People say there’s an epidemic, but I say there’s only me, alone, in a dark house. My heart beats quickly and my body feels lead-like, moving clumsy and slow. My hands shake and my head swims. My nose runs. I decided not to take a pill today, but now my body is making a different sort of decision. The same body that helps me type 80 words a minute and paste my walls with poetry has now found a different functionality. My muscles and limbs, turned inside out and lit with a strange sort of fire, cry out for stuff that makes them sing in a way nothing ever has before.
The name morphine derives from Morpheus, the Greek God of sleep, a winged demon known to walk through the dreams of mere mortals by imitating their human forms. And just like the nightmares that cloud Morpheus’s kingdom of dreams, addiction follows morphine and other opiates through history, leaving opium dens and opium wars in its wake. We still see its imprints everywhere: morphine was marketed early on by Merck, and due in part to the sales boost from early junkies, today that pharmaceutical giant is able to bring us everything from Nuvaring to Nasonex.
But now Merck isn’t here, and neither is my doctor. It’s just me, trying to willpower myself out of a pill that’s turned daily routine. I’m trying to just say no. An easy choice, a logical decision, has suddenly become the most difficult one of my life. It’s an intimate moment. A private realization. A personal failure. A loss of faith in my competence, in my ability to believe something to be the best choice and then follow through with it, goddammit. Like getting lost in a neighborhood I should know by now. Like drawing myself a bath and getting distracted for two seconds and suddenly there’s water everywhere. Instead of stepping into a warm bath, I’m stepping into a flood. This is an epidemic of personal debate and beratement, an epidemic of misunderstanding and fear, of beliefs about control and strength in a world that prides itself on staying in control and being strong.
The word epidemic stems from the Medieval Latin, “a stay in a place,” and the place these pills have me staying is a strange land, unlike that of a virus or flu. It’s a place where cures are double-edged, and easy fixes become complicated quickly. The prescription pill is so often the solution for pain and suffering. Get sick? Take a pill. Get better. This commonsense ritual becomes used and then abused in opiate addiction, until the system makes no sense and up is suddenly down. Take a pill to get sick to take a pill to get better to get sick to take a pill to… Opiates have us hunkered down in a world where popping a pill, often one doctor prescribed, can take away chronic pain and the cramping, craving impossible existence that is withdrawal. It’s what I’ve been taught since I was young. Take your medicine. Feel better. It’s the solution, and where the problem began for me. For all of us.
Bayer introduced both aspirin and heroin in the late 1800’s, as cough remedies for children and adults. Heroin’s other promise? A solution for morphine addiction. In a time when tuberculosis and pneumonia were rampant, an elixir offering ease from so much discomfort was welcomed with wide arms. Bayer’s research department declared the drug “heroisch,” the German word for strong. Thus, Heroin, and later, just plain heroin, was born. But within a relatively short timespan, twenty years or so, doctors realized something was up. Patients were consuming a ton of cough soothers. Heroin had arrived, like morphine before it, and like opium before that, bringing with it something much more complicated than pain relief.
Like making a deal with the devil, and giving a bit of myself in return, opiates offer pain relief in exchange for every other thing. There’s a vicious circle, a thrum of goodness and badness. It is called, after all, getting high. Dope. And then dopesick. Even after realizing how far gone I am, opiates can still relieve the pain they’ve caused. How can this be? Let’s talk withdrawal.
Opiate withdrawal is rough. Rough beyond belief. Part of the reason it’s so unbearable, often impossible at home with a bottle of cure sitting by my bedside, is because a quick solution to such agony sits instantly within my grasp. My body knows this. My mind knows this. No matter how much my heart calls me to quit, no matter how many people I’ve lost or how much money I’ve snorted, there’s a deep reptilian part of my brain that wants me to survive and is convinced the withdrawal is killing me. That deeply seated evolutionary part of my brain wants me to live. It wants me to use. Withdrawal is only so unbearable because there is such an easy solution right outside the gate of my detox (hotel room, bedroom).
Pills are deceiving. Unlike powders or liquids, they promise a pre-measured dose. A pill habit lands you in a world where it’s all under control, until it’s suddenly, desperately not. We’re in an epidemic of maintenance habits and quit-anytime-I want-habits. An opiate addiction, like YA authors would say about love and falling asleep, happens slowly, then all at once. An epidemic is hard to talk about when you have a bottle in a drawer and kids to feed and you’re trying not to take more than three pills tonight because you can’t drive with your kids in the car to meet your dealer and your husband has to work all weekend. An epidemic is hard to consider when you’re just one kid locked up in a room with a baggie under your bed who swore you’d never use a needle, ever, but now your habit is too expensive and nothing else works as well and you’ve gotten yourself in this deep and how could you ever crawl out of here, alone, in this bedroom.
My mom would be worried if I didn’t finish this off by saying I got better. If you feel like a single person isolated alone behind a pane of glass, with pills stashed in strategic locations and a pill grinder in your purse and a smile plastered on your face, welcome to opiate addiction. You can make it out alive. If you’ve never felt less like part of an epidemic, never felt less like a part of something in your life, then welcome to opiate addiction. There are millions of other people out there feeling just as defeated and terrified. Right now. Trying not to pick up. Sometimes succeeding.
It doesn’t feel like an epidemic when it’s a disease of isolation, and a disease of self-doubt. But zoom out, get bigger, and imagine all those people, living alone and struggling so big. All those ages, all those social classes. Living the same thing. Feeling totally isolated. Wandering around lost inside their heads. We’re staying in a strange place now, and opiates have put us here. But we’ve known it all along. From cowboys foregoing saloons to visit opium dens, to soldiers in the Civil and Vietnam Wars turning to opiates as a surefire solution to wars’ many pains. It’s a place research and technology has helped us reach harder, faster. But technology helps us escape its own pitfalls, every step of the way. Pills are problems, and pills will offer up solutions. We’ll fall faster, and then we’ll rise higher. We’ll talk louder, streaming out over bright screens, keyboards clicking, into homes and apartments and trailers and rehabs. We’ll live in bold. If this is like suffering we’ve never seen before, then we’ll demand a solution as advanced as the problem.
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Kali Lux is an interactive content specialist for Workit Health. Kali has a gift for breaking down big ideas into digestible bits. She loves to keep you laughing and learning, and her humor has been featured on McSweeney's Internet Tendency. Follow her blog: kalireads.com.