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Suffering for Profit: Why Netflix's 'Painkiller' Matters

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Netflix has released a new limited series drama (based on real events) “Painkiller” that peels back the curtain on Purdue Pharma, its infamous drug, OxyContin, and the company’s role in the opioid crisis. The cast includes Uzo Aduba as federal investigator Edie Flowers, and Matthew Broderick as Purdue Pharma executive Richard Sackler. This provocative series isn’t just another piece of investigative journalism — it’s an unflinching look at how pain has been commercialized. For those of us living with chronic pain, it raises questions about our medications and the systemic issues that make our pain a “business.”

Where to Stream

This limited series is exclusively streaming on Netflix.


Trigger Warnings: Proceed With Emotional Preparedness

Before you dive into this gripping but potentially unsettling series, it’s crucial to be aware of its emotionally and psychologically charged content. Below are some trigger warnings that may apply:

  1. Graphic Depictions of Addiction: The series features firsthand accounts and possibly vivid images of opioid misuse, which could be distressing for those who have faced or are facing addiction.
  2. Medical Negligence: Scenes and interviews cover instances of medical malpractice and neglect. This can be highly triggering for those who have experienced inadequacies or neglect in health care systems, especially concerning pain management and pain relief.
  3. Stigmatization: People with addiction and chronic pain are often stigmatized in society. This series delves into these perceptions, which may trigger anger, helplessness, or frustration.
  4. Exploitative Business Practices: If you are disheartened or angered by corporations valuing profits over human lives, brace yourself. “Painkiller” exposes how the pharmaceutical industry, particularly Purdue Pharma, and even some health care providers they partnered with, exploited vulnerable populations for financial gain.
  5. Loss and Grief: Family members who have lost loved ones due to opioid addiction share their stories. This might be especially sensitive for those who have also experienced losses from addiction or chronic illnesses.
  6. Mental Health: The emotional weight of this series could potentially worsen symptoms of anxiety or depression. If you are already struggling with mental health, consider this before watching.
  7. Ethical Dilemmas: This series poses complex ethical questions that could provoke emotional or moral distress.

Please be sure to evaluate your comfort and emotional state before deciding to watch “Painkiller.” You know yourself best. If you think it may be too triggering, reading summaries or watching it with a support system in place could be helpful.

What ‘Painkiller’ Means for the Chronic Pain Community

Navigating the labyrinth of chronic pain is challenging enough without the added burden of societal stigma and complex regulations. “Painkiller” not only peels back the curtain on Big Pharma’s ethical shortcomings but also hits close to home for those of us in the chronic pain community. This film has the potential to shape our experiences and influence the discourse around how to treat chronic pain.

The Negative Repercussions

  • The Stigma of ‘Drug-Seeking’: Living with chronic pain often puts us under the uncomfortable microscope of skepticism, labeling us as potential “drug seekers.” This series might inadvertently strengthen this stereotype by exposing misuse, making health care providers more cautious or unwilling to prescribe pain medicine.
  • Profits Over Ethics: One of the most unsettling revelations is the pharmaceutical industry’s propensity for profit over patient well-being. It painfully underscores that Big Pharma is a business that benefits from long-term reliance on its products. Full recovery is not profitable, but perpetual treatment is.
  • Stricter Regulations and Hoops: One of the ripple effects of exposing pharmaceutical companies’ misdemeanors is the instigation of even tighter regulations on opioid prescriptions. This means more red tape and scrutiny for genuine cases, converting each doctor’s visit into a battle for legitimacy.

The Positive Takeaways

  • Public Awareness and Accountability: While “Painkiller” portrays a bleak picture of the pharmaceutical landscape, it brings these issues into the mainstream conversation. The more people know, the harder it becomes for corporations and policymakers to ignore the need for ethical practices and alternative pain management solutions.
  • Empowerment Through Information: Knowledge is power. Understanding the economics and politics of pain medicine equips us to engage in meaningful dialogue with health care providers. This information can be a powerful tool when advocating for more personalized, ethical treatment options.
  • The Push for Ethical, Effective Treatment: By exposing the underbelly of the pharmaceutical industry, the series could act as a catalyst for change. It fuels the growing demand for more ethical practices and the development of effective, non-addictive ways to treat chronic pain.

What ‘Painkiller’ Means for the Addiction Community

The opioid crisis has left an indelible mark on countless lives, affecting those battling addiction and their families and communities. “Painkiller” aims to expose the underpinnings of this devastating epidemic. For the addiction community, the film serves as both a mirror and a magnifying glass — reflecting complex realities while potentially reinforcing stereotypes and stigmas. Here’s how it could impact this community both negatively and positively.

The Negative Repercussions

  • Reinforced Stigma: While the series aims to expose the culprits behind the opioid crisis, it could inadvertently stigmatize those struggling with addiction even more by focusing heavily on abuse stories.
  • Misunderstanding Addiction: It’s essential to remember that addiction is a complex issue with multiple contributing factors. A series of this nature can sometimes oversimplify the problem, reducing it to “bad drugs and bad companies,” which is not always the full picture.

The Positive Takeaways

  • Public Awareness: The series highlights the addiction crisis, which could lead to a better general understanding and support for comprehensive addiction treatment programs.
  • Push for Policy Change: With this new exposure, advocacy groups and activists may find it easier to push for addiction treatment and pharmaceutical regulation changes, including safer prescribing practices and better access to addiction treatment services.

Pain as a Commodity: Is Cure a Myth?

“Painkiller” confronts us with a harsh question: Is the pharmaceutical industry invested in curing us, or do they see more value in us as perpetual consumers?

As the series outlines, a complete cure contradicts the business model of chronic treatment. For an industry that profits from our continual suffering, a cure could be seen as a fiscal detriment, not a milestone.

Being More Than Just a Statistic: Advocating for Change

Remembering that we are not mere numbers on a balance sheet is crucial. While emotionally jarring, this series arms us with the awareness needed to advocate for change. Whether participating in patient advocacy groups, writing to your local representatives, or simply starting conversations within your community, the series empowers us to seek a future where treatment is ethical and practical.

A Mighty Note on ‘Painkiller’

“Painkiller” is a multi-layered narrative that intertwines with the lives of those living from chronic pain in complex ways. It mirrors the flaws of an industry and the systemic issues that have commercialized suffering. However, it also serves as a clarion call for change, urging us to participate actively in our health care journey. While the series can be triggering, it’s also enlightening — sparking a necessary dialogue about the ethics of pain management and pain relief in modern medicine.

Watch it if you can, discuss it, share it, but most importantly, let it inspire you to advocate for a more humane, nuanced approach to managing chronic pain. We are not just patients or consumers but stakeholders in a system that urgently needs reform. This series gives us the language, the context, and the urgency to be advocates for that change.

Image via Keri Anderson / Netflix

Originally published: September 1, 2023
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