Living in Denial About the Overdose Crisis

By Ann Marie Gaudon, Guest Columnist

Most of us know that denial of reality exists, but why is this so? How can humans with the ability to consider, evaluate, analyze and resolve complex problems ignore the facts? Even when ignoring the truth might lead to disastrous results?

Conceived by Sigmund Freud as a defense mechanism (to “defend” us against that which we do not want to feel), denial has been a concept for many decades. To over-simplify the premise, it’s a belief that something is either true or false when the facts say otherwise. Why would we do this? It’s because people experience a broad range of powerful emotions and intentions, such as greed, pride, revenge, fear, desire and a need for status – just to name a few. The have a strong influence over our ability to interpret facts.

When the Canadian government introduced the 2017 Canadian Guideline for Opioid Therapy, the creators were in denial. They ignored medical facts about chronic pain and turned pain sufferers into sacrificial lambs for people abusing illicit opioids. Patients and doctors tried to tell the truth but were not allowed a seat at the table with the so-called “experts.”

Chronic pain patients have never, ever, had their pain needs met and now they fare much worse. They are in more pain and experience more death and disability due to forced tapering and suicide.

Deniers yell loud and long that opioid pain medications are not effective, dangerous, addictive and will kill you in the end. Except that the evidence does not support that. Those with the worst pain have necessarily taken opioid medications to cope. It was their strongest weapon and were usually taken without danger, addiction or death. Opioids gave them effective pain relief that helped them regain function in everyday life.  Deniers will neither believe nor admit to this.

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Let’s take a look at some of the strong influences which spur deniers to ignore the facts. We can see through many interviews and articles that McMaster University’s chosen group for creating the Canadian guideline enjoyed inflated reputations as “progressive thought leaders” who were “experts in pain management.” Add in the prestige and desire for status that comes from speaking engagements, media interviews, and more committees to participate in. Imagine the pride and prestige from conducting more studies (despite knowing little about the study area), and let’s not forget the enormous sums of monies paid to them by our government.

Greed, desire and a need for status can easily veto reality. So can feelings of morality and “doing the right thing” for people, while living under the fictitious perception that they are making positive inroads into addiction and overdose deaths while saving chronic pain patients from themselves.

In the real world, what has been the impact of the guideline on addiction? Nothing.

What has been the impact on pain patients? Devastation.

Most people can’t seem to figure out why the very same dreadful outcomes keep happening until they are knee-deep in it. Health Canada said this week that over 4,000 Canadians died from drug overdoses in 2017, the most ever. Most of those deaths – 72 percent – were caused by illicit fentanyl, not prescription pain medication.

Jordan Westfall, President of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs, was bang on when he wrote in the Huffington Post that “it should shame this country to no end that our federal government is still afraid to see this epidemic for what it is in reality… What’s killing people is drug overdose and an apathetic government.”

May I add that what has never been killing people are chronic pain patients and their medications. Remorse and shame are powerful motivators for living in denial. Deniers continue to believe that punishing patients will somehow decrease the alarming rate of overdose deaths.

Chronic pain patients have always known the emperor has no clothes. It is a fact that all over North America prescriptions for opioids continue to go down, while overdose deaths continue to go up.  Does this suggest a statistically significant relationship between prescription analgesics and overdose deaths?  Yet the deniers continue with the same old agenda, despite the disastrous situation they have created.

There is an annoying little fact about denial. It doesn’t work in the long-term. Reality always wins out and when that happens, the next step for the deniers will be to place misdirected blame onto someone else. Count on it. It’s already happening. Doctors put the blame on the guideline’s creators and the creators reply, “No, no, no…it’s the doctors who have misunderstood the guideline.”

Here’s a message to the Canadian government and to the plethora of advisory groups, committees, response teams, et cetera and ad nauseam that are funded with taxpayers’ money to deny the facts:

When you are consistently creating the same disastrous outcome over and over again, you are in denial. And if this shameful situation continues, it will only lead to more suffering and deaths.

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Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for 33 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit her website.

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