Christine Johnson: Vermont can turn the tide on opioids

By CHRISTINE JOHNSON

When I tell people about the Chittenden County Opioid Alliance’s broad mission to reduce the impact of opioids on our communities, there is a predictable response: “Gosh, that sounds overwhelming.”

It’s repeated often that Vermont and the country are in the grips of an opioid epidemic. And while that is indeed the case – 64,000 Americans died of an overdose in 2016, with two-thirds attributable to opioids – the sheer magnitude can leave people feeling powerless to help.

I’m want to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. There is a simple but impactful way we can all contribute to turning the tide in this epidemic.

We’ll do it by helping close the empathy gap that yawns like a chasm between people with substance abuse disorders and society. This gap is characterized by the stubborn and persistent view of addiction as a moral failing.

How can we do it? First, we can respectfully engage people who, through their words and actions, shame and stigmatize addiction – perpetuating the idea that people with substance abuse deserve what they get.

Brian Stevenson, the civil rights attorney who provides legal counsel to death row inmates, has said: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

This maxim of compassion must be applied to people with substance abuse disorder, who may ruin relationships and commit crimes in furtherance of their addiction. They are still deserving of love, respect and human dignity.

That doesn’t mean we can’t hold people accountable for their actions, but accountability doesn’t always have to be punitive, as many prosecutors and criminal justice reformers are starting to show us.

Second, we can check our own impulse to turn away from, ignore – and thereby further isolate – people with substance abuse disorder. Addiction is discomforting to watch from afar, and achingly painful close up, and while it’s important to have boundaries that preserve our own well-being, to the extent we are able, we must stay connected.

Connection is the inverse of loneliness, and in many ways addiction is an affliction of loneliness and isolation.

Addiction also correlates with a rigidity in thought patterns that can rob people of agency. In a sense, addiction is perpetuated through a lack of imagination – an inability to conceive a different life.

When we connect with someone isolated by their addiction, it helps to break the narrowly focused drug-seeking behavior by centering their humanity, and reminding them that they are loved.

In practice this can take many forms, something as simple as smiling when we see a person on the street who appears to be struggling, or asking how they’re doing.

It also means that when you hear of a friend or relative who has an addiction, don’t just say “Oh, that’s a shame,” and move on. Reach out. You don’t need to bring up substance abuse, and you don’t need to assume responsibility for their life. You could simply ask if they’d like to grab lunch – or even just let them know you’re thinking about them.

Calling out stigma and staying connected are small acts, and on their own they won’t end the opioid epidemic.

However, it’s something we can all do every day, and in conjunction with smart policy measures, it will contribute to a healthier culture – one in which opioid addiction is less likely to be a life sentence or a death sentence.

Essex resident Christine Johnson is the executive director of the Chittenden County Opioid Alliance.

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