starts at an even younger age. Society tends to treat antsy children in the classroom with medicine for their attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder instead of discipline. According to this article published on the site of the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, comparing the brief eight-year period from 2002 to 2010, ADHD prescriptions in the pediatric population increased 46% and contraceptive prescriptions increased 93%. It is my fear that society is becoming desensitized to the introduction of medication, and that trend starts when too quickly and too often we prescribe medication to children.

Looking back at Dr. Volkow’s presentation focused on opiates and heroine, she notes that medications including hydrocodone and oxycodone “have escalated from around 76 million in 1991 to nearly 207 million in 2013.” Further, she establishes that this country of ours is “their biggest consumer globally, accounting for almost 100 percent of the world total for hydrocodone and 81 percent for oxycodone”. What are other developed countries prescribing for pain? Are they facing similar trends in abuse of prescription drugs or heroine abuse? I could probably publish a book on answering these questions – but this moment doesn’t offer me the time for that.

Greater Social Acceptability

I remember a friend of mine once telling me that she had gotten a prescription pill from a friend of hers to stay awake at work after staying out until sunrise on a work night. I omit the name of the person to protect them, and I will touch on why I didn’t simply name the pill itself in a minute. My perception instantly changed of this person; from that day on I would always wonder if she simply took another pill as a means of getting through the next day. Would she eventually develop a dependence on this substance as a means of managing the hectic lifestyle she was leading? Would she wind up needing downers to counteract the uppers? I became visibly and verbally frustrated, and if I remember correctly it caused tension such that we didn’t speak for a while. I was highly disappointed, worried, and frustrated. None of her other friends seemed to blink at the idea.

An acquaintance of mine once admitted to me that she traded some of her prescription drugs with someone in exchange for marijuana, because the marijuana was what actually worked but the doctors prescribed a daily dose of medication which she figured would work well to barter for her drug of choice. I don’t have much of an opinion on marijuana. In my 27 years of life, I have literally never smoked or inhaled it, though I have been exposed to my fair share of people who do. But we were at dinner with another friend when this discussion began, and our friend didn’t blink either.

People see no harm in self-medicating. I worry that people take to the web, think they’ve found their diagnosis, and then can just locate on some black market whatever medication it is that they think they require for curing the ailment. Why is it that our culture doesn’t have a problem with drugs? How can we talk about how bad drugs are, but people still walk down the path?

I think that advances in modern medicine offer us access to medication that can help us. I just worry that we are too quick on the draw (or scribble on the script pad).

Advertising, with fine print of course

Watch an hour of television and you’ll learn that there is a prescription for just about everything. Are your legs restless after sitting at a desk all day? Did you eat the burrito with five tablespoons of extra hot salsa and get heartburn? Having trouble sleeping in a room with the lights on or television blaring in the next room? Thankfully, we have medications that can be prescribed for all of those things. And instead of going into your doctor’s office describing symptoms and getting an examination, you have already been advised of what the symptoms are and you can mention them and also make note that you saw an ad for a particular medication and probably walk out of the pharmacy later that day with the pill bottle. You’ll also have read the fine print and heard the disclaimer that offers you an idea of the side effects that could occur. Often times, those side effects far outnumber what was probably a minor ailment in the grand scheme of things. Eventually you’ll need a pill to treat the side effects. I know some people who don’t read the side effects out of fear that they will develop simply from knowing them.

A Familiar Story

One of my social media friends linked an article from a local newspaper in my home state of Massachusetts (a newspaper that, were it not for social media, I probably wouldn’t ever get a chance to pick up). It outlined the tragic death of a young man named Cody. He was 23. It is a sad story of someone who lost the battle with a disease that society seems to be losing the battle against. And it instantly brought me back to someone I knew as a young man.

I was asked once by a friend of mine to come as one of his supporters to his Narcotics Anonymous meetings. I was in high school, I had never abused any kind of drug, and I had no idea why he wanted me to be there. I also knew from my own experiences with others who had faced addiction that if he were asking me, the only answer I could honestly give was “yes, of course.” I joined him several times, our lives both changed, we lost touch. I ran into his parents several years later at a funeral. With the person being in our age group, I thought it was weird when his parents answered that he was ‘doing just fine’ but didn’t offer much of an excuse as to why he wasn’t there in person. Being naïve or ignorant, I thought nothing of it at the time.

I had a habit of watching one of the national news broadcasts while I read the newspaper – very old fashioned, I know. It was a number of years after running into his parents that I read that he had passed away unexpectedly. If it were a heart attack or rare disease, it would’ve said so. He overdosed. I remember wondering if I failed him by losing touch and if there were something I could’ve done differently.

What hit me about Cody’s story is the parallel between his story and my own. He was the teacher’s pet, quit college to take a full-time job that would pay the bills, worked a lot and was making progress in a tough world at the ripe age of 23. His story found him addicted to painkillers, and the world learned of his affliction when it was too late.

Statistics say that there was plenty of reason that I would’ve turned to drugs at any point in my teenage years. Last year, in Massachusetts, nearly a thousand people died from opiates. I’m not much of a researcher though, so I have spent my life so far avoiding becoming one of those statistics.

Our World Deserves Better

No father should have to enter his son’s new apartment to find him dead. Nobody should have to bury their spouse or friend or loved one after an overdose. No five-year-old child should lose their only parent to drugs. This disease isn’t like a rare cancer that cannot be prevented. It can be tackled, prevented, eradicated. If we take the time to focus and understand the causes, this is something that culture can overcome. If we choose not to, we will continue to hear or be a part of the tragic stories like the ones I’ve mentioned. The world deserves to see the our potential develop, our loved ones deserve to share in our memories, and our actions should align with the idea that we have more living to do.

Even though I am classifying this more as culture and have focused less on the faith aspect in this piece, I still want to end in prayer as I have been.

I ask each of you to pray that I continue to find the strength to support those I know who may struggle with the challenges of addiction. I also ask each of you to pray that I find the ability to bring God’s presence to not just those who struggle with addiction, but also to those who are exposed to it in their families and elsewhere.

My prayer for you is that if you struggle with addiction, you find the help and tools to work past it. Each of you has the strength within you to overcome this challenge. No matter how deep in this valley you may be, God loves you and so do we. If someone you love struggles with addiction, it may be tempting to turn away. You may find yourself hurt. Do not give up hope – your strength and compassion can provide the one you love with the power to tackle this.

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