When A Dream Became a Nightmare

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“Drug Overdose Deaths Drop in U.S. for first time since 1990.”

This New York Times headline seems like a dream amidst the living hell that has been the heroin/ opioid epidemic plaguing the country.

Yet, we’ve seen this “dream” before. The dream of living pain-free. The dream of escaping the real world for a while. It’s a dream as old as time.

In fact, it goes back to the Ancient Greeks.  The first precursor to today’s opioids and heroin was morphine, a pain reliever named after Morpheus, the Greek God of Dreams. In his original form, this god represented an escape from human existence into the world of sleep and dreams.  Likewise, morphine’s primary early use was to provide relief for soldiers wounded in the horror of the Civil War.

Yet, Morpheus’ later description in Ovid’s classic poem, Metamorphoses, includes the description of putting on “deceptive shapes of…lifeless things.” As humans have gone through their own metamorphosis, this idea of pain relief morphed into an even more sinister drug that would indeed lead to an abyss of lifelessness: heroin.

In the earlier 20th century, heroin was seen as a safe alternative to morphine. The thinking was that it was less addictive. In fact Bayer marketed heroin as a wonder drug, and there was even a marketing campaign aimed at “heroin for kids.” Let that one sink in for a moment!

Eventually, the debilitating effects of heroin were realized and both heroin and morphine were outlawed and criminalized; however, the unintended consequence of this war on addictive pain killers was that these drugs were pushed to the fringes, and sold underground in even more dangerous consistencies and potencies.

As society entered the post World War II era, complete with the dreamy glorification of going off to fight for one’s country, a new nightmarish reality set in. For thousands of returning veterans, opioids became a coping mechanism for the lingering physical and emotional traumas of war. Needless to say, this led to opioid addiction becoming a serious health issue.

Flash forward to the 1960s and 1970s, and America combats this epidemic with a new war on drugs that includes mandatory minimum sentences for drug users. Again, a pipe dream at crushing the drug problem simply leads to more nightmares as countless drug addicts, many of them minorities, are in prison rather than getting treatment. Meanwhile heroin and opioids remain rampant on the streets with the stereotypical caricature of the drug addict remaining a blurry-eyed, rail-thin drug addict huddled in an alleyway with a needle dangling from his arm.

That caricature, however, would be shattered as the 1990s brought about the medical community’s new attack on pain. For the first time pain would be classified as a vital sign and the mantra of a “pill for every ill” became a common refrain.

Companies such as Purdue Pharma  began expanding their marketing of these drugs even granting doctors dream vacations to exotic locations in exchange for pushing these drugs on patients.

Yet something happened to that previous stereotype. Addictions to these pain killers multiplied quickly and now opioid addiction was no longer isolated to “junkies” and “drug addicts.” No, now this epidemic quickly swept through suburban America, “white America.” Entire communities have seen opioid addiction destroy families for unfortunately, after patients become addicted to these opioids, they must reach for other more dangerous drugs such as heroin to help them reach that high. Unfortunately, for many that “high” has quickly become “die.”

So, while it is wonderful that statistics show that opioid overdoses have dropped for the first time in decades, society must not rest for it is obvious that the dream of pain relief, of escape, has continuously been a nightmare that must be attacked with awareness, education, and tenacity.

Indeed, we must not become complacent and fall asleep, like Morpheus, to the realities of this dangerous epidemic has wrought on millions of lives.