Excited to spend New Year’s Eve on the Outer Banks, I leapt from bed the minute the alarm went off this morning. I took the dog outside, brought him in, filled his bowl with food, and turned on the television as I do almost every morning. My cheer promptly evaporated when I heard the lead news story about how pharmaceutical companies minimized the risks associated with opiate pain medications. Now, according to the news report, overdoses of prescription drugs have replaced illegal substances as the leading cause of overdose deaths.
Since I often feel that the 24-hour news cycle has done our collective psyche more harm than good, I’ve learned that I have to walk away sometimes from tragedies that are replayed repeatedly even when there’s no new information. So I left the room, sad beyond measure and more than a little angry at the drug companies that have profited by creating a generation of addicts.
But this wasn’t a story in a far-away place that I could dismiss by turning off the television or putting down the morning paper, which also carried the report. Like many others, I could have told this story long before it appeared in the media. I grew up in Oceana, West Virginia, a town that has come to be nicknamed Oxyana because of the devastating effects of addiction painkillers on its residents. And like many families, my own family has suffered pain that, rather than being eased, has been exacerbated exponentially by the addiction these legal drugs have caused. In 2007, my younger brother traveled from one medical facility to another, gathering over 300 painkillers. He died in my mother’s guest bedroom, after months of draining her savings account, with six different prescription painkillers in his system.
I adored my brother—the one I knew before he hurt his back and got his first prescription for pain medication from a Veterans’ Administration doctor—a brother almost unrecognizable in the addict he became. Though he had partied so much he never made it through college, he had many years of being a productive adult—a man with a good job, a wife, and two children he loved fiercely. None of that was strong enough to save him, and he would have been homeless had my mother not taken him in, though she was powerless to help him.
My youngest sibling is headed down the same path, unable to stay clean for any length of time. He shared our brother’s drugs and feels guilty that he lives while his closest sibling died. The health problems resulting from his abuse of his body have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in treatments and hospital stays that have given my remaining siblings and me a very personal glimpse into why health care costs keep sky-rocketing.
So after hearing the news report, I got into the car with a heavy heart. My husband and I had planned a stop to visit my mother on the way to the beach, and I had found a plastic snow globe picture frame to give her. In it, I’d placed two pictures—one a family picture of my siblings and me with our parents at a happy Christmas years ago, the other a picture of my mother’s six grandchildren. Both were taken the last Christmas we were all together.
When we arrived at the nursing home, my mother’s eyes lit up, and she reached out to touch my face and kiss me on the cheek. Her gaze falling on the snow globe, she took it from my hands and turned it over, doing her best to shake it. She held the globe out for the nursing assistant to see, saying, “This is my baby girl. She’s a teacher.” I marveled, as I do each time I see her, that she can get out that one clear sentence, though when the assistant asked her my name, my mom was at a loss, repeating only “my girl” in a garbled string of chatter.
Sitting with Mom for a few hours, I was reminded, when she pointed to one foot that had slipped off the footrest, of how much pain she has endured from the lymphedema in her legs. And now that she is nearing the end of her long journey of illnesses, I’m grateful for the Hospice staff that ensures she gets the palliative care she needs to help her be as free of pain as possible.
So the medication that took away my brother’s life has also made my mother’s leaving of this life more bearable. And I’m reminded again of how few things in this world come in black and white, good and evil—of how the problems we face as a nation are complicated.
And so this once, I think I’ll be grateful if a 24-hour news-hungry media machine keeps this issue churning until we begin to seek help for those who can still be saved.
There is hope. My pain was assuaged a little when we arrived at the beach just in time for another spectacular sunset. And when we came back inside from watching the sun set, where my husband had set his iPhone on shuffle, Van Morrison sang out a reminder: “Whenever God shines His light on me / Opens up my eyes so I can see / When I look up in the darkest night / I know everything’s going to be alright.”
Coincidence? Maybe. But I choose to think not.
Tell me your stories of unexplainable hope that is a Presence in moments of pain.