I’m going to hate that this is my opening paragraph and I’ll tell you why in a minute. But, for the sake of starting this, let’s just get it over with: another person from my hometown recently died from a drug overdose.
There was no big overlap in our lives. He graduated from our high school four years before I did. I didn’t know his family and he was not part of the same groups as me. But it didn’t really matter. My heart hurt for his family. My heart hurt for his friends and my heart hurt for his life cut short. My heart hurt in a way that would make people accuse me of being unnecessarily sensitive. I was holding back tears for someone I had never met. I was mourning a face I was seeing for the first time in an obituary.
But there was something that caught my eye. For the first time in my life – for the first obituary in an absurdly long list of obituaries that I’ve read – I read that he had died, “after a well-fought battle with addiction.”
He died after a well-fought battle with addiction. A battle with addiction. I’ve lost count of the number of obituaries I’ve read where the person had died from something addiction-related. This was the first time I had ever seen that kind of phrasing.
What if this approach to describing an addiction-related death were the rule, not the exception? What would happen if we dropped the euphemisms – or if we stopped omitting the cause of death entirely, afraid that people wouldn’t show sympathy if they knew the truth?
What if we labeled these overdose deaths what they actually are: a lost battle with addiction?
I know I’ve gone on spiels like this before. After Robin Williams’s passing, I said that we needed to start seeing suicide as a lost battle with depression. And, while I’ll be the first to admit that the phrase “lost their battle” is problematic (making it sound like the onus was on the patient to “beat” it, or that they would’ve been guaranteed a win if they had just fought harder), to phrase that kind of death as a lost battle is lightyears better than what we have right now.
What would happen if we stopped acting like addicts got what they deserve? What would happen if we finally let go out some seriously outdated views on things like addiction and finally looked at them the way they are supposed to be looked at?
We still have such specific attitudes and value judgments about addiction. We scroll past the parts about genetic predispositions (which accounts for over half of all addictions cases) and past the parts about neurological rewiring. We deliberately turn our backs on the reality of the situation. Instead, we look at the full spectrum of diseases and label people the victim in one, but a perpetrator in the other.
Some are even hesitant to call addiction a disease in the first place.
It reminds me of a Mitch Hedburg joke: Alcoholism is a disease, but it’s the only disease you can get yelled at for. While every disease will have it’s own varying shades and layers to it – and while every patient will react to their individual illness in different ways – the fact remains that the tone shifts when you find out someone is struggling with addiction. Dammit Otto, you’re an alcoholic. Dammit Otto, you have lupus.
Ironically, Mitch Hedburg would lose his own battle in 2005.
So let’s get back to my opening paragraph. What feeling does, “He died of an overdose” usually elicit? Maybe we’re sad. Maybe we’re angry. Maybe we think he had it coming. Either way, we get a very set image in our head: he took too many drugs, his body couldn’t handle it, and he died because of it. We gloss over a history of addiction and focus on one specific action, as if he carelessly went bungee jumping without checking the cord and hit the ground instead.
Dammit Otto, you did this to yourself.
We tiptoe around the subject. We use euphemisms. We omit and lie with the truth. She died in her sleep – meaning she was unconscious on her bed when she died. And all this does is cement a lot of old and outdated attitudes. It keeps the taboo and the stigma preserved, making it just that much harder to solve a very real problem.
Some argue that, had we recognized addiction as a disease from the very beginning, we’d be upwards of 40 years ahead in research and treatment. Think about that. Think about the medical world in 1975. Think of how antiquated and outdated almost every method is. Imagine being able to look on how we treat addiction today as if it were how we did things back in 1975. Where would be today? How many obituaries would we be reading for men and women who ultimately lost their battles with addiction?
Sometimes I feel like a broken record. I’ve already wrote, downright begged, for us to actively change how we go about addiction. And I hate that this time, much like the last time, it was all inspired by yet another death. Another obituary, another part of a frightening trend. But think about it: where would we be if we replaced all of the euphemisms and omissions? Where would we be if we started seeing overdose deaths as a lost battle?
Maybe it wouldn’t do much. Maybe it would be a pointless change in the ever-evolving world of semantics. Or maybe it would be just enough to rethink how we go about addiction. Maybe for a brief second, a flickering moment as we read “he lost his battle,” instead of “he ODed.” Maybe it would be just long enough that we understand that it’s an illness. That, like many illnesses, you can be born with a predisposition for it. That, like many illnesses, it can chemically change you. That, like every illnesses out there, it’s not something you can overcome by telling yourself to get over it, ignoring whatever few resources we have out there.
More people die every day from overdoses than they do from car crashes and I’m exhausted from the sheer number of obituaries for people in my hometown, for people that I once knew, for people that those I love once knew. Words are a powerful force. Maybe it’s time to see what one little change can do.