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What 'Roseanne' Got Right and Wrong About the Opioid Crisis

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When the 1980s hit sitcom “Roseanne” returned this year, we expected to see the Conner family dealing with the social and political challenges of working-class families in 2018, just as they did back when the show first aired. It seemed just a matter of time before one of the “hottest” topics of  2018  — the opioid crisis — found its way to Roseanne (Roseanne Barr), her husband Dan (John Goodman), sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) and children Darlene (Sara Gilbert), Becky (Lecy Goranson) and DJ (Michael Fishman). That time turned out to be Tuesday night, in which an episode titled “Netflix and Pill” revealed that Roseanne’s knee condition has led her to abuse prescription opioids.

The episode begins with Roseanne remarking that her knee is “killing her” and that it looks like some of her pills are missing. Jackie “questions” Darlene and Becky, suspecting they may have taken them, but both claim they didn’t. Later, Roseanne and Dan attempt to cash in on a free night at a hotel thanks to credit card points but go home when they learn they still need to put a credit card down for “incidentals” at the hotel. They have their own celebration at home with champagne, where Roseanne gets suspiciously tipsy. Dan confronts her the next morning, revealing that he found three bottles of pills Roseanne got from friends. Roseanne explains how bad her pain is and that they can’t afford surgery. Dan says she’s taking them for “more than pain,” needs to stop and that they need to book the surgery. Roseanne seems to agree and puts an ice pack on her knee. When Dan leaves, she opens up the pack to reveal another bag of pills.

Most people in the chronic pain community likely held their breath as they watched the episode, fully aware of the misguided way the opioid crisis, and chronic pain patients, are usually portrayed. Certainly, “Roseanne” made a few of the same errors. But there also seemed to be a real effort to represent the issue fairly that came as a (somewhat pleasant) surprise.

First, though, we need to poke some holes in the overall idea that Roseanne is abusing opioids in the first place. It’s important to note that the vast majority of people who use opioids for chronic pain do not abuse or become addicted to their pills. Studies show between less than 1 percent and 12 percent become addicted.

“Roseanne” represents the opioid crisis with a scenario that, frankly, doesn’t happen very often. Unfortunately, her uncommon type of opioid abuse is portrayed frequently in media. “This Is Us,” another hit show to tackle the opioid crisis, took a similar approach with a character who became addicted to pills after knee surgery. It’s frustrating for chronic pain patients to be continually used as the “scapegoat” of the opioid crisis, especially since it can cause others to be suspicious of their opioid use and make it harder for them to obtain the medication they need. These days, the opioid crisis is becoming more of a fentanyl crisis, and Americans are actually filling fewer opioid prescriptions.

Strike one, Roseanne.

But if we accept that, OK, Roseanne represents the minority of chronic pain patients who do abuse their medication, the episode took a surprisingly realistic and sympathetic turn when it was revealed Roseanne got her pills from friends. It’s also worth noting that earlier in the episode, Dan offered to tell his doctor his back is “flaring up” so he could get more pills and give them to Roseanne, who isn’t due for a refill for three weeks.

Finally! A show that recognizes that the majority of people who abuse opioids are not becoming addicted from the prescription their doctor gave them, but rather from taking “extra” pills from friends and family. “Roseanne” also recognizes that negative side effects of opioids can be exacerbated by mixing them with alcohol. If TV shows are going to talk about the opioid crisis, it’s important that they focus on the ways people are actually abusing them and the most dangerous risk factors for overdose, rather than patients who are using them responsibly and as prescribed. “Roseanne” took steps in the right direction.

There was also a degree of sympathy afforded to Roseanne that frequently gets lost in the opioid conversation. After Dan confronts her, Roseanne reminds him that they can’t afford the surgery she needs, so she’s “going to be dealing with this for a long time.”

“You don’t have any idea how bad this hurts,” she says, adding that she still has to cook, clean and shop when she’s in pain.

Unfortunately, Roseanne is not the only person in America struggling with the high cost of healthcare and lack of affordable pain relief options besides opioids. Kudos to the show for bringing this sad-but-true reality to light and forcing audiences to consider that Roseanne’s pain is difficult to live with and she doesn’t have tons of other options. That sounds obvious, but pain patients are often told they should “push through” and that it “can’t be that bad.” It’s validating to see Roseanne admit how life-altering her pain really is, the everyday tasks she still has to accomplish despite her pain and her limited options for dealing with it.

Although not explicitly stated, you could also take Dan’s comment that Roseanne’s “taking them for more than pain” as a comment on her mental health. Any mental health challenges the character may have could contribute to her misuse of opioids — a refreshing admission that opioid abuse is often about more than just physical pain.

Few media portrayals “get” the opioid crisis perfectly (especially as it relates to chronic pain), and “Roseanne” was no exception. Viewers should be aware that Roseanne’s experience certainly doesn’t represent everyone who uses (and abuses) opioids. But taken as a case study of one person with chronic pain who is heading down a dangerous path, Roseanne gives viewers a sympathetic look at some of the issues at play in the opioid crisis.

Our rating:  three stars

Originally published: May 16, 2018
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