I can’t quantify how many times I’ve heard that phrase over the last who knows how many years. Get at least a handful of people gathered talking about the addiction epidemic, and inevitably the words population control bubble up like a ripple from the edge of the conversation somewhere.
I used to let the phrase pass quickly and dismissively. I’d think: conspiracy theory — albeit a completely understandable one.
Back when this whole mess first started what feels like ages ago, I wanted to attribute the epidemic primarily to greed in the pharmaceutical industry. I wanted to think that this greed pushed well-intended, yet flawed thinking in the medical community when it came prescribing opiates and other potent medications.
But years have passed since I came to terms with those perceptions, and the overdose death toll has climbed, including another 185 in the first half of this year. If that pace continues, the grand total for overdose deaths in Maine between 2013 and 2017 will be over 1300.
Other than more DEA agents, increased access to Naloxone, and limitations on prescribing practices, not much has changed over those same years. There’s been no major, hurried push to increase treatment beds or programs throughout Maine. There’s been no expansion of MaineCare to insure more people have access to treatment.
So the ripple’s been hitting me a little harder lately. When a young man brought up the subject of population control in a conversation about the epidemic this week, my thoughts were slower and less dismissive.
I thought: maybe it didn’t start as population control, but the sum total of the inaction of people in power makes it harder and harder not to think of continued overdose deaths that way.
Going about my daily activities makes it harder still to avoid such thoughts. A few weeks ago I’d been thinking about a friend I hadn’t seen around town lately. Within a couple days, I bumped into her coming into the grocery store as I was going out.
I was so happy to see her, but her face melted at the sight of me. Tears came and immediately I knew. I said something like, she didn’t. My friend’s nodded, and we hugged and cried as she recounted her daughter’s overdose death and the weeks since.
Right there in the entryway to the grocery store.
I bumped into yet another friend a couple weeks ago, and when I asked about her grand baby, she said that she and her husband were raising him now because her daughter had relapsed. There’s a similar situation happening in our family, so we swapped stories and laughter in the face of all the challenge and pain.
I think we were at the end of aisle 4, same store.
And this week yet another child of former schoolmates died of an overdose. I had just seen his mom a few months ago, and we had a great time catching up. At that point she had her hands full raising a grandchild of her own, and I’m guessing catching up with her won’t be so fun next time.
I didn’t get that overdose news at the grocery, though. It came as a random snippet in a text from yet another friend updating me about her son’s health and recovery. His struggles with poly-substance addiction have been so intense that in worse times she and I have actually planned what we would talk about if her son were to die.
Thankfully, we’ve never had that conversation.
But I did finally break down and have a legitimate conversation with the young man talking about population control. It happened to be the same day I had learned about my schoolmates’ son and this young man was about the same age and lived in a rural Maine town devastated by the loss of manufacturing.
He talked about how it seemed like most of his former classmates had either gotten mixed up in our current epidemic or were trying to recover from it or had died. He said he was offered drugs all the time and it was hard to escape, but so far he’d managed.
He had a look of sad resignation when he said he was trying to ride it out, wait for it to pass. He talked about the lack of work in his region and how nobody had much to do or to be hopeful about anyway, which made it easier for his peers to succumb to their addictions.
From his view, it was hard not to see the continued, largely unaddressed epidemic as an accepted way to thin out his generation out.
From my view, I didn’t have much to work with to try and convince him otherwise.