Monday, November 6, 2017

Pain Revolution

Most everyone around me was there for extra credit.

It was a full house, orchestra and balcony, at the Singleton Center, plus an overflow room at Cabell Library. My guess was that a lot of freshmen are already in need of a bit of grade enhancement.

We were all there for the Common Book lecture by Sam Quinones, author of "Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic." Unlike the incoming class, I hadn't read the book, although I have my doubts that all the 18 year olds around me had, either.

Behind me, a student said that his mother had wanted to come to this. "If my Mom knew about it, she would have, too," her companion assured him. Taking on a high-pitched voice, he went on, "It sounds very interesting!" Does everyone who imitates their mother do it in an unnaturally high register?

My seatmate was a young woman, originally from Chesterfield and now living in a dorm on the medical campus, who'd come for extra credit in her English and Critical Thinking class. She was still adjusting to city life and having strangers like me randomly talk to her, but she gamely answered my questions anyway.

When I asked her about music (her first show was Parachute and she was thrilled I knew of them), she couldn't think of any bands she liked and instead asked what I liked. When I began naming off bands, she took out her Moleskin and began writing down band names earnestly. It was adorable.

After an interminable introduction thanking everyone but the janitor at VCU, the talk finally got underway.

Quinones' book was a heavy one, making it all the better when he wasn't dwelling on the direct link between Oxycontin being over-prescribed and addicts eventually turning to black tar heroin as a cost-saving means. Like when he said before he'd researched this book, all his knowledge of heroin came from movies like "Serpico" and "The French Connection."

"You should watch them!" he advised the room. Since Q and I were of similar generations, I already had. "Back then, dealers used pay phones and pagers, which for you first year students, is how criminals used to communicate."

Did I hear the slightest hint of condescension in that statement? I think I did.

He chronicled the factors that made up the perfect storm we find ourselves in today (mass overdoses), listing out the development by Purdue Pharma of Oxycontin in 1996, the subsequent tripling of the number of pharmaceutical reps (including lots of attractive women) and a shift in patient perspective that no American had to be in pain anymore.

Just tell the doctor where it hurts, he'll hand over the pills and god bless Amurica.

The only problem with that scenario, he told us, was that eventually doctors wouldn't keep prescribing it, or it got too expensive for middle America. That problem was soon nicely solved by small town Mexicans willing to deliver black tar heroin in un-inflated balloons right to your door, like pizza, but with more nodding off.

Talk about convenient...and way cheaper.

Best of all, it was a violence-free drug trade because all the Mexicans were from the same small town and planning to move back, so no one wanted to shoot someone they knew.

Where Quinones got really interesting was in his hypotheses about why by the new century everyone wanted to be medicated: lack of connection with other humans. He cited kids who aren't allowed to play outside and parents who over-protected kids and never let them learn from life. He pointed the finger at children being given trophies just for showing up and then not getting that kind of attention once they were out in the real world.

Of course he called out cell phones and social media. Especially impressive was his rant against trigger warnings. "First year students, do not ever ask for a trigger warning!" he shouted. "The whole reason you go to college is to be disturbed!"

Preach it, brother.

Pointing out that Americans wind up dangerously separate, whether in poverty or in affluence, he likened 24-hour cable news to heroin for how it numbs people.

Then there was his story of how his mother would stand on the front lawn and ring a bell at 6:00 every night and he and his brothers would scurry home when they heard it. "She had no idea where we were or where we'd been," he said. Older heads nodded, remembering the same sort of rituals growing up, while the students looked amazed or uncomfortable.

"Isolation is heroin's natural habitat," he said. "The antidote to heroin is community."

If it was a coded trigger warning, I don't think the students got it. But, hey, they did get their extra credit trophies.

In other news, we're doomed.

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