‘Nation of junkies’ or ‘opioid epidemic?’

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George Carlin gained fame with his “seven words you can’t say on TV” routine. But it was the comedian/philosopher’s indictment of politically correct, neutered terminology that was his most brilliant diatribe on bad language.

He poked fun at some of the more annoying phrases — “hearing-impaired,” “senior citizen,” “handicapable” and “pass away.” They are “grotesque evasions” of harsh realities, he said, and the usage of them has not been healthy or helpful.

People have been BS’d “into believing that if you change the name of the condition, you’ll somehow change the condition,” he said.

He gave a hard-hitting, real-world example of how harmful that mindset can be.

In World War I, men who were traumatized during battle were suffering from “shell shock,” he said. “Simple, honest, direct language.”

Then in World War II, the same condition was referred to as “battle fatigue.” Then after the war in Korea, men suffering from the same symptoms had “operational exhaustion,” which sounds like something your car might have, Carlin said. Then after Vietnam, the identical condition was called “post-traumatic stress disorder.”

All the diluted language did was minimize and sanitize a serious problem.

“Pain buried under jargon,” Carlin said. “I bet you if we’d still been calling it shell shock, some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time.”

It was one of the more brilliant observations made by the thinking man’s comedian, who is now dead (not “expired”). It’s too bad he’s not around now to weigh in on the latest euphemism that’s only serving to dress up a serious, deadly problem.

I’m referring to the term “opioid epidemic.” It sounds like something from the Twilight Zone that’s spreading across the planet, out of control, striking unsuspecting bystanders across America, from the bustling sidewalks to the sleepy suburbs to the bucolic cornfields, as they go about their daily routines.

Yes, plenty of people were prescribed pain pills for legitimate reasons and became addicts by innocent means. Their stories are heart-wrenching and their numbers are growing. But let’s not put a pretty little bow on the result of their addiction. They’re junkies. Heroin whores. Slaves to the needle. They’ll do anything to get their fix, whether it means manipulating loved ones or strangers, begging, stealing, robbing or turning a trick. That’s what happens.

To call it by some sanitized name that makes their loved ones feel better about it isn’t helping the problem. It is the worst drug crisis in the history of America. It’s destroying families from every racial and socioeconomic class and dividing communities across the country. It’s not a problem that needs a name that sounds like some sickness from outer space. It needs to sound bad because it is.

A few years ago, when I was doing a series of two dozen stories on addicts who had kicked the habit by going through Dying To Live Ministries, one of the headlines was something like, “From junkie to Jesus.” It was a story about an addict who overcame his addiction to heroin with the help of the faith-based program. It was uplifting, though it gave a raw look at the life of a self-described junkie and the power of the drug, but how he ultimately found a higher power to overcome his need to get high.

The next day, my phone rang. Someone with a family member who was an addict took exception to the use of the word “junkie.” He was offended. I explained that the addict called himself a junkie, I didn’t. And maybe, just maybe it was that self-awareness and clarity that led him to kick the addiction. The caller never gave in. Neither did I.

Over the years, there have been a lot of similar calls. They always leave me feeling sad and helpless. Not because I’m thin-skinned, but because I know their loved one is an addict who will likely never get better. That’s because the people surrounding them are focused on the paper — or anything else other than the real problem. When well-meaning family members come after me because of a headline or a phrase in a story, it’s a tell-tale sign that they’re classic enablers. When they reach the realization that their addict loved one is the reason there’s an embarrassing headline, the healing may begin.

I’ve never liked euphemistic language or labels that are designed to disguise the truth and make people feel better. It’s insulting and ineffective. The mantra that “addiction is a sickness” is well-meaning but wrong, too. Yes, it becomes a sickness after the person becomes addicted. But addiction starts with a decision. And it can stop with a decision, too. A cancer patient can’t decide to stop having cancer. So it’s not a sickness.

Now, even with all of that tough talk, I do have a soft spot for the people who were prescribed pain pills for different conditions and wound up going down the painful path of addiction. It’s sad. They didn’t intend to become junkies. There have been plenty of people from “good families” who were “good people” and succumbed to the power of the opiates. A few from here have died in recent weeks. My heart aches for them.

I understand how it happens. Five years ago, when I had a bad motorcycle wreck, I was hospitalized for a month and in recovery for a year or so. All of the pain pills I wanted were available to me. The medical culture — from night-shift nurses to surgeons to home-health physical therapists — gave me the same advice: “Take a pain pill every four hours, whether you need it or not, to stay ahead of the pain. If you let the pain set in, it’s harder to manage.” I didn’t take their advice. Not because I’m smarter or tougher than people who became addicted, but because I was aware of what could happen. All of those stories I’d done over the years … were eye-opening. You could say that Dying To Live helped prevent me from going down that deadly path, too.

I learned to take a pain pill about 30 minutes before physical therapy the first couple weeks, when it was most painful and most crucial, and sometimes to sleep, and that was it. As soon as I could kick them, I did.

It was evident that this “staying ahead of the pain” was the M.O. of the medical community. It was well-intentioned but harmful. It was the result of medicine becoming less of a profession and more about customer service. Look, I crushed the bones below my knee, broke my kneecap, cracked my tibia plateau, and broke a rib and facial bones … I had no expectation of not feeling pain. That was just part of it.

Doctors who wrote prescriptions for pain medication like they were party favors are a big part of what started this problem. But there’s personal responsibility, too. There are plenty of legitimate purposes for pain pills, but users have to be aware that they’re potentially welcoming a beast into their lives. It has to be kept at bay.

Just about everyone in the country has been personally affected by the “opioid epidemic” in one way or another. It has to be dealt with as one of the most serious problems we’re facing today, starting with doctors and pharmacists, but also down the chain of enforcement and enabler — police, the judicial system, effective treatment for the incarcerated, convenience stores that are allowed to sell “clean” urine, the right kind of family support, personal responsibility. What we call the problem isn’t the problem. But it could be part of the solution. Don’t become a junkie.

Mark Thornton is chief of the Leader-Call. Email him at editor@leader-call.com.