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To My Chronic Pain Community: Please Don't Do This When You Talk About the Opioid Crisis

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This is a topic that has weighed heavily on me for some time. As someone who lives with multiple health conditions, including chronic pain, and serves as The Mighty’s chronic illness editor, my goal is always to advocate for and elevate the voices of other pain patients like myself. That being said, I’ve been troubled by a trend I’ve noticed within our chronic community relating to discussions of the opioid crisis: the tendency to judge, stereotype and villainize the people who are or who have been addicted to opioids.

There is no question that issues with opioid addiction in the U.S. have made it far more difficult for chronic pain patients to obtain their prescribed opioid medication. I’ve had the privilege to edit several stories from Mighty contributors who detail the fear, anger and hopelessness they feel at losing access to a medication that helps them live. For many, it’s had extreme consequences — affecting not only their pain levels, but their mental health, ability to function and basic quality of life. 

It hardly seems fair that so many individuals are suddenly being denied a key component of their pain management strategy because so many other individuals are struggling with addiction. After all, between less than 1 percent and 12 percent of people with chronic pain become addicted to their medication.

All the emotions echoing throughout the pain community are valid. The effects of the opioid crisis are terrifying and upsetting, and it’s important for us to speak out and share our experiences.

But elevating the voices in the chronic pain community does not mean we should be diminishing the voices in the addiction community. 

While of course, not everyone does this, it is a near-daily occurrence that I see some folks with chronic pain speaking poorly of folks struggling with addiction. Efforts to “prove” responsibility, compliance and lack of addiction all too often veer into territory of judging those who are addicted. In attempts to differentiate themselves, some pain patients use harmful stereotypes and hurtful language. “I take my medication responsibly! I’m not some ‘junkie’ selling drugs on a street corner.” Others point at people with addictions with blame, anger and malice. “This is all your fault!!!”

This type of discourse is disheartening to see for many reasons — particularly the lack of compassion and empathy.

Addiction is a complex disease, and people with addictions are all unique, complex human beings. Not everyone with an opioid addiction “looks” the same; addiction doesn’t discriminate by race, wealth, sexual identity, class or gender. It can (and does) happen to anyone. 

Perhaps someone accidentally became addicted to pain pills after a major surgery because they were in such agony. Maybe someone else turned to opioids as a way to cope with a stressful life event, because they didn’t know what else to do. Regardless of “how” a person got addicted, or what their experience with addiction looks like, they deserve understanding — not judgment. 

Of course, it’s never “OK” to take prescription medication in a different way than prescribed, or to use illegal street drugs. But addiction is a serious problem, and it’s an illness, just like chronic pain. As fellow humans, we should be extending compassion and support instead of tearing each other down — especially considering we know what it’s like to live with a type of health condition that is so often stereotyped and marginalized.

It’s easy to feel angry at people with addictions when addictions and drug overdoses have, in large part, led to the opioid crisis. It’s harder to feel angry when you begin putting names and faces to the people with addictions: your family members, your friends, your neighbors, your classmates.

If you’ve ever loved someone with an addiction, you know what an anxiety-inducing, gut-wrenching and helpless feeling it is to watch them struggle with this disease — knowing that despite the confusing and scary ways their behavior may have changed, they are still in there, somewhere.

I have someone in my life, someone whom I love fiercely, who struggled with an opioid addiction for many years (though I am proud to say they are over one year sober). Despite their faults, despite what they’ve been through, this person radiates sunshine. They have stood by my side when no one else has, and never fail to make me smile. 

So it breaks my heart and absolutely guts me when I see the judgmental and derogatory language used to describe those with addictions. To see them put down as “lesser than,” as “worthless,” as “criminals.” To see people perpetuate damaging stereotypes and misconceptions. To see chronic pain depicted as a more valid illness than addiction. 

It is absolutely possible for us, as a chronic pain community, to talk about our experiences, our challenges and our emotions without judging another community or creating an environment where people with addictions don’t feel safe.

I asked my loved one what it’s like living with an addiction, and they said:

I feel like I am unjustly judged and discriminated against as a person because of a disease I have that takes everything out of me. And the stigmas around addiction create an environment where addicts like me don’t feel comfortable vocalizing our fears, experiences and needs in order to get help and help others. I still have struggles, but I don’t think anyone should be shamed for that.

I don’t have the solution to the opioid crisis, addiction rates or the impact these issues are having on the chronic pain community. However, I do believe that our best bet at making productive steps forward (for both the chronic pain community and the addiction community) is not to be angry at one another, but to work together. Each community can still advocate for its own needs and suggest solutions without putting the other community down. We need to focus our efforts on misguided policymakers — not the people who are struggling right along with us.

We could all use a little more compassion, support and understanding as we face difficult health issues. So, to the community I deeply respect and am humbled to be part of, I ask that we channel our energy in more constructive ways, so we can be helpful and supportive of everyone.

Getty Image by ah_designs

Originally published: July 31, 2019
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