‘Dopesick’ Nails the Pain in All of Us

At the end of Dopesick, the spellbinding eight-part series about the opioid epidemic on Hulu, Michael Keaton’s character, a doctor struggling with addiction, gives a riveting speech on pain:

There’s some kind of pain in a lot of us, all of us, that we just don’t want to feel anymore. The further we fall into addiction and pain says to us: Hell, it’d be better off just feeling nothing at all, until we go numb and our souls go numb. Now we got a real problem. You know, pain is just pain. Not good, not bad. Just part of being human being and sometimes good can come out of it, if we’re brave enough and willing to go a little deeper work our way through it. Try to overcome it. Well, we just might find our better selves. 

The series, which was released in October 2021, illuminates the essential forces of greed, corruption, and our troubled relationship with pain behind the epidemic that’s killed over a million Americans, more than Covid, since Purdue Pharma launched an opiate medication called OxyContin in 1996.

Purdue, enabled by corrupt government regulators and the medical establishment, made billions by selling the notion that a pill made of the same stuff as opium and heroin, might be used to treat common ailments like sprains and headaches. It sounds like a crazy proposition, but America, a nation that loves to pretend that humans might live free of tragedy, fell for it.

And the problem got worse during the Covid pandemic, as isolation, depression and economic uncertainty increased so-called deaths of despair. The data the CDC released in November is shocking. For the 12 months ending in April, here’s the number of drug overdose deaths in the U.S.:

2020-2021: 100,306 

2019-2020: 78,056 

2018-2019: 56,064

In West Virginia, deaths increased 62% to 1,300. Although opioid prescriptions have declined, record amounts of illegal fentanyl are killing people. “The amount of illegal fentanyl in our country has risen to an unprecedented level this year alone,” said Anne Milgram, an administrator with the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to WVPB.

There has been great journalism about the opioid epidemic, including the books Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy, Dreamland by Sam Quinones, and Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe. And documentaries Crime of the Century on HBO, and Recovery Boys on Netflix. Like many journalists, I’ve written about opioids. For America Magazine, I wrote about hybrid treatment programs that combine Suboxone and group therapy. And for a couple years, I wrote for an online magazine called Opioid Watch, edited by Roger Parloff.

But journalism’s problem in America these days isn’t a lack of good reporting, but finding a mass audience for it. What impressed me about Dopesick was how Macy, showrunner Danny Strong, director Barry Levinson, and their team turned journalism into brilliant popular fiction. They distilled a complex narrative into a tight script, and archetypal characters like Keaton’s, young people who crash and burn on opioids, sleazy sales reps for OxyContin’s manufacturer Purdue Pharma, and, of course, the criminal family that controlled Purdue, the Sacklers, who saw a chance to subvert the fundamental human relationship and make a buck. There’s a storytelling art here we can all learn from.

In Moundsville (PBS), we chose to not focus on opioids. In 2017, WVU ranked Marshall County 38th out of West Virginia’s 55 counties in drug overdose deaths. It had five in 2017, and six in 2016. And we wanted to focus on the economic context that enabled the opioid epidemic. In the movie, Rose Hart explains that some young people are not able to work “because they have an addictions problem.”

Opioids might not be everybody’s problem, but, as Keaton’s speech suggests, pain is. If we don’t go toward what hurts us, and look at it, and take the risk to suffer from it, we’re just taking a different way out. That’s what great journalism and TV shows like Dopesick do. And that struggle is the same for all of us.

John W. Miller.

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