Beautiful New Mexico is widely — and rightly — known as The Land of Enchantment. But when I first moved there in early 2001 and embarked on what I’d thought would be a new career path, as a drug and alcohol abuse counsellor, I saw another, darker, side of that enchanting state. I saw, close up, the underbelly – an underbelly that exists now in most states of the United States, as well as elsewhere in the world.
In preparation for this career move, I earned a certificate in alcohol and drug abuse studies from UNM in Albuquerque, a program that stressed empathy and understanding. My own deeply personal motivation to enter this field was to better understand my father’s alcoholism and to somehow help others – both abusers and their families — caught in the vortex of substance abuse. My year-long UNM studies, I felt, prepared me well for the task ahead.
As a fledgling counsellor at an established thirty-day treatment center in northern New Mexico, I held group therapy sessions for the women clients. Early on, a hard-bitten colleague – a recovering heroin addict with track marks on his forearms, which he proudly displayed like battle scars, a guy who’d been grandfathered in as a counsellor before the state’s stricter requirements went into effect – gave me this advice: “Don’t fall for their sob stories. All junkies are liars.”
I ignored him.
To this day, I can see the women, mostly in their twenties and thirties, sitting in a circle in the women’s area living room; and I can hear their voices, speaking softly, sharing their heartfelt and heartbreaking accounts of how they’d become drug addicts. Their stories rang true to me then, and they resonate as truth to me still.
One young woman told of being prescribed OxyContin by her family doctor for the severe pain she experienced after nearly dying in an auto accident and the corrective surgeries that ensued. She soon became addicted to these pain killers, which became harder and harder for her to procure. In New Mexico at that time heroin was easier to obtain.
Her voice trailed off. Nearly half of the women in the room nodded as if she had told their stories too.
The other prevailing story, which I heard time after time, went like this: “From the time I was about five years old, whenever there was a family gathering – a birthday party or holiday celebration – ‘Uncle Willy’ would take me into a back room, lock the door, and sexually abuse me. He told me if I told on him, he would hurt my Mom, so I never told. This went on for many years – until the time I began to menstruate – about ten years in all. I always felt so alone and ashamed. I thought of myself as a ‘bad’ girl, who had nothing in common with the ‘good’ girls in school. So in high school, I fell in with a ‘bad’ crowd who drank a lot and did drugs. The drugs made me feel better. They took away my pain…”
My career in drug abuse counselling was short-lived. After another grandfathered colleague said to me angrily one day, “What d’you know? You’ve never been through it yourself! You’ve only got book-learnin’,” I realized this nasty field was not for me. I chose to pursue an MFA in order to teach English and Creative Writing at the college level instead. But I’m grateful for what those women’s truths taught me. They taught me empathy.
And their stories have come back to me in a rush this week, as the opioid epidemic in the U.S. made front-page news when Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. An editorial in the New York Times (October 26, 2017) — “Words, Not Action, from Mr. Trump on Opioids” — reads in part:
“He [Trump] said the administration would produce ‘really big, really great advertising’ aimed at young people because, ‘If we can teach young people not to take drugs, it’s really, really easy not to take them.’ This is sloganeering reminiscent of the ineffective, Reagan-era ‘Just Say No’ programs, when the ravages of drug abuse in black and Hispanic communities were treated with harsh punishment, rather than the empathy and care that is being called for today.”
Oh, no, I want to moan, NOT another futile “Just Say No” ad campaign. I want to scream at Trump: No, it’s not “really, really easy”! What do you know about pain or struggle, you spoiled little rich white boy?
We must go deeper. Do a better job of ferretting out the predatory “Uncle Willys” of this world and send them to prison where they can prey on their fellow inmates instead of on little children. Track down the doctors who overprescribe opioids in a twisted allegiance to pharmaceutical companies over their own patients. Strive to enlighten those comfy, smug, judgmental souls who brand alcoholics and drug addicts as “low-life junkies,” “losers,” “them.”
Of course, there are no easy answers. But one place we might all begin is here: with the acknowledgment that people who seek strong pain killers (and are ultimately addicted to them) are our fellow human beings who are in pain, people who require compassionate help, understanding and empathy, not heartless labels or cold slogans.