The Opioid Crisis and Its Literary Legacy

in Pop Culture by

The Centers for Disease Control says about 130 people now die every day in the United States as a result of the misuse of opioids – drug overdoses that often begin with an addiction to prescribed painkillers and lead to more easily obtained illegal drugs like heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

 In 2017, more people died from opioids than car accidents or gun violence, leading the Department of Health and Human Services to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency affecting all races and ages. Deaths from opioid overdoses have actually lowered the average U.S. life span.

While federal and state governments work to pass laws to limit prescriptions and improve access to prevention and treatment, the opioid crisis has also been the subject of a flurry of new books. Of the many, here are three of the recent best.

Dopesick: Dealers Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America

By Beth Macy (Little, Brown and Co.)

In an effort to examine the unintended consequences of doctors freely prescribing OxyContin in the 1990s, Macy ventures into the Appalachian heartland to interview addicts and the survivors of addicts. At the time, it was granted so easily because it was supposed to be safer and less addictive than other opioids.

A reporter for The Roanoke Times in Virginia, Macy charts the opioid epidemic from its beginnings to its tragedies. “For the fifth year in a row,” she writes about overdoses caused by the latest synthetic opioid from China, “the state of West Virginia’s indigent burial-assistance program was about to exhaust its funds…”

Shortlisted for the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, Macy’s book also describes the struggles of recovering addicts. “What this country needs is an easy-access system of urgent care centers that triage the addicted…a place where professionals can mule the burdens when a family’s good will is spent,” wrote Macy in a New York Times opinion piece about a young woman who died after six years of addiction.

One By One

by Nicholas Bush (Apollo)

This is a first-person account of the author’s road to addiction: He is a former heroin addict who lost his sister and brother, and three friends, to opioid overdoses.  “It actually propelled me into harder drugs to dull the pain” he said on “The Today Show” in November.

Bush, once a normal hockey and football-playing kid from Green Bay, Wisconsin, says he wrote the book to share his road to recovery. “The essence of what I hope you carry with you after reading my story is the knowledge that there is help and hope for addiction,” he writes in his Author’s Note. 

After a life lived for drugs (and its crime, jail, probation and homelessness), Bush found salvation through his work with a missionary community. “They helped me find shelter and food, and hold down a job. They were on my side,” he wrote in an opinion piece in USA Today.

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Cherry

by Nico Walker (Knopf)

This novel is based on the life of its author, even though his Author’s Note says, “This book is a work of fiction. These things didn’t ever happen. These people didn’t ever exist.”

Walker wrote the book while in prison for robbing banks for money for drugs after serving in Iraq as an Army medic, which is pretty much the plot of the book. Walker sold the film rights to his book from prison; he’ll be released in 2020.

The Washington Post, in a glowing review, called it “Holden Caulfield Goes to War.” The narrator returns home with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and an urgent need to self-medicate. Robbing banks seemed to help, giving him a few moments of calm as he walked in with a note and out with cash.

Walker describes his days: the women he slept with, the drugs he injected, the banks he robbed. “There was nothing better than to be young and on heroin,” he writes. “The days were bright. You didn’t worry about jobs because there weren’t any.”

Beyond the staggering statistics mentioned, these stories, powerful and moving, give us depth in the heartbreaking reality of those afflicted with addiction, a clear picture to the gravity of the epidemic and the need, as Macy points out, for action.

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Joanna Poncavage had a 30-year career as an editor and writer for Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine and The (Allentown, Pennsylvania) Morning Call newspaper. Author of several gardening books, she’s now a freelance journalist.

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