Not all victims of the opioid crisis are addicts
Few things a doctor does are more important than relieving pain. . . pain is soul destroying. No patient should have to endure intense pain unnecessarily. The quality of mercy is essential to the practice of medicine; here, of all places, it should not be strained.
His name is Jim and never you mind much more than that. He lives in middle America and he’s a really, really good man. I spent some days with him and his amazing wife, Candy, my longtime childhood friend, at their horse sanctuary, watching two people devote their lives to improving the world.
Jim is a victim of the opioid crisis, but he’s not an addict. He’s a man whose agony simply never ends. He has a serious condition in his back that pinches his spinal column and this strong man who isn’t by nature a complainer wanders the halls of his home at night chuffing and breathing out his pain. Sometimes he has to lean on furniture and just endure, his thick, iron gray hair patched with sweat at the temples. He barely sleeps. Driving is hell. Somehow, he still has a life, but it’s a matter of iron will that he does so.
In typical fashion, the government has responded to the opioid crisis not by solving the underlying reasons for the opioid crisis but by cutting off access to pain medication that allows people like my friend, Jim, to have a life. It’s not like it makes all the pain go away, but the opioids he used to be able to get without trouble are now so restricted and limited that he is often left without recourse. He is not the only friend I have who suffers so.
Add that to profit-driven restrictions by insurance companies on non-opioid treatments — they’re balking at covering acupuncture, which brings him some relief — and Jim and Candy, who loves him so — are caught between a miserable rock and an agonizing hard place. Now let’s add in the further dimension of the Republicans targeting health care for the vulnerable and you have a whole lot of good, hard-working Americans sentenced to an unremitting, unrelenting hell — agony beyond endurance or even description.
This is not just ordinary pain. This is wild, shrieking agony that closes down the ability to think, to function, to live. Imagine the worst pain you ever had. Literally the most horrible pain of your entire life. Now imagine that it never stops. Not once. Not ever. There’s no escape. Every moment is hell.
Now imagine you go for help and you’re turned away because the CDC would rather you go through hell than risk addiction, which generally does not happen in pain patients because the drug is fully occupied providing relief. Imagine you can have a decent life with few or no side effects but instead you’re consigned to endless agony because other people have had a problem with it.
Already, there have been suicides by pain patients denied the medications that allow them to at least have some quality of life — or even just an endurable life (one beloved husband lost and so many more good people). We’re terrified about the potential deaths of overdoses, but how is it that we are not terrified that good people in endless agony are dying, too, because the pain is unendurable?
We tend to be an all-or-nothing society. No complexities allowed — no shades of grey. Addiction kills, so we will cut everybody off from access to these drugs. Never mind that for some people, it’s literally life or death. We focus only on the beloved people lost to the opioid crisis and throw out all the good those drugs do for people whose lives sometimes literally cannot continue without them. This is not just throwing the baby out with the bathwater, it’s holding the baby under until it drowns.
I have long said that a society without empathy is sociopathic. It seems that a society with only selective empathy is little better. How is we can anguish over those lost to the opioid crisis and not apparently care about those lost because their access to these same drugs has been terminated out of an overzealous, kneejerk reaction to the potential of addiction? And let’s go a step further — if a person in constant agony gets addicted — so what? It’s like heroin addicts getting their methadone. They’re still addicts, but they’re functional. They have decent lives. The problem is dealt with. So are we so narrow minded that we would put a pain patient through hell just to prevent a potential addiction that can be managed where life in chronic, severe pain cannot?
Apparently so. And so my friend, Jim, suffers — day in and out — and his wife along with him because that’s how love works. If our loved ones suffer, so do we. There is no justification for this. None at all.