I was going to start this article with some stats that would show you just how bad chronic pain and the opioid epidemic has gotten. Stats like one hundred million Americans and 1.5 billion in the world at-large suffer from chronic pain. Or in 2016, 11.5 million people in the U.S. misused prescription opioids and over 42,000 died of an overdose (see what I did there?).
But our brains struggle to make much meaning out of such large numbers. So I’ll tell a brief story about one of my clients. Mr. R has had unrelenting back pain for 18 years since he was involved in a car accident. Multiple surgeries, implanted neural stimulation devices, and numerous physical therapists and chiropractors haven’t fixed his pain. In fact, he feels it has gotten worse.
So he started using pain medication, OxyContin, upon the insistence of his physician. [So ingrained are the use of opioids in our culture that when I typed oxycontin into Word, spell-check changed it to the brand-name spelling!] Within one year of taking this medication he was out of work, feels disconnected from his young children, and struggles to juggle his responsibilities because he has trouble remembering what he’s supposed to be doing. He doesn’t know where his body is in space, feels unable to relax. And his pain? It continued to worsen.
Most people, like Mr. R., are taking these potent medications with the hopes that it will reduce their pain and make life more livable. But I think that our society’s predilection for prescribing, and taking, opioids speaks to a deeper truth: the pain of unmet needs.