Name: Austin Matthews
From: Denton, TX
My Uncle Robby
The addiction crisis in America is because of the confluence of several factors. First, Americans don’t talk about their problems. Second, Americans like making money, and addictive products make money. Third, Americans don’t take care of people with addictions, but instead treat them as miscreants and criminals.
It’s fair to say that Americans don’t talk about controversial things, at least not in a healthy way. A lot of our issues would be solved if we could just talk about them in an open, honest, and non-judgemental fashion. However, for whatever reason, our culture has developed a sense of weakness and shame around talking about any sort of problem in life, despite the fact that we all have them.
Yes, we all have issues. I have an eating disorder, a borderline mental disorder, and an anxiety level that at times is paralyzing. However, they were all made better by talking about them. Maybe the conversation itself didn’t make it better, but it did lead to me finding a solution that made life better. That is something that we need to practice as a nation, having conversations without it becoming us versus them or a partisan issue somehow. Helping people should be something that everyone can get behind.
That brings us to problem number two, and probably why we will struggle to find a solution so long as lobbyists are allowed to throw money around in support of congressional members. Big pharma has a lot to lose in finding a healthy solution to this problem. It seems that most often, when we find a solution to a harmful addictive substance, it is another addictive substance. In my life, I have seen people use smoking to quit drinking and others use drinking to quit smoking.
In America, the largest example of this is the opioid crisis. Unfortunately, this addictive vicious cycle was actually led by the medical industry. Opium was used to treat pain in people. When that proved to be addictive and harmful, we managed to refine it into morphine. Morphine was more effective in treating pain, more harmful, and more addictive. Then, along with all of the other opioids, we got heroin. Each step of the way, it got more addictive and more harmful.
The medical industry created the perfect storm and each time they came out with a treatment for the previous addiction, it was to something more addictive and harmful. Worst of all, it was profitable. They could lead someone down a chain of events that would make the pharmaceutical companies money and harm the patient. I like to think that the road we took was paved with ignorance and not malice, but it does not change where we are.
So, what do we do to get out of here? Well, we stop treating people like criminals for having been treated with a drug that has proven to be harmful and addictive. They are victims and sick, in need of treatment. They should not be serving time for this, but should be receiving help. It is not only good for them, but it is good for society.
Again, it is unfortunate, but I think that our best way out may be appealing to the selfish nature of Americans as it is cheaper to rehabilitate someone than it is to imprison them. It would be nice to live in a country that simply cared for people because it was the right thing to do, but until it is, we can at least show that the more fiscally responsible path forward is to treat people rather than detain them. We have forgotten that we ought to be looking out for one another.
It is important to try to put ourselves in the shoes of our neighbors who are struggling with this. It is not as if they chose this path. My uncle was put on opioids for back pain after a botched surgery that left him in constant agony. He slowly went down a path of increasingly strong prescriptions until his doctor was no longer willing to up the dosage. Then, he took to buying drugs off the street until he was taking more than twice his regular dosage.
Something so many of us fail to realize is that much of who we are is just chemicals in our brain. The man who attacked my mom, the man who threw a beer bottle across his apartment so that it shattered against the wall beside me, the man who yelled about never wanting to see us again, that man was not my uncle. The drugs in his system had literally changed him into someone else.
I would like to say that he got help and I got my “fun uncle” back, but I didn’t. My daughter will never meet my uncle, a man that I looked up to. His life fell apart and for a long time I blamed him, just as America has blamed addicts as a whole. I will repeat myself. We need to stop seeing addicts as criminals and start seeing them as victims. My uncle was a wonderful man who when he struggled was given one problem to solve another. He may have broken the law, but he was not a monster. He was a victim.
We need to stop blaming the people in our lives who are struggling with this. It is not because of any moral failing on their part or weakness inherent to them. It is still hard for me with the memories I have of him, to see a room cast in shadows and hearing glass shattering, but I hope that more and more every day I can move towards compassion.
I like to think that if we can understand as a country that these people need assistance and not punishment, then we can start moving forward to a real solution. The truth is that it is not simple and it is hard to talk about, but it is easier the more of us that do it. Maybe if I had done more, said more, cared more sooner, I would still have an uncle and my daughter would get to meet him.