Author Says Isolation Fuels Opioid Crisis
Knoxville News Sentinel USA TODAY NETWORK - TENNESSEE
“The antidote to heroin is not naloxone,” journalist Sam Quinones told 450 people in a hotel ballroom in downtown Knoxville on Wednesday morning. “It’s community.”
On his third trip to speak in Knoxville, Quinones — author of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” — focused as much on the underlying cultural attitudes and divisions that made the drug epidemic possible as on the drugs themselves and their history.
As keynote speaker for a community event hosted by nonprofit Trinity Health Foundation of East Tennessee, he talked about the rise and fall of Americans’ idea that all pain, including emotional, should be suppressed, which gave power to OxyContin as a remedy for that pain in the 1990s.
“We wanted easy answers to complicated problems,” Quinones said. “We had a collective desire to avoid pain in American culture. ... We became ferocious in protecting our children from feeling pain — or even disappointment.”
But what made Americans especially susceptible to repeated escape via prescription opioids — and, later, heroin — was a new emerging culture of isolation, fueled by mass media, talking heads and a 24-hour news cycle that’s led people to separate themselves over ideology, Quinones said.
In the early days of the epidemic, he said, obituaries for those who died of drug overdose read like 1980s obits for those who died of AIDS: The true cause of their death was absent, families ashamed, drug users stigmatized.
When he was writing the 2015 book, Quinones said, “I remember being overwhelmed by the feeling that nobody cared. ... Nobody wanted to confront it in any meaningful way.”
While that’s changed in the subsequent 3 1 ⁄ 2 years, the division of America over “opposing ideas,” resulting in individuals and families being isolated, hasn’t, he said.
Overcoming that division was one goal of the event, which was followed by a community roundtable at which 40 tables of around 10 people each tried to come up with three “fundable” projects for prevention of opioid abuse.
The faith-based nonprofit Trinity Health Foundation may choose from among those projects during its next funding cycle. Conference attendees also were asked to rate what they think the biggest contributors to the addiction epidemic were. A luncheon with community leaders followed.
“Our goal for the luncheon is to distill the community discussion into a handful of actions/projects/topics Trinity could seed to initiate a coordinated community approach,” said foundation President Dr. H. Lee Martin.
At the conference were professionals in medical, substance abuse and behavioral health fields, clergy, those involved with various community organizations and others, including students. Continuing education credits were available.
Quinones commented that he’s seeing such “leveraging of talents, expertise, energy, budget” and resources as he travels, speaking on the opioid epidemic, which he says has been “one of the most powerful forces for change” the country has seen in recent years.
“This process is messy — it’s a lot of people half-blind stumbling toward some solution,” he said. But “remember you are fighting something much bigger than drug addiction. You are fighting the scourge of isolation, of fragmentation in today’s American culture.”