Opioid crisis at the root — what are we so afraid of?

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A key part of the seminary program I’m in is studying the values that drive our decisions individually and collectively. Yes, it’s important to triage and address the top layers of a problem to stop the bleeding, so to speak, but until you get to the foundational cause of it, the challenge will not go away. We will continue to see it pop up or cycle back, and we’ll keep throwing dollars and time at it wondering why it persists. We can see this in looking at one of society’s ails right now, the opioid crisis.

Gratefully, the Colorado Legislature and Gov. Jared Polis have already started making inroads to the top and middle layers of our affliction. The 2019 legislative session had a successful package of bills about safe use, storage, disposal of opioids, treatment of addiction in the criminal justice system, substance abuse training required of certain mental health professionals, augmenting the prescription drug monitoring program, etc. All of these are wonderful steps in grappling with this complex issue before us.

That said, what is underneath all those that is not being addressed? Why are physicians prescribing (or over-prescribing) opioids in the first place? Why are people taking pills to deal with pain? What are people trying to escape?

In our Western allopathic model of healthcare, medical students are most often taught how to help patients avoid pain or death at all costs. Then, they get into their practice and realize how physician reviews on the internet, for instance, can substantially help or hinder bringing in clientele. So, they can get caught up in the “customer is always right” syndrome and attempt to remove any ounce of pain with their patients, in fear of them not being a “satisfied customer.” Thus, anything above a pain level 3 gets a prescription. I’m not saying this is true for every physician, of course. But collectively, this has become a healthcare professional “group think.”

We as patients have also been doing everything we can to avoid pain, making drug prescriptions a common ask in our doctor’s appointment. Why are we so afraid of experiencing pain? To be clear I am not talking about severe, intolerable, or unending pain here. Those need remedy or relief, if possible.

But for those of us who have experienced childbirth or a kidney stone, we know that we can make it through gnawing or excruciating pain if we have a mission in mind. Our pain is not something to be feared, but rather, used. It is there to tell us to notice it and move through it. Guided imagery, hypnotherapy, and meditation are all natural, nonmedical ways to move through senses of pain effectively. For me, those are how I made it through two C-sections and two shoulder surgeries without using prescriptions. With focus, I thankfully learned how to move into the pain and listen to my body to get to the other side of it.

I recognize this might seem generalized. There are obvious exceptions to this hypothesis. But overall, I believe that we patients are so afraid of pain (emotional and physical) that we are pampering ourselves into addiction. It can take as little as five pills to become physically addicted to opioids. Our doctors need to have the courage to say no to their “customers” and treat them as patients instead and saying no to the pharmaceutical companies offering rewards for prescribing more.

Are we really so fragile that we need to escape our vulnerable moments, or could we gain guidance from them?

Formerly a Colorado state senator, now a seminary student at Iliff School of Theology, Linda Newell, of Littleton, is a speaker, filmmaker, facilitator, and consultant. She may be reached at senlindanewell@gmail.com, www.lindanewell.org, www.senlindanewell.com, @sennewell on Twitter, Senator Linda Newell or @TheLastBill on Facebook.

Linda Newell

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