Understanding addiction from afar
*Editor’s note: The source’s name for this story has been changed due to the sensitivity of this report.
Southeast senior Jane Smith is studying political science and social work and spent most of her adolescent life around people abusing or misusing opioids.
While she never used drugs herself, Smith grew up in an environment where she said it was common to see her peers actively use drugs. She said she has known upwards of 10 people from high school who have died of mostly heroin-related drug overdoses.
A native to St. Charles, Missouri, Smith is the daughter of a social worker and a lawyer and said she grew up comfortably. Despite her family’s financial stability, Smith said her area in St. Charles was made up of diverse demographics, and the drug problem drew no lines.
But substance use disorder hits closer to home for Smith than just at the peer level. Once a prominent lawyer in the St. Charles area, her grandfather retired several years ago and has since developed a new substance use disorder, Smith said. Long before she was “even a thought,” Smith said her grandfather abused substances. But where his vice used to be alcoholism, now his drug of choice is prescription pain medication.
Smith said her grandfather, now 65, stopped drinking when she was somewhere between the ages of 12 and 13. Because he was a former alcoholic, Smith said he had a higher tolerance for other substances and was therefore much more susceptible to substance use disorder.
In the last five years, her grandfather has overdosed twice on painkillers.
When he was a young man, Smith said her grandfather had a back injury. The pain from that injury is something he still lives with today, and Smith said her grandmother was picking up more than $500 worth of painkillers for him each week.
“He’s an addict, and he was actively knowing he was abusing pain pills,” Smith said. “My mom was like, ‘Hey, this is ridiculous, you’re gonna kill yourself.’”
Since then, her mother has taken control of her grandfather’s situation and switched him from a local doctor in St. Charles to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. Smith said they have been weaning her grandfather off painkillers, and “his health has only gotten better.”
Smith attributes much of her grandfather’s addiction to painkillers to the overprescribing habits of his former doctor.
“His tolerance is just too high but he didn’t have a doctor who said, ‘Hey, listen, I know you’re in a lot of pain, but there’s no reason you need to be on this many painkillers. It’s a concerning amount,’” Smith said. “His doctor never did that, just kept prescribing him.”
Watching her grandfather battle with his opioid addiction was not as emotionally traumatic for Smith as it may seem. She said both of her parents’ careers were in social work during her formative years, so drugs were always a “casual topic” in her family.
She said her parents’ honesty and openness about drugs, a traditionally taboo topic, helped her keep from being judgemental toward her peers who were “actively using” substances. It also gave her the wisdom to know when to stay out of dangerous situations.
“My parents were … super understanding, never judgemental, but because of what we were surrounded by, they set a very clear expectation,” Smith said. “It was kinda like, you know, ‘We love you no matter what and we know that not all drugs are bad, but we don’t use them in this house because it can very easily become a problem.’”
Smith said her genetic predisposition for addiction increased fourfold her chances of becoming a person with substance disorder. That alone was enough to scare her out of ever trying them.
Being a family member of someone dealing with substance use disorder, Smith said, can be highly frustrating, noting drug addicts are by nature “kind of selfish...even if they’re not trying to be malicious.”
That selfishness is what she said makes it hard to be a friend or family member to a person with an addiction.
“Once somebody is an addict for so long, no matter how much you love them, it’s just frustrating. Addiction is annoying,” Smith said.
Understanding the biology behind her grandfather’s substance use disorder is the way Smith said she copes with that frustration.
Because her grandfather began taking painkillers for an injury in his 30s and still takes them more than three decades later, Smith said she knows his tolerance for pain medication is simply much higher than that of a non-addicted person.
People with substance use disorder, she added, respond to other drugs better than any other person. Smith noted her grandfather was essentially predisposed to become an addict after his alcoholism.
“Abstinence is, in a lot of ways, a real luxury,” Smith said.
Smith emphasized the point that the opioid epidemic is not a new problem, but instead it’s just now receiving adequate attention in society.
“There have been drug epidemics in this country forever. Like in the 80s and 90s, black people were dying on the streets left and right due to a crack epidemic,” Smith said. “When that crack epidemic happened, we created the ‘War on Drugs,’ and whenever white kids started getting addicted to heroin, all of a sudden we had an opioid crisis and everyone feels bad for drug addicts.”
As someone headed into a career field with intent to use her educational background in both political science and social work, Smith knows how important policy is in addressing the epidemic from a historical standpoint.
“Specifically when it comes to drug policy, we measure ‘poor people drugs’ differently than we measure ‘rich people drugs,’” Smith said.
And while developing ways to help combat the epidemic are important, the issue itself is not new, and Smith said it shouldn’t be treated as such.
“It’s kind of disrespectful to people who have been living in north St. Louis city who have been dying for 70 years from drug addiction and then all of a sudden us kids in St. Charles city start getting into drugs and within five years we have, you know, drug court and policies and implementation and drug classes and classes that they never got over there,” Smith said.
One way Smith said the epidemic can be combated is through more open conversations in homes about drugs, even though it may be an uncomfortable subject.
She noted substance use disorder is a preventable disease, but Smith said “it’s not preventable for everyone.” While some children grow up in households where drugs are never a topic of conversation around the dinner table, others are influenced by their parents at young ages to try dangerous and harmful substances.
“[Parents] could save their kids’ lives by just talking about it once,” Smith said. “Or, they could save someone else’s life by teaching their kids not to judge drug addicts.”