Does America have a problem with pain? Specifically, do we have a problem with coping with pain? Perhaps with managing pain? And if so, does this problem lie at the very root of our widespread addictions?
This is the premise of Timothy McMahan King’s Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us. Delving into the epidemic of opioid drug overdoses and fatalities, King widens the topic to include cultural, philosophical and theological analysis.
King himself has a powerful story to tell. A near-fatal disease resulted in a long journey with pain medications that ended up compounding his condition. Ironically, he writes, “the more I took [fentanyl] to relieve my pain, the more pain I felt.” In the end, his life was saved, but he was also addicted.
Due to early detection prior to severe stages of addiction, the author was able to recover from his plight and eventually gather his thoughts to write this book. He also had support from family members and workplace supervisors. But his story and outcome are not normal. Opioid drugs, tragically, now claim the lives of 115 people a day in the United States.
What makes this book compelling is that it helps readers to no longer disassociate themselves from those who struggle with pain-killer addictions. We are all addicted at some level; all Americans share in the context in which addiction has become normal. No longer can we say, “I’m glad I’m not like other people” (Luke 18:11).
By recognizing how sin and evil powers work collectively and institutionally, King sees how the North American situation “is born out of a crisis of meaning, a collapse of culture, constant consumption, corporate corruption, the end result of a so-called War on Drugs, a breakdown of public institutions and a stifling of opportunity.” Doctors and pharmaceutical companies, when operating unethically, are part of this context.
To be addicted is simply to be human. King invites us to see ourselves in the stories of others. The opioid crisis reveals deeper truths about all of our lives. This realization, however, does not have to lead to despair. It can strengthen a sense of solidarity. Without seeing the problem as a shared problem, we won’t be able to find solutions that address causes and not just symptoms.
The issues are complex. The drugs that save lives can also poison our systems. A family who loses a loved one tends to hide the actual causes from other people; a lot of shame wraps around deaths caused by addiction. But bringing the issues to light can also educate others and help other families to cope better.
I’m thankful for the way King gets right into the biology and neurology of this topic. His own story shows he is no stranger to the way our bodies and brains are impacted by drugs. Anyone who has addictive behavior patterns will benefit from this book and will find a perspective that allows for greater self-compassion and greater understanding of what others experience.
By including discussions about the role of technology or the meaning of life, King draws the topic of addiction closer to home. Central to these discussions is the concept of control. We all want to be in control of our lives. And so much in today’s world threatens our sense of control. “In our desire to control our pain, we lose control,” King says.
King helps us to see how our addictions — whether a severe attachment to painkillers or an urge to “veg out” every evening with screen time — stem from a need to take control of our lives so that nothing else can make demands upon us. But our escapes eventually control us.
Unfortunately, the part of the brain that is stimulated by these behavior patterns is the same area that longs for love. Deep down, we want to be comforted, to be loved: “Addiction always mimics something we need.” Here again, the person with a mild but steady compulsive behavior can find solidarity with the addict who has been to hell and back.
As we yearn for genuine love and develop a vision of being healthy, King attests to a slow and steady path toward recovery. The final chapters of this book are full of insights on overcoming addiction. Compassion, empathy, faith, hope, love and more combine to help any of us, with the help of others and by God’s grace, to experience healing and find new meaning. Resurrection can happen, but it takes work.
Ted Lewis works as a restorative justice trainer and consultant and runs the Agapé Peace Center in Duluth, Minn.