I cannot remember reading an essay that has moved me as much as Margaret Talbot’s devastating New Yorker piece on our opioid crisis. The prose is mostly unadorned, because it can be. Many of the stories Talbot recounts are so tragic they need no embellishment; others are so inspiring that they need no amplification.
The essay does more to describe the human and social costs of our opioid epidemic than any other I have read. It is noticeably understated in its diagnosis of the problems. But the essay is even more conspicuous in its silence about a major social player who may have an interest in the lives of those it recounts, namely, the churches. Whether this absence is owing to the author’s oversight, or that of the churches, I cannot say. One hopes it is the former.
Three interconnected thoughts emerged for me while reading, which are as of yet untested for their merit. First, we have been oft warned of late that we are on the cusp of entering into Gilead, the land of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Handmaid’s Tale. Such handwringing is hard to take seriously on its face. But while the visions are not mutually exclusive, reading this made me think that our future is much more likely to be one in which half our country lays about the streets, self-medicating on whatever narcotics they can attain in order to ease their pain and their suffering.
Of course, we are woefully under-equipped to even understand such a social dilemma, in part because we have no sense of history. If we say anything of it at all, we have only critical things to say to the prohibitionists, who saw a similar social problem afoot and worked tirelessly to defeat it. That there is unlikely to be a similar energy toward addressing this crisis is an indication, I think, that we are all implicated in the problem.
And that is my final thought: the crisis is upon all of us, not only those communities which Talbot visited. It is easy to look down patronizingly upon the self-medicating opioid addictions of those who have little to live for, all the while taking a long sip of a caffeinated beverage to sustain ourselves for a long night of work. Caffeine and testosterone — and yes, even cocaine — are acceptable middle and upper-class forms of drug use, and signal a deeply interrelated social disease, namely, a fragmentation of our lives from families and from the communities in which we rest, laugh, and live. Opioids are but the negative corollary, the despairing form of the same exhaustion with life that besets Wall Street. We can none of us be exonerated from their plight; it is our crisis.
It is perhaps this final thought that comes close to identifying why the essay so moved me. After all, who among us who still has a shred of self-awareness has not sometimes felt the kind of hopeless and despair that animates so much of their community’s struggles? Is is not because the stories of those in misery are so far from me that I felt this essay so keenly: it is more because they are so very nearly my own.