How I came to see just how widespread addiction really is in my community

I had the chance a couple weeks ago to be one of nearly 400 people to attend the One Life Project at the Cross center in Bangor for a brainstorming session about Maine’s growing opiate epidemic. (If you weren’t one of the 400 people there, you can read some of the ideas that were generated in this BDN article.) The conversations I had that evening were a refreshing change, yet I still left feeling a little bit heartbroken. I know that seems like a disconnect, so let me explain.

As someone who works in health care, our conversations about opioid use disorder are somewhat in a bubble — focused on prevention and harm reduction, treatment and recovery. For me, sometimes it’s focused on state and federal legislation and payment reform around treatment services. So, to have the chance to sit down with folks outside of health care gave me the opportunity to realize what’s happening in everyone else’s bubble. It was a good reminder of the big picture: Bubbles overlap. That was the refreshing part. Unfortunately, a look at the big picture made the heartbreaking impact of opioid use disorder on my community even more evident.

Attendees at the One Life Project May 4 at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. (Micky Bedell | BDN)

Attendees at the One Life Project May 4 at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. (Micky Bedell | BDN)

Addiction walks among us. It’s not something that just happens to “those people” — the stereotypical guy under the bridge with a needle hanging out of his arm. The face of addiction in our community is our son, daughter, grandmother, neighbor, friend or co-worker. Addiction does not discriminate. It doesn’t care about your race or gender. It doesn’t care what side of the railroad tracks you are from. Addiction doesn’t care.

Yet, our community does. Everyone I spoke with at the One Life event — and I mean everyone, which is why I think it struck me — talked about attending because of someone they knew and cared about who had struggled with a substance use disorder. In a room of nearly 400 people, it was obvious that it’s not just the person with addiction who deals with the substance use disorder. Those around them suffer, too. It may have been the largest ripple effect I have ever witnessed.

So, when we debate the use of Narcan, or the need for social detox, or whether medication-assisted treatment is just replacing one drug for another (it’s not, but that’s a blog post topic for another day), don’t let yourself get caught in your bubble. Find empathy. Addiction walks among us.

And whether or not it’s someone you know and care about, or the guy down the street who waves when you head out to work every morning, isn’t that life worth saving? For their sake and for the sake of their families? Because when I watch the plight of the kiwi in the video below (often used to illustrate the devastating reality of addiction), if that was the plight of my loved one or a complete stranger, I’d want whatever path to recovery might be available to them. They might not take it, but I’d still want them to have the chance.