By Michele Holtkamp
HANCOCK COUNTY — Maybe your car has been broken into and you suspect — and are likely correct — that it was some drug user looking for something to sell to buy the next fix.
Or the driver who rear-ended you had needles, pills or heroin in the car.
Yet doctors are saying that the opioid epidemic that has swept the nation is a brain disease that needs treated as a chronic medical condition — not a choice. The classification by the American Society of Addiction Medicine puts it on the same field as your child’s asthma or your husband’s high blood pressure, or worse, when it comes to treatment approaches.
But your family member isn’t choosing to continue those medical conditions by taking illegal drugs daily.
Residents who haven’t seen a loved one fall to an opioid addiction and can’t comprehend the complicated nature of the brain disease need to hear that they are allowed to be mad and not understand what has happened, said Dr. Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.
Then, consider this: the brain is changed by drug use, and the changes take away self-control, said Humphreys, who was the senior policy adviser to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
If you’ve ever been overweight, your own experience might help you understand the complicated nature of an addiction. Once you’ve been overweight, your body changes, and it is much harder to drop the pounds.
Same goes for drug dependency.
“Once you’ve been addicted, it’s just harder,” Humphreys said.
Americans have sympathy for people with weight struggles. The same sympathy should apply to people addicted to drugs, he said.
“That is not the same as saying people get a moral blank check or that you can’t get mad or that they aren’t capable of being responsible,” he said.
“The gas is sticking to the floor, and the brakes aren’t working very well,” he said. “That’s why they do things they themselves know are destructive.”
Addictions also can be difficult for the unaffected public to understand because of the varying reactions people have when they take prescribed painkillers. You might feel sludgy and terrible and avoid taking painkillers as soon as possible after surgery or an injury.
Other people feel complete for the first time in their life when taking an opioid, and that was not a choice they made, similar to a person’s reaction to a specific food, Humphreys said.
Consider how America used to allow smoking in nearly every location. At one time, you could smoke at work or in the hospital. In that environment, if you were prone to becoming addicted to smoking, you would because of the universal exposure, Humphreys said.
A person with the same predisposition who lives in another country and was never exposed might never become addicted to cigarettes or alcohol, for example.
But the rate of opioid prescriptions flooded communities with painkillers.
“With opioids, we did the world’s greatest science experiment with population exposure,” Humphreys said. “Anyone who was even a little vulnerable got addicted.”
The worst drug epidemic in U.S. history touches every corner of our nation, killing our friends, our neighbors, our loved ones.
In the coming year, a Daily Reporter special series will examine the public health crisis of opioid misuse.
Addicted & Dying will bring you firsthand accounts of people still battling drug addiction and tell the stories of families who lost someone they held dear.
We will talk to those on the front lines — the doctors, first responders, addiction specialists and more — about the problem straining social service agencies, hospitals, the court system and the economy.
And beyond that, Addicted & Dying will explore what treatments and approaches work, what communities can do to help people in need.
Have an idea for our project? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.