Nearly everyone in the United States has been touched in some way by the opioid epidemic, including Dr. Amy Sullivan and her family. Her book, Opioid Reckoning – Love, Loss, and Redemption in the Rehab State presents first hand accounts of the families battling to keep their children alive, in spite of a system that has held fast to the tenets of traditional addiction treatment programs.
The author notes that opioid related deaths have become so prevalent in the United States that the overall life expectancy for all Americans has decreased as a result. Between 1999 and 2019, more than 500,000 Americans died from drug overdoses involving opioids.
Dr. Sullivan collected 60 interviews over a four year period for her Minnesota Opioid Project – speaking with embattled mothers like herself, medical and social work professionals, and activists — for their insights and potential solutions.
Opioid Reckoning questions current treatment models, healthcare inequities, and the criminal justice system. In gathering these personal stories, Sullivan confronts the stigma of opioid addiction and offers hope and empathy for anyone affected by this devastating addiction.
Spencer Johnson struggled with his addiction for years before ultimately dying from a heroin overdose in a bathroom at his halfway house. His parents, devastated by the stigma and shame, did everything in their power to help their son.
“Spencer Johnson had a secure and happy childhood. He was born to loving attentive parents . . . the stereotype of illegal drug users being from broken homes, having absent or abusive parents, and raised in abject poverty still exists, but the recent predominance of white, male opioid users with social and economic privilege, loving parents, and ample access to resources has added a new dimension to the history of drug addiction in the United States,” Sullivan writes.
Spencer had initially been prescribed Percocet after a sore throat, and later opiate painkillers after a bout of appendicitis, eventually resorting to heroin which was cheaper, stronger, and readily available. He found success in treatment only when he was finally prescribed Suboxone, but his halfway house would not allow the use of medication to control opioid cravings, in spite of the fact that drugs like Suboxone and Methadone have been very effective at treating heroin and opioid addiction.
“Even if a person wants to quit, the physical and mental cravings, combined with intense and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, are often too difficult to handle without significant medical and psychological help,” Sullivan writes. “Using medications for opioid use disorders was somehow a lesser and morally weaker achievement than complete abstinence.”
Many of the mothers that Sullivan interviewed worked to change the system and Sullivan stood with them. Judy and Bill Rummler, formed the Steve Rummler Hope Network, following their son’s overdose death in 2011. Eventually, they were able to pass legislation for Steve’s Law, the purpose of which was to increase training and access to the opioid antidote Narcan for law enforcement, EMTs, and the general public.
In 2016, Sullivan began teaching “Uses and Abuses: Drugs, Addiction, and Recovery” at Macalaster College. She wanted to change the perception of harm reduction as “bad” in her classroom by bringing in a local harm-reduction professional to train her students to use naloxone, providing each of them with a kit. During the pandemic, she taught the class on line and delivered kits to her students through the mail. In November 2020, she received an email from a student living on campus:
“Thought you would be interested to know that I just revived a guy on the bus with the two vials of naloxone you gave me. It was pretty crazy; he was blue and I just drew up the vials and gave it to him! He revived after the second dose and was up and gone before the paramedics arrived. I just wanted to say thanks for handing out the naloxone in your class.”
Dr. Sullivan’s work on behalf of addiction and treatment is remarkable and Opioid Reckoning offers a glimpse into the faces of the epidemic. With heart and soul and considerable scholarship, Sullivan has written a book that offers hope and help for anyone affected by addiction.
Listen to my interview with Dr. Amy Sullivan about her book Opioid Reckoning on November 25 at 7:00 pm and Saturday, November 27 at 6:00 am on Superior Reads, WTIP 90.7 in Grand Marais, and on the web at wtip.org.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.