Can Good Come from the Opioid Crisis?

More than 150 Americans die each day from painkiller overdose. Thousands upon thousands more are at risk of death as they find that they must increase their daily dosage of painkillers to experience the same level of pain relief that they did just months before.

Some have found the euphoria that Vicodin, Oxycontin, and other painkillers provide offers a wonderful escape from the stress and anxiety of daily life without the hangover associated with binge drinking.

As a nation, we are becoming more aware of the devastation caused by the current opioid crisis. It has tragic effects in the lives of those who are addicted and in the lives of family, friends, and colleagues who are indirectly affected.

So it is with caution that I say that there may be a glimmer of hope that some good can come out of the opioid crisis. That maybe from its tragedy we as a nation will become more willing to see addiction to painkillers and addiction in general as a concern for all us.

Maybe by looking within at our own addictive tendencies that we will have the empathy necessary to desire the social and healthcare reforms that will encourage those who have been relegated to the darkness of addiction into the light of compassionate and effective treatment.

Back in early days of AA, alcoholics were considered to be morally defective and weak. “Why can’t he just stop?” was the question for those suffering from this apparent lack of willpower. Society looked away from them with disgust.

That still occurs today but to a lesser extent because we have learned that alcoholism is a disease and that willpower is not the problem. Like other diseases, it is an equal opportunity destroyer because it does not discriminate between the poor and the wealthy.

And now, the opioid crisis is forcing Americans to see that even the outwardly successful are being sucked into the vortex of addiction. It has made Americans realize that addiction can strike down one of our children as easily as the guy who lives next door in the beautiful house.

The changes I see as a result of the opioid crisis is the expansion of our collective consciousness that addiction is much more common than we once thought. That hardcore alcoholics and drug users are just on one extreme on a continuum. They represent a small percentage of the problem our nation faces with addiction—a problem that the opioid crisis has awakened us to.

Recent figures from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that nearly 42,000 Americans die each year due to opioid overdose. Excessive alcohol use claims 88,000 American lives and steals 2.5 million years of potential life lost each year. Add to that the 480,000 deaths each year from cigarettes. Those numbers speak to the tragic loss of American life due to substance addiction.

Yet, there are many more Americans whose addiction is not to substances but to behaviors. These behavioral addictions include addictions to food, gambling, and pornography. Add to those the more socially acceptable behavioral addictions like excessive working, excessive spending, excessive gaming, and excessive use of social media, and we can see even though behavioral addictions do not frequently result in death, they take a tragic toll on the quality of our lives every day.

In short, addiction is huge problem that the opioid crisis is bringing to our awareness.

For the past decade, I have devoted my life to reading the wisdom of experts in the fields of addiction, recovery, and psychology. I am convinced that at the root of all addiction is the avoidance of discomfort. Carl Jung, one of the early fathers of psychology, said that all mental illness is due to the avoidance of pain. And that avoidance makes us all a little crazy.

Our addictions—to substances or behaviors—are a way to avoid discomfort. And at the core of this discomfort is a gnawing absence at the center of our being. In his book In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Mate’ talks about the “avoidance of the void” within us. That there is a hole that we are trying to fill with our drug or behavior of choice. As addicts we do what we can to avoid this black hole within.

In this light, addiction is our misguided attempt to avoid the void. And the reason that these behaviors and substances become addictive is that they seem to work—if only temporarily. “It’s hard to get enough of what almost works,” says addiction specialist Vincent Felitti, MD.

The tragedy of addiction is this: There is a void that all addicts are trying to fill with our addiction that cannot be filled by our addiction. I know this firsthand as a recovering alcoholic.

For me, that gaping hole at my core was a profound lack of connection to my true self. I have come to believe that we’re all spiritual beings having a human experience. At the core of who we are is not the brain but the soul or spirit.

As we are socially conditioned beginning at home and then in society, we become separated from who we are. This has its source in our early development as human beings. The need for food and water were contingent on us being alive, and we couldn’t survive as individuals without belonging to the tribe or otherwise we would become prey. For survival we continually compared ourselves to those in our tribe. Behaviors that prevented us from fitting in with the tribe either needed to be changed or we faced exclusion. In a real sense, either we conformed or died.

This need to conform ensures our survival, but the cost is a loss of connection to who we really are. This social conditioning allows us to unite with other human beings, but it creates separation from who we are at our cores. In this separation from our true selves, we also become separate from our relationship to the source of our being, whether we call that God, Spirit, Eternity, or Universe.

This is the void.

And it is my hope that we as a nation become compassionately aware of the connection between addiction and avoidance of the void. I hope that through the pain, suffering, and loss inflicted by the opioid crisis, that we reach out to those in our lives and encourage them with kindness to seek treatment. And that we ask those in positions of influence at our jobs and in our schools to offer programs to help those who are suffering from addiction.

There are solutions to this epidemic of addiction. Many have found it in the spirituality of a 12-Step program while others through programs like Rational Recovery.

However, if we condemn and relegate to the shadows those who most need our help, then this crisis of addiction will continue.

May we as a society offer to those who are suffering our love and acceptance not because they have changed but so that they can change.

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach.
Contact me for help at RjLifeCoaching@gmail.com.

The Best Stress Busters from the Mayo Clinic

We all have stress in our lives. It’s a part of being human. And we all have ways of dealing with it. Oftentimes, it’s with alcohol or opioid use. But all stress is caused by five factors.

I remember the scenes from old TV shows and movies where the husband comes home from work and makes a beeline for the booze in one of those elegant crystal glass decanters.

Such images would cast my mind back to the early days of my alcoholic drinking when that first drink actually worked to melt away the stress of the day.

Those movie scenes became my routine as I would rush home from work and head directly for the bottle of Smirnoff vodka that I kept chilled in the freezer.

As I look back to those days when alcohol worked its magic, I can now see how looking within myself for the source of my stress would have violated my personal creed: Only the unexamined life is worth living. All I knew was alcohol rounded the edges of my stress and allowed me to stuff it away.

What I failed to understand was this avoidance pattern only intensified my stress and anxiety. What I resisted persisted. So the cycle would begin again after the next day of work. On and on. Finally, I couldn’t drink enough to silence the strident voices of my stress.

One of the books that has been a tremendous help to me is The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-free Living, by Dr. Amit Sood. It’s turned up the stage lighting on what creates stress in my life and how to cope with it. When we are able to name the source of our stress, we can tame it. This knowledge may save you from a relapse as well.

According to Sood, stress has two internal and three external components. The internal ones are fighting life and fighting change.

Although I recited the Serenity Prayer out loud in hundreds of AA meetings, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I recognized its stress-reducing power. To “accept the things I cannot change” is an approach to life that has great efficacy in disarming one of the internal stressors: fighting life.

When I can accept life as it is rather than how I think it should be, I immediately reduce my stress level. I no longer judge my daily experiences as good or bad. They are all lessons that my Higher Power engages me in for my ultimate good.

The second internal stresser is fighting change.

There is a powerful Frederica Matthews-Green quote that says, “Everyone wants to be transformed but nobody wants to change.” That was me until a few years ago. Although I had made a drastic change in my life by giving up alcohol, I was unaware of the beliefs I held onto that caused me stress and suffering.

During my morning prayer and meditation, I now often ask my Higher Power for “the courage to change the things I can.” I’ve also discovered that relationships provide a mirror for me to see what I need to change.

The three external stressers are the unpredictability of others, a lack of control, and a lack of power.

In my drinking days (and still to a lesser extent), I created movies in my head in which I would play out different scenarios for situations involving unpredictable people. Rarely did these movies sync with the actual situation. Instead, they created expectations and then stress when things didn’t work out as I envisioned. I now “accept the things I cannot change,” knowing that people will be endlessly unpredictable. And isn’t that what makes them fascinating?

The second external stressor is lack of control. That was a huge one for me. I would stress myself out by constantly trying to control the outside world so that I could be more comfortable in it. The desire is understandable. Humans have an aversion to pain. Yet, control is an illusion. In honesty, I can’t even control my own thoughts let alone another person. Giving up my attempts to control others has significantly reduced my stress levels.

Power is the last of the external stressors and is the most elusive of the five. I don’t know of anyone who has tasted power who doesn’t crave more of it. As much as we chase it, we can’t ever seem to hold on to it for long. When we try to seize it, we become like terrorists to others. People then don’t follow us out of love but out of fear. Honor the moments of your life that you have power. It is a gift from your Higher Power to be used lovingly.

What is common to relieving each of the five stressors is acceptance. It is a potent antidote to stress. And it’s central to the Serenity Prayer. When practicing acceptance, I savor each of its three flavors: acceptance of others, self-acceptance, and acceptance of the situation. Life is the highest spiritual path, and I can avoid so many of the stressors by “accepting the things I cannot change.”

If you are interested in working one-on-one with me, reach out and contact me at RjLifeCoaching@gmail.com. We can meet in person or on Zoom.

In Kindness,
RJ Handley, Addiction and Recovery Coach