The holiday season is, for me as for many, bittersweet.
The sweet, for me, flows from my faith and my family. I’ll be celebrating Christmas with my wonderful wife of 37 years, all but two of my 10 children and all of my grandchildren. For me, that’s about as good as it possibly could get.
The bitter? People I’ll miss, wounds that still are healing, struggles in which we continue to join.
But as the recent movie Inside Out teaches so poignantly, it is the bitter and the sweet of memory together that make for the richness and fullness of life.
Such holiday musings have been prompted, in part, by recent reports on a bitter trend in our society: the stunning increase in drug overdoses.
In 2013, the official number of drug overdose deaths hit 43,982, roughly 120 people every day.
For some perspective: each year, over 30,000 people die in the U.S. as a result of motor vehicle accidents. In 2013, the official number was 32,719. That’s roughly 90 people every day.
Motor vehicle accidents have been the number one in accidental injury deaths for a long time. Back in 1981, nearly 50,000 died in motor vehicle accidents. That number remained over 40,000 nearly every year from 1981 to 2007. Finally, in 2008, largely as a result of various safety initiatives targeting driver behavior and a significant number of car safety requirements imposed by the federal government, that number dropped into the 30,000 range. It has remained below 35,000 since 2009.
That’s still a lot of people, but it is clear that, with concerted efforts, we as a society have made progress.
Drug overdoses are moving in the other direction, and now have first place among accidental injury deaths.
A couple of the really big drivers of the increase in overdose deaths defy our stereotypical expectations.
The Centers for Disease Control report that overdoses of prescription opioids made up more than a third of all drug overdose deaths in 2013. The rate of death due to prescription opioid overdose for non-Hispanic whites is now 6.8 per 100,000 persons (4.3 times what it was in 1999), compared to 2.5 per 100,000 for non-Hispanic blacks (2.8 times what it was in 1999) and 2.1 per 100,000 among Hispanics (a comparatively small 24% increase over 1999).
Another big driver is heroin. Nearly 19% of all overdose deaths in 2013 were due to heroin overdoses . . . this despite the increasingly widespread use of Naloxone (Narcan), a remarkably potent anti-overdose medication. As the graph above shows, this represents a dramatic increase over the last few years.
Together, prescription opioid and heroin overdoses account for 56% of all drug overdose deaths. Significantly reduce either of those numbers, and one will significantly reduce the accidental death rate overall.
What will we do about it?
Some folks view addiction as the addict’s problem. There certainly is truth to that assessment.
But we all pay a price. That price may be measured in the costs society bears for emergency medical care, lost productivity, injuries and deaths incurred by others who are victims of the substance abusers’ choices, loss of support from the addict for spouses, children, parents . . . a vast and expensive array of things.
Still, the biggest cost is a purely human one. It is the cost of a family gathering to celebrate at holiday time with an empty chair at the table and an emptiness in their hearts.
It is true that successful treatment of addiction requires willing participation by the addict. But many die or are debilitated not because they do not wish to get better, but because we haven’t chosen to join the fight.
It’s a bitter fight, dealing with addiction. I’ve seen it in my personal circle. Sometimes there are victories. Sometimes not.
But some fights, however bitter, are worth entering for the sweetness they may bring.
One less empty chair. One less broken heart.
Will that be enough for us?