President Trump’s welcome decision Thursday to define the opioid addiction epidemic as a public health emergency reminded me of an earlier — and far less well-received — White House effort to combat drug abuse: “Just Say No.”
If the current opioid plague is in fact an emergency, and I believe it is, then Nancy Reagan’s much-derided slogan deserves not only respect, but reconsideration.
The first lady’s earnest “Just Say No” campaign of the mid-1980s was designed for schoolkids and derided by adults as a hopelessly naive public relations ploy by a clueless elitist.
The fact that the campaign was a component of a “war” on drugs that criminalized addiction and was waged disproportionately against people of color has helped deepen the enduring disdain for abstinence-related exhortations like hers.
But as a recovering alcoholic and addict with a decade of total abstinence under my belt, I can tell that in fact I do say no, one day at a time. So do many hundreds of thousands of other recovering people across the country.
For those of us fortunate enough to have gotten and stayed clean and sober, just saying no can take many forms. But at heart it means taking responsibility and, more important, taking action.
No presidential proclamations or rehab counseling sessions, no prayers by loved ones or warnings from employers, could stop me from drinking and drugging.
Not because proclamations and prayers have no value, but because, in my experience, active addiction ends, and recovery can only begin, after an individual makes a decision to say no to drinking or drugging, and then acts upon that decision by not drinking or drugging, one day at a time.
Few if any alkies and addicts possess the superhero powers necessary to accomplish this task all by themselves and solely on their own resources.
So I salute Trump for recognizing this, however imperfectly; Gov. Christie, his adviser on the epidemic, deserves much credit as well.
More money for treatment, more availability of treatment, and more forms of treatment — including methadone, buprenorphine, and other pharmacological approaches — are essential.
And while I believe in and practice total abstinence, I also recognize that opioids (not my drugs of choice) are a different order of magnitude, neurologically and otherwise, from booze and non-opiate drugs, and that harm reduction strategies like methadone can save lives.
After all, dead addicts will never recover, and addiction is an illness that, left untreated, kills.
Nevertheless, I’m concerned about what seems to me a tendency to portray addicts as victims in need of rescue from malevolent societal forces — such as big pharmaceutical companies who manufacture and doctors who overprescribe supposedly safe opioids for people in pain.
In our zeal to avoid “shaming” or “judging” addicts, we may inadvertently enable them.
Heartbreaking stories of injured high school athletes turning to heroin after painkiller prescriptions run out may make for good TV, but according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, they are far from the norm.
People are buying or stealing prescription pills from friends and family members, or barely using other gateway intoxicants before trying heroin, because it is cheap and sufficiently powerful to be effective without syringes or other fearsome features of junkiedom.
Young people are using heroin because they want the legendary buzz they’ve heard about; what they don’t realize is what addiction will do to them, body and soul. They can’t imagine becoming like the dazed, emaciated, and desperate young people I encountered during a two-block walk in downtown Camden last week.
Which brings me back to the supposedly laughable notion of just saying no. Junkies of my acquaintance, and many of those interviewed by the media, attest to heroin’s almost instantaneous, implacably addictive power. And addicts say that once they’re hooked on this vicious drug, getting clean and staying clean seems almost impossible; lengthy, and expensive, inpatient treatment followed by months if not years of outpatient treatment may be necessary.
If this is so, then why is just saying no — never choosing to try heroin in the first place — such a frivolous notion?
Most addicts are not forced into addiction; no one coerced or tricked me into my first drink or my first drug, or any of the many that followed. I made these choices because I wanted to be intoxicated, until I was so intoxicated so often that I no longer believed I had any choices to make except more of the same.
Treatment gave me tools to make the best decision I ever made and take on the hardest task of my life. Folks who believe alcoholics and addicts are “weak” know nothing of which they speak; recovery requires strength you never knew existed, and then some.
The recovery community in which I have discovered so many treasured friends is a source of that strength. After my countless relapses and the series of calamities that nearly killed me, other people in recovery have taught me how we help one another stay clean and sober.
So while I welcome the president’s declaration, I also believe that no proclamation, treatment, or medication alone will end the epidemic.
This catastrophe of death and dying and grieving will at long last be over only after enough people have the tools to just say no to heroin, or whatever substance is destroying them.
The opioid epidemic will end when they — we — just say no. Today, tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that.