Massachusetts has a sickness. The Commonwealth finds itself slowly succumbing to a drug epidemic that seems to have no end in sight. Not far from the peaceful streets of Chestnut Hill, communities all across the state are struggling to contain the spread and usage of opioids. Unlike the drugs we might be accustomed to seeing abused on college campuses, such as Adderall, these opioids are far meaner beasts. They have the power to ruin, and in even more unfortunate circumstances, end lives. Four people die every day in the Commonwealth from opioid overdose, and the total number of deaths per year has more than doubled in the past five years.
Outside of the bubble of BC’s campus, it’s not difficult to see the effects of the epidemic. My hometown of Weymouth is a hotbed of heroin abuse, and my commute to campus every day takes me through Quincy, another city struggling with addiction. It’s not uncommon to see someone “napping out” from heroin use on the Red Line or discussing a big score with a companion. Even my street in a quiet little seaside community has had its fair share of ambulances and firetrucks responding to overdoses. I grew up watching neighbors less than a decade my senior struggle and succumb to drug use. Their transformations from bright-eyed students and budding athletes to withered, itching husks were always profoundly disturbing. Sometimes they would disappear for months at a time, only to later reappear looking fresh and healthy. Maybe they had finally gotten cleaned up and found a good job. Maybe this time would be the last time. It swelled one’s heart with hope to see, only to watch that hope disappear behind the doors of an ambulance or squad car some weeks later. This rhythmic, seemingly unstoppable cycle gave me perspective on the tragedy of addiction. The bliss of salvation measured by the despair of eventual relapse. The impact only continued to grow as I watched members of my own extended family fall to addiction.
We find ourselves stuck in a game of societal hot potato to determine who’s left holding the responsibility for such cancerous abuse. Is it the Commonwealth for not taking more drastic measures sooner? The health care industry for advertising and pushing opioid prescriptions on limp-wristed and profiteering doctors? The justice system for punishing instead of rehabilitating addicts? The difficult truth is that no particular one of these groups hold the blame alone–they all share responsibility. In cases like this, people usually look to the most powerful shareholder of the blame to fix the mess. Often I hear citizens crying out that “the state has to do something about the opioid crisis.” But though it may have mismanaged it, the state didn’t start this crisis—we did. And however valiant Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s staunch determination and commitment to passing legislation that seeks to control the Commonwealth’s epidemic, I don’t believe we can legislate our state’s evils back into Pandora’s Box.
We can target the tools of addiction, the drugs themselves, and the ease of acquiring them, but in doing so we hurt law-abiding citizens. Recently I watched a family friend struggle with the pain of an oral surgery to the point of nausea and tears because she was only prescribed Tylenol and Advil to treat her pain. It enraged me in ways I cannot even begin to speak. A standout student from a solid home, this person was forced to bear the sins of her fellow citizens. While I realize this medical dependency is a path through which many find themselves enslaved to drugs, I don’t believe it represents the common root of the problem.
Opioid addiction is built on escapism. It’s no wonder drug abuse is so rooted in the marginalized portions of our communities. While there are certainly cases of well-off or upstanding citizens getting addicted, in my experience, opioids target the weak and disenfranchised. Opioids serve as a sort of narcotic hope, a replacement for and escape from the prospects people find themselves lacking. For an answer I look to the men and women, ancestors of those now struggling with opioid addiction, who built the City of Boston. They were far from perfect and can’t be idealized because they certainly had their own fair share of demons. But it’s unquestionable that these immigrants had more difficult lives than we do today, yet somehow they persevered and more importantly, prospered. They were sustained by the hope that, however grueling their lives might be, their children’s would be better. Our generation is the first to be told that the quality of our lives won’t be better than that of our parent’s lives. This doesn’t excuse opioid abuse, but it does help to explain the despair which forms the impetus of addiction. Our generation was sold the world, but when a disadvantaged kid graduates from Weymouth High and has the choices of a life at a minimum-wage job or a trade that will destroy his body like it did his great-grandfather’s, it becomes a simpler choice to pick up that needle or pill bottle and chase an escape from reality.
As a student at a Jesuit university, I am called to compassion and prayer for my fellow man’s suffering. As a citizen, I hope that we find a way to restore the sense of optimism and community that sustained our forefathers. I believe it starts by being accountable to and for our neighbors, not by asking the state to fix our mess. The speed of the digital age has made us feel more alone than ever, severed from the communal bonds that once rooted us. Healing starts with individual families’ taking greater responsibility for the next generation. If those families are truly incapable, it falls to the rest of the community to keep an eye on the children and impart to them the values that once made us great. I don’t know if it takes a village to raise a child, but it will certainly take one to fix this mess we have made.
Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Staff