Recently I heard a man read a beautiful poem. The first half of his poem was a slangy narration of an evening out. Then the piece turned, brutally, into a crystal clear description of his lover’s death by overdose. Though he was not a user, he’d taken some of her shot, worried she might overdo it. His fraction was enough to put him under, but not enough to save her. He woke beside her body, cold.
When he finished reading, everyone in the room was still. He was asked to read his poem again – it’s difficult for me to follow a poem aloud the first time I hear it, and I assume this is hard for other people, too – at which point he opened his mouth to speak. Several seconds passed. No sound came out. Tears rolled down his face. He shook his head.
No, he could not read the poem again. He handed it to me and I read it aloud a second time for our class.
It was difficult for me to read. My voice is squeaky and might well crack at the best of times. And I’ve lost an uncle to overdose; nearly my namesake, too. But I’ve lost less than the men in jail.
When I finished, several more were crying.
Habitual drug use ruins lives. But the War on Drugs ends them.
Our culture rarely celebrates the endurance of pain. There are exceptions, of course – professional sports dominates our media, with traffic in many cities tangling for hours on game days, and no one can argue that athletes do not suffer – but for the masses we promote convenience and ease. Such are the advertisements that flicker seductively on our ubiquitous gargantuan TVs.
There’s fast food for whenever you feel hungry. Programmers work round the clock to develop new ways for any interstitial time – stint in a waiting room, stop at a red light, lull in dinnertime conversation – to be filled with pleasurable distraction. Nurses trained near the turn of the century were taught to eliminate pain amongst their wards, since the newest opiates were presumed to be much less addictive than their precursors.
In a culture that celebrates immediate gratification & constant ease – and, moreover, does not teach people how to gracefully suffer – painkiller use can easily spiral out of control. Opiates ameliorate both physical and psychological pain; for many who’ve felt perpetually beleaguered by the world, a script after surgery might bring the first flush of mental relief in years.
I am not saying, after all, that Americans do not suffer. Poverty hurts. Through a cascade of cortisol, stress causes physical harm. But our pain & forbearance is rarely celebrated.
Instead, we turn on the TV and see another ad for the latest pharmaceutical.
But there’s a hook. Painkillers do not remove pain, certainly not when the pain is psychological, stemming from structural disconnects between our desires and the world. Painkillers simply act to make pain temporarily bearable. Over time, painkillers aggravate pain.
This was demonstrated with a recent experiment asking opiate users to put their hands in cold water. Pain is necessary – some people are born with unusually high pain tolerance, and these people are exceptionally prone to injury because they fail to extricate themselves from circumstances that ought to hurt. Luckily, most people’s brains are looking out for them. When people take painkillers, their bodies will produce fewer endogenous opiates and the signals reporting pain will scream louder, attempting to be heard over the muffling cloak of chemical numbing.
If a person uses painkillers too long then tries to quit, the body’s efforts to re-sensitize to pain will make every moment agony. Dip a hand into chilly water and it’ll feel unbearable. Our skin is a huge surface, and nerve endings grope throughout our body: when quitting, all scream hurt!
According to William Burroughs, “No one will stand still for junk sickness unless he is in jail or otherwise cut off from junk. The reason it is practically impossible to stop using and cure yourself is that the sickness lasts five to eight days. Twelve hours of it would be easy, twenty-four possible, but five to eight days is too long.”
The sickness can drag on interminably. The agony. Worse, the mind knows all the while that there is a way to make it stop. Another pill. Or, if you can’t afford a pill, then…
Painkillers are known entities, with precisely calibrated dosage, but they are expensive. Even for those with money, they require a prescription. Many switch to heroin, which might be ten-fold cheaper, but the War on Drugs ensures that heroin users face mystery dosage. The product is gravely unstandardized. Here in the Midwest, where the cartels sometimes experiment with new blends, new compounds to cut their product with, no one can anticipate the effects.
Hearts slow, lips turn blue. By forcing everything underground – unregulated, uncontrolled – the War on Drugs prevents users from learning their limits. A safe dose from one batch might kill you from another. Users are well away from medical care.
But there are intimations that, as more and more wealthy, “respectable” people get hooked, the world might change. In Vancouver, Canada, users are provided with a space safe to inject, and one consequence has been a drop in the rate of addiction. It’s easier to quit when you’re not cut off from the world by the stigma of being considered a criminal. And decriminalization would allow addicts to choose safer alternatives – my namesake, who didn’t die, was able to obtain standardized pills.
If it were legal, marijuana could supplant some opiate use. Pot isn’t harmless, but one of the worse side-effects is that it makes people insufferably boring. This seems preferable to making them dead.
Within the depths of addiction, the world looks awful. Many users want to quit. But quitting means suffering through the spell when the body screams, and the mind feels nary better … and we’ve criminalized help.