We spent last week considering things we do not see.
People and problems that are invisible to us.
This week we are going to work on seeing something: the opioid crisis.
Just after class last week, I read this take from Andrew Sullivan, which grabbed me, in part, because he framed the crisis with the same “invisibility” frame we discussed:
Those of us who lived through the AIDS epidemic retain one singular memory: The plague that ravaged our lives was largely invisible to others. The epidemic was so concentrated for a while in a gay male subculture —often itself veiled by various closet doors — that straight people without gay family members or friends couldn’t see it. There was blanket media coverage, of course. But in your everyday life, if you were straight, you could live quite easily in the 1990s without coming across someone with AIDS. While gay men were living in a medieval landscape of constant disease and death, many others carried on in safe, medical modernity, that elysian period in human history when most diseases can at least be treated, if not cured.
It occurred to me reading this reported essay by Christopher Caldwell that the opioid epidemic is the new AIDS in this respect. Its toll in one demographic — mostly white, working-class, and rural — vastly outweighs its impact among urbanites. For many of us in the elite, it’s quite possible to live our daily lives and have no connection to this devastation. And yet its ever-increasing scope, as you travel a few hours into rural America, is jaw-dropping: 52,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2015. That’s more deaths than the peak year for AIDS, which was 51,000 in 1995, before it fell in the next two years. The bulk of today’s human toll is related to opioid, heroin, and fentanyl abuse. And unlike AIDS in 1995, there’s no reason to think the worst is now over.
In the article, the author discusses the anesthesiologist Russell Portenoy. We’ll have Curtis Markham as our special guest this week, and he shared with me this article about that anesthesiologist’s change of tune regarding opioid use. Curtis told me that this anesthesiologist’s work had been a precipitator that would become the “perfect storm” of the opioid crisis.
We’ll work together to understand the different precipitators and the state of the crisis now. In other words, we’ll do the work of opening our eyes to what has been in front of us for some time now. Curtis will help us, and I look forward to seeing you all in the library at 9:15 on Sunday.