The Normalcy of Addiction

I’m in Little Rock for the Arkansas Literary Festival, a very nice book festival held downtown.Dreamland-HCBig

So here’s what happened yesterday. Flew in, met my fellow panelists, learned that Southwest lost my bag, went to the hotel, took a quick nap, went to a festival reception, met someone with an opiate addict in the family (the family member is a woman in her 60s or so).

Little Rock is no different from every other part of the country I’ve visited recently.

Researching our national addiction to pain pills and heroin to write my book, Dreamland, I’ve been struck by the normalcy of addiction nowadays. Everywhere, strike up a conversation, you find someone with a family member or friend or co-worker addicted to opiates.

It’s far more prevalent than crack use was, I believe, and certainly infinitely more deadly.

I remember starting the research, flying to Dallas a couple years ago. On the plane was an elderly couple from rural Oklahoma. We got to talking and before long, they were telling me of their oldest son, addicted to OxyContin.

Not long after that, in a tavern on New Year’s Day in Covington, KY, I met a family, celebrating a young girl’s birthday. Before long, we’re talking about two people in that extended family dead from heroin overdoses.

There are many reasons why this is so.

First: the massive over-prescribing of pain pills nationwide. We often debate whether supply or demand drives drug plagues. This one is supply driven. Pain pills eventually lead to heroin addiction – as the pills are molecularly similar to heroin and much cheaper; in some areas, like those serviced by the Xalisco Boys I write about in Dreamland, heroin is easier and more convenient to obtain the pills.

But this is also driven by silence. There’s no violence to fuel public ire. Meanwhile, though, parents are loathe to talk about their children’s addiction. When they die, they camouflage it in some palatable cause of death. Some parents are going public. But far too few given the huge numbers.

The result is silence, and stories you never hear until you’re sitting next to someone on a plane, or chatting with them at a cocktail party.


Filed under Books, Business, Drugs, Storytelling, The Heroin Heartland

7 Responses to The Normalcy of Addiction

  1. Paige

    That’s what I was striving for the entire time I was using. I appeared normal. I was on time for work, gave quality performance, never missed days due to being dope-sick or to being high. I was quite functional. I understand there is just as much chance as over dosing on pills as there is heroin, but as completely sick with the drug as my brain was, I never made the giant leap from Vicodin and codeine to heroin. Believe me I loved the high of the pills, it ruled my life, but I felt that heroin would’ve taken me over the point of no return. I’m an addict (recovering), but I have no desire to ever try heroin. Maybe in my brain, the spoon and the needle were just too far to go. I guess I was an addict snob. What a joke. An addict is an addict is an addict. But, 100% normalcy is impossible. My kids suffered, my marriage suffered. My husband noticed when I didn’t want to do anything but sit on the couch, watch tv and enjoy my euphoria. My kids noticed that I took a white pill “to help me sleep”. Addiction leaves it’s mark on everything. At my worst, I took about 8 ES Vicodins a day. Compared to a lot of stories I’ve heard, that’s not much. But, yes, it is. It’s enough. It did it’s job and I was hooked. And now my kids, when they get older, might think they need something like mom had “to help them sleep.” I wonder how much normalcy I actually perpetuated.

  2. Mal

    The perception is that drug addiction is a problem of inner-city black and Hispanic people. The arrests, the imprisonments are overwhelmingly of black men. As the criminalization of blackness has been normalized, the decriminalization of white drug addiction has occurred as its corollary. The families you mention: the son, daughter, co-worker addicted to opiates: are they all in the criminal justice system?

  3. Teresa

    Heartache, grief, shame, loss. That’s what comes from having a loved one with an addiction. It breaks you. Not many have the strength to fight this thing even while their children are alive. When a loved one dies from addiction or its aftermath, the personal battle is pretty much lost. No wonder people don’t want to fight anymore. They are all used up.

  4. Steve

    After all of your research, what do conclude is driving America’s addiction to drugs? Not just opiates, but other drugs including alcohol. What is it about American society, all classes as you point out, that creates so many addicts? Is it a lack of meaning and purpose in life other than making money? Is it the result of a breakdown in families and a lack of social connectedness? Is it a result of the stress from striving to attain the “American Dream?” Or, is this problem universal and simply part of the human condition? I realize that are no easy answers to this question, but you have a unique insight to this problem.

    • samquinones

      Steve — good questions all. Not sure, but I do believe fundamental things are at work – lack of community, facile soulless consumerism, unwillingness to force kids to actually struggle to achieve things that require some pain, sacrifice, or tension in their lives, our lack of accountability for our wellness, feelings of entitlement — all of this is part of the equation.

      • Peter Roscoe

        The criminalization of drugs drives addicts underground, creating consequences so severe that they are afraid to get help if they reach a point where they want it. Resources squandered on jails and court proceedings rather than treatment and research. Research stymied because researchers cannot get access to the substances and addicts are too afraid to come forward and participate in studies. When it comes to addiction medicine, we are still in the dark ages.

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