We Didn’t Start the Fire: The Downplayed Fuel of Today’s Opioid Epidemic

In a Wendy’s bathroom on Atlanta’s University Avenue, I found a young woman no older than me hunched over unconscious in the next stall. I listened, paralyzed as the employees stood above her. “She done shot herself up. That’s what they be doin’ now.” She didn’t look like a user, just like my cousin, a well-raised, successful Georgia Southern alumni who passed away from a heroin overdose years ago didn’t.

Passing exit 244 when I drive through Atlanta has disturbed me since as I question each time whether the girl from the bathroom stall lived. It was because she resembled someone I could have spent time with, someone that could have been a friend. Her presentation wasn’t that of a slum wandering The Bluff with meth scars and a trash bag full of clothes, a hot-pink bra strap sticking out of a dirty white t-shirt.

Somehow, drug abuse and overdose don’t rattle us and eat at our conscience until they happen to someone similar enough to us. How could this be a surprise though, in a society that a terrorist attack only hurts when it kills those in an allied country- a society that doesn’t budge when a stripper is the victim of rape?

Today’s Opioid Epidemic

The opiate-induced drowning of much of today’s young construct, especially in the Greater Atlanta area, is often blamed on the government and doctors with little limits to how much they can prescribe.

According to the CDC, the number of opiate-related deaths has increased by more than five times the number in 1999. The government could take actions, but they’d be tough to accomplish, especially in a region painted with right-wing political ideology that often stands on the idea of “to each their own.”

Belonging to the most monitored demographic in the current opioid epidemic, I’ve realized there is more to it. There are other parties to be held accountable than the government, and I’m not sure whether the government has much of a role at all. There is something deeper damaging those destroyed by these drugs and what leads them there.

An investigative series by 11Alive brought focus to “The Triangle,” an area with an “alarming” rate of growth in heroin use in metro Atlanta, marked by three cities and the region within.

I grew up in Alpharetta, a large suburb within the “triangle.” Just like any stereotypical suburb, most high school kids I knew indulged in drinks and the occasional smoke at house parties. But there were always those few that would make a gradual but seemingly sudden shift from the “norm” to someone who was never satisfied enough with drinks and immature fun. By the time anyone noticed, they were too far gone. For the heroin users, it almost always began with opiates.

A Damned Generation

For the working fathers prescribed painkillers after surgeries and the mothers prescribed them following C-section procedures, dependency could be directly caused by the doctor who overlooked the capability of the drug and of individuals to control their use of it. But I want to discuss what is happening to the young adults- the late teens and early twenty-something’s who were never prescribed a thing. Why the immense rise in prescription drug abuse among young people over the years?

I blame it on being raised in a version of America that gives nothing at all but too much at the same time. I blame it on being brought up and conditioned by a society that promotes acceptance while also enforcing perfection. All of this topped off with a culture that normalizes drug use- a recipe appetizing to the population of unsatisfied, over privileged but under noticed millennials.

But it’s not all our fault. I remember watching idly as drugs became normalized- not the illegal drugs, but the ones disguised by a mask of regularity that people confused with harmlessness. I remember when stimulants prescribed for ADHD went from being embarrassing to being cool, and after that transformed reputation, all the parents wanted their kids to have them. Vyvanse became the drug equivalent of some designer clothing brand.

I remember seeing 10th graders look like they were pushing through quicksand to drag their feet into class after taking Xanax bars found in the medicine cabinet in their kitchens at home. But don’t be shocked. It was normalized long before this. It was normalized when their stay-at-home mothers became prescribed to a cocktail of anxiety meds in order to make it through their judgment-ridden cultural circles and boredom- paired with a glass of Chardonnay, of course.

The Tipping Point

A couple years ago, I reconnected with a current inmate I was somewhat acquainted with in high school. I maintained contact with him for months, delving into his experiences locked up and asking how being raised in “the triangle” may have played a role. I wanted to know how he got to that point. The former high school football player with several well-rounded friends and a wholesome upbringing ended up in and out of jail, robbing banks and cashing forged checks for the next fix.

Most of those who associated with him placed him in a separate category from us the moment he became an opiate user, as anyone would. We couldn’t relate, but we were never much different. His drug use didn’t begin with a doctor’s order. Instead, from people who target millennials from affluent, detached suburban communities whose residents appear lost and in search of something to fill the void that comes with being raised in a shallow age of American culture. How is it a shock that numbing drugs have increased in use in a place where intolerance is the only option because tolerance would drive anyone mad?

Whether it be too much pressure or having so little expectations from generations above that there is little to aim for, something has corrupted young drug users long before their first pill. Before falling desperately to the poisonous allure of addictive drugs, millennials are victimized by lack of fulfillment and lack of substance. Likely, it seems to be the worst in those rich affluent areas where kids are raised watching their parents unfulfilled and overprescribed.

And what does one do when drugs are normalized and society has little capacity for whining- they find an out. And often once they realize the “out” is the exact opposite- a trap- it’s too late.