The Addict is Not Our Enemy

By Fred Kaeser, Guest Columnist

A number of people in chronic pain support the plight of those with addiction. Yet, over the past year and a half, I have read any number of derogatory statements and comments here on Pain News Network and on its corresponding Facebook page about people who are dealing and struggling with addiction.

Even a cursory review of the comment section on different articles will reveal rather quickly any number of folks who are dismissive of those dealing with addiction. Some express a real hatred.

One person actually suggested letting “all the druggies overdose, one by one.”

Another laments that “addicts can't die quick enough for me.”

Some express a sort of jealousy over addicts getting better treatment than they: “It's good to be an addict" and "Maybe I'd be better off being an addict.”

And then there are those who got all shook up over Prince's overdose, not so much from his death, but because it was linked to an opioid and that it might make it harder for them to obtain their own opioid medications.

And to think these comments come from the same people who beg others to better understand and accept their own need for better pain care!

It wasn't very long ago that the "drug addict" was scorned and forgotten: the druggie on the dark-lit street corner or the drunk in the back-alley. Pretty much neglected and left to fend for themselves.

But that started to change in the '70s and '80s, and nowadays the person suffering from addiction is recognized as someone who suffers from a very complex disease, is quite sick, and struggles to access the necessary care in order to recover. Societal attitudes towards those with an addiction now reflect empathy and a desire to help, as opposed to denunciation and dismissiveness.

We chronic pain patients are looking for the same acceptance and understanding that addicts were desperately seeking just a few short years ago. And that struggle took many, many decades, one might say centuries, to achieve. Our struggle is similar, and my guess is if we keep our eyes and focus on reasonable and rational argument, we too will achieve success in our struggle to obtain acceptable pain care and understanding.

But if some of us continue to see the enemy as the person who has an addiction, our fight for justice will suffer and be delayed.

Why? Because the addict is not very different from us.  Irrespective of the reason why a drug or substance user becomes addicted, the addict just wants to feel better, just like us. The addict is sick, just like us. The addict wants relief from pain, just like us. Perhaps not from physical pain, but emotional and psychic pain. The addict wants proper medication, just like us. The addict needs help and assistance, just like us.

And sometimes the pain patient is the addict. Sometimes we are one in the same. A recent review of 38 research reports pegs the addiction rate among chronic pain patients at 10 percent. From a genetic predisposition standpoint, we must presume that some addicts have become addicted just because of their genes, just like some of us.

No one with an addiction started out wanting to become addicted, just like none of us wanted chronic pain. And while our government is trying to figure out how to minimize the spread of opioid addiction, it is not the addict's fault as to how it has decided to that.

In many ways those suffering from addiction are not very different from us who suffer from chronic pain. We both struggle for acceptance, we both require empathy and understanding from the world around us, and we both require treatment and proper care to lead better and more productive lives.

But, I firmly believe that as long as there are those of us in chronic pain who feel compelled to ridicule and demean those who are addicted, that we will only delay our own quest to receive the empathy we so justly deserve in our journey towards adequate pain care.

Empathy breeds empathy, and if we expect it for ourselves, we must be willing to extend it to others. And that includes the addict. 

Fred Kaeser, Ed.D, is the former Director of Health for the NYC Public Schools. He suffers from osteoarthritis, stenosis, spondylosis and other chronic spinal problems.

Fred taught at New York University and is the author of What Your Child Needs to Know About Sex (and When): A Straight Talking Guide for Parents.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.