“There but for the grace of God go I” is a phrase my grandmother and my mother used to use. I think of it every time I read an obituary for someone who died of an overdose, or an article about how many millions of lives have been touched – been hurt – by the opioid epidemic.

Because it’s only sheer, dumb luck that I didn’t become an opioid addict. Really. As an alcoholic – an addict – I am vulnerable to multiple substances. Anything that contains a neurological dopamine trigger can get its hooks in my brain. (You don’t want to know how much coffee I drink.) But if I had, in the past, say, 10 years, had a broken ankle or gotten my wisdom teeth out and had been given a bottle of hydrocodone to deal with the pain – well, my mom probably would have had to write my obituary as well as my father’s. Mine would have said that I was “full of potential.” They all do, when someone dies young.

I recently read The Washington Post’s analysis of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s prescription pill database. Their coverage is really good at breaking down the numbers and showing how big company profits were made off the suffering of small towns and big cities across America. The numbers are heartbreaking, of course, and terrifying, but honestly, if you live in Maine, you probably have a connection to the opioid epidemic. Someone’s face enters your mind when I say the word “overdose.” So the numbers and information published by the Post would just be confirmation to you.

The sentence in the article that really kicked me hard was: “The industry was supposed to self-regulate.” No industry is good at self-regulating unless it ties directly to their profits. And for pharmaceutical companies, the more pills purchased, the more money made, so it is only human to sort of ignore and gloss over the fact that an addiction epidemic was growing. You just look at the numbers on your database, and then look at your 401(k), and then shrug it off. Same with the booze industry, I suspect.

I have complicated feelings about the alcohol industry as a whole. On the one hand, millions of people are able to “drink responsibly” and to enjoy a multitude of liquor products that lots of jobs support. I’m a big fan of what small breweries have done for Maine’s economy, believe me. But on the other hand, there is a large minority for whom alcohol is fatal, both in the long term and the short term. It twists our lives. It will kill us.

And we are left alone to deal with that – the companies that poured their delicious poison down our throats, soothed us with advertisements and statistics and the fact that other people can have a drink, so you should, too – when alcoholics discover that they cannot stop drinking when it’s time to go home, we are blamed for it. We are told we are weak, and sloppy, and just aren’t trying hard enough. People who profit off our pain say that we simply weren’t “responsible.”

There are plenty of lawsuits winding their way through our court system, trying to get pharmaceutical companies to admit their culpability and get some assistance for treatment programs – to get a little help picking up the pieces that the pills left behind. It might work. The Big Tobacco settlement gives me hope. But I’m a millennial, so what is closer in my mind is the 2008 Wall Street crash. You may also have noticed that our economy tanked and nobody went to jail for it. (And people wonder why my generation has become skeptical of capitalism.)

A group of CEOs representing 192 of the country’s biggest companies recently put out a statement saying that maximizing shareholder profits can no longer be the sole goal of companies and corporations – that they have to balance profits with needs of employees, the greater community, and other stakeholders (which is a different thing than a shareholder, of course). This is a good start, but boy, I wish they had thought of it a few decades ago. Because if there is one thing we can learn, as a society, from this epidemic, which started with prescription pills and ended many lives with black market heroin, it is that some things are more important than quarterly profits. By God, people like me are more important than quarterly profits, and the lives of addicts are more than just the cost of doing business.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:

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Twitter: mainemillennial


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