At the Heart of the Opioid Epidemic

There are many reasons for the current epidemic of drug abuse and overdose, specifically with opioids. Money, high school football, insurance, a trend of over prescription, as well as a multitude of other reasons contribute.

However, at the heart of the issue is a critical question:

What do you do with your pain?

Our current culture is pain-avoidant. We tend to go out of our way to escape or numb pain, and not just with drugs or alcohol. Most people that don’t drink or drug to numb, tend to gamble, masturbate, purchase, have an affair, over-spiritualize, or busy away their pain. At the heart of the opioid epidemic is a culture that doesn’t know what to do with suffering.

Opioids, in particular, relieve not only the pain in your back, but the aching pain of disconnection and loneliness. Opioids- like oxycodone, morphine, heroin, or fentanyl- work by attaching to and activating opioid receptors throughout your nervous system, inhibiting the transmission of pain signals while simultaneously putting you in a state of euphoria. These drugs produce the equivalent of a long lasting orgasm, where you feel connected, safe and free of fear. They alleviate your pain, even the pain of feeling alone and unloved.

Which begs the question; what’s the purpose of pain?

We’ve lost our understanding of suffering. For most cultures, for most of time, suffering was seen as a valuable and certain part of life. Rather than telling our children life is hard, we’ve told them that happiness should be their norm. Our children are set up for addiction. If pain is the enemy, then it is good to use any means to escape it.

Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Biblically speaking, suffering is what leads to endurance, and then endurance to character, character to hope, and finally a hope which is fulfilled in love (Romans 5). This is the way of it. To avoid suffering is to render yourself hopeless. This only sounds backwards because of how backwards we understand our pain.

At what cost do we avoid suffering?

When we avoid pain, we avoid growth. When we refuse to be tutored by our suffering, we lose out on the lessons of wisdom, and live the rest of our days in a perpetual state of naïve childhood fantasy. This is not to say that we ought to bring about suffering for others, we should in fact do what we can to protect our children from harm or abuse. Rather, we should walk them through the reality of a hard life, teaching them that pain will come, as well as how to learn from it rather than run from it.

Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life, and to tear it out is not only impossible, but destructive: attempting to tear it out unravels everything else with it.
— Mark Manson

Our society is led by uninitiated men and women who spend most of their energy trying to find someone to dump their anger on. When you don’t treat your pain, you transmit it to others. Rather than standing up for the poor and oppressed, we tend to fight for our own comfort and ease. There is no place for service to others when we seek a painless life.

At the root of the opioid epidemic is the reality that, in general, our culture would rather live in a zombie-like, pain-free state, rather than do the arduous work of growing up at the hands of hardship.

We are motivated more by aversion to the unpleasant than by a will toward truth, freedom, or healing. We are constantly attempting to escape our life, to avoid rather than enter our pain, and we wonder why it is so difficult to be fully alive.
— Stephen Levine

My encouragement is this: listen to your pain, find out what it has to teach you. Your pain will call you to the demanding work of growth, and you will find that many times you are unable to go it alone. Which is the point. The way of wisdom involves suffering in community.