America has been hit with an opioid epidemic. The Department of Health and Human Services summarizes the problem as follows: “Our nation is in the midst of an unprecedented opioid epidemic. More people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any year on record, and the majority of drug overdose deaths (more than six out of ten) involved an opioid. Since 1999, the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids—including prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin—nearly quadrupled, and over 165,000 people have died from prescription opioid overdoses.”
As someone who has never smoked a cigarette or marijuana joint in my life, I am far removed from the reality of opioid addiction that has a stranglehold on thousands, if not millions, of Americans. Moreover, I personally strive to avoid pharmaceutical products in order to avoid dependence on synthetic products that can have multiple side effects. I drink alcohol rarely. I avoid cigarettes, as well as the proximity of anyone smoking a cigarette. I gave up coffee. And though I took Vicodin after a surgery nine years ago, I quickly stopped once I realized what a daze they put me in, and I continue to be amazed that so many people allow painkillers to exert such control over their lives.
In short, I am as sober as sober comes.
It is perhaps because I do not have direct experience in the consumption of drugs, recreational or medicinally, that the story of the opioid epidemic does not resonate with me like it does with those who think about it, write about it, and speak about it. Yet it is hard to read the news and not encounter stories about families who have lost loved ones to overdoses, like this recent story about a family in rural West Virginia profiled in the Washington Post. As these stories draw my attention to a growing social menace, I have often wondered: why are so many getting hooked, and why can’t they give it up?
I am not a psychologist or a doctor. Nor am I a sociologist or economist who has studied the socioeconomic causes and effects of addiction. Thus, I am in no position to offer a professional opinion that attempts to answer these questions. But still, I am prone to wonder: what is so hard about walking away from substances that can seriously degrade, if not destroy, the quality of your life?
Just say no, right? Well, before readers roll their eyes and sneer at my seemingly blithe disregard for the gravity of opioid addiction, let me just say that I have not been entirely untouched by the opioid menace. Though I have never engaged in substance abuse, most people in my family have experienced addiction in their lives at some point. Heroin. Valium. Benzos. Anti-depressants. Alcohol. Painkillers. Methadone. Marijuana. Uncles, aunts, parents, cousins, siblings: name the substance, someone has tried it, and often gotten hooked on it. I did not grow up in the dilapidated ruins of a home, neglected and abandoned as parents and relatives shot up dope.
But I did observe a lot of odd behavior. Volatile emotions. Moodiness. A pall of despair that frequently hung over parents and relatives.
As a child, I thought such behavior reflected the struggles of poverty in which much of my family was immersed. But as time wore on and I gained a more mature perspective on life, I learned that Valium withdrawal contributed to my mother having a nervous breakdown when I was 10, a year when I moved four times and lived in a women’s shelter for a month. I learned my father had once been addicted to heroin, among other substances, and I was already well aware of his alcoholic tendencies. I knew my maternal grandfather had been a nasty alcoholic, while my maternal uncle was a recovered alcoholic and my maternal aunt was on her way to becoming a homeless alcoholic. And then there’s my father’s side of the family, where abuse of benzos, alcohol, heroin, and other substances was common. I observed a fair amount of melodrama in family life when I was young, and then became old enough to understand that much of it boiled down to drugs. To the extent I considered the possibility that drug use was symptomatic of deeper emotional instabilities, I nevertheless concluded that drugs were bad news, and I would have nothing to do with them. It was an easy choice.
Childhood schooled me in the perils of addiction. I did not know what it felt like to be addicted to drugs, but I had years of experience observing how drugs altered the lives of family members who suffered from addiction. I wanted no part of it. I wanted to be happy, and I wanted to be healthy. I refrained from the use of drugs throughout my adult life, and I have never regretted it.
My adult life has been far richer, more productive, and emotionally intact than anything I remember my parents and relatives experiencing.
This is not to say life has been a cakewalk. I have had my ups and downs like anyone else. I struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder. I get in bad moods. I feel anxious at times. I despair (especially in light of our present political situation.) But otherwise, I take comfort in my active choice to avoid irresponsible behavior, and I seek comfort in friendships, work, and a fledgling family.
I also live a healthy lifestyle. I maintain a reasonably healthy diet. I have a busy life, but I try not to live a stressful life. And I exercise regularly.
If I had to choose one activity that anchors my healthy lifestyle, it would be exercise. It relieves stress. It burns calories. It strengthens the heart. It elevates my mood. It enhances my ability to concentrate.
Exercise is like a magic elixir.
I’ve been working out regularly ever since I earned the nickname ‘bonker boy’ as a five-year old kid swinging on jungle gym bars, but exercise as a lifestyle began when I was a freshman in high school and joined the track team. Ever since, I have exercised almost every day. I used to be able to take a day off, but now I cannot go a day without a workout. The intensity of individual workouts has dampened, but I always need to get in a sweat and feel the heart rate rise. I can’t go a day without the endorphin rush that comes with physical exertion.
In other words, I am addicted. Sure, I’m disciplined, but I don’t force myself to exercise. I simply can’t go without it. By the end of a day, if I have not undertaken activity that raises the heart rate and causes a sweat, my body gets fidgety. My heart screams. I can’t think. I can’t rest. I can’t sit still. Only a workout will allay the anxiety that creeps up on me and eventually takes hold of every fiber of my physiological being. Once I’ve put in a half hour or so, my body relaxes and settles down. I can read. I can think. I can write. I can interact with people without pacing like an addict outside a methadone clinic.
It is thus with some dismay that I confess I have turned into an addict after all.
Of course, it is a healthy addiction. But it is not without difficulties. I can’t work straight through an entire day without a workout. If I travel, I need to find space to work out, or I cannot enjoy the sightseeing, leisure activities, and other adventures associated with travel. When I was in the hospital after my fiancée gave birth, I had to exercise in the bathroom of the room we stayed in for three days (even though I was operating on little sleep.) It does not matter where or when, I need a workout each day.
In short, I have a very deep understanding of addiction. I understand the insatiable thirst. The jittery, uncompromising need for a high. The restlessness that comes with too long a period of inactivity. The debilitating anxiety. The sense that one’s body is going to implode without getting a hit of endorphins. The utter dependence on endorphins. I had always believed I understood addiction vicariously, in the way that the child of an alcoholic understands alcoholism even if he never has a drink in his life. But where I really feel addiction, not just vicariously, but physiologically, is when I wake up in the morning and feel an agitation spread through my body until the rush of blood generated by exercise has filtered through my system.
I presume this incapacitation will sound familiar to anyone who cannot go long without a hit to the vein with their drug of choice.
The upside, of course, is that I’m in good shape. It’s a healthy addiction (as long as I adjust my workout to allow my body to recuperate from intense workouts.) Upon reflection, however, I have also come to appreciate that I am as susceptible to addiction as the thousands, or millions, who have discovered relief from anxiety with much more toxic substances than the natural endorphins that flood the brain during exercise. It is not so easy to say: just give it up; it’s bad for you. If I gave up working out, I would probably need to enter a rehab clinic. The withdrawal would be excruciating. I would not be able to think. I would not be able to sit still for days. Maybe weeks. I would be incapacitated until my body adjusted to a new routine of irregular exercise. This is an unavoidable physiological reality. It is how my body has evolved after a lifetime of working out each day of the week. The endorphin hook is deep. I could not escape it without a drastic intervention.
This sounds like the problem of addiction which is plaguing communities throughout America.
Fortunately for me, the addiction is a net positive. It imposes an inflexibility on my life and routines. But my cholesterol is low. My blood pressure is manageable. And though my joints are not as nimble and limber as they once were, my body is more physically intact than the average thirty-something male. For the thousands of people hooked on opioids, however, the reality is much dimmer. In the same way that exercise crept up on me and seized hold of my body like a virus, opioids have surreptitiously crept up upon thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans and, like a virus, seized control of their basic drives and ambitions. As an exercise addict, I understand how hard it is to withdraw from the calming effect of an endorphin rush, and thus I can begin to appreciate how hard it must be for opioid addicts to withdraw from the calming effect of a painkiller, benzo, or shot of heroin. Given how thousands of people are dying from overdoses, wrecking families and burdening communities, it does not take a great leap of logic to recognize that opioid addiction is a profound health problem affecting American communities, and that combatting the problem is not as easy as it was for me when I just said no to drugs after growing up in a family full of drug addicts.
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