Drug overdoses kill more than 64,000 people per year, and are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50. To document the nation’s devastating opioid crisis, TIME sent photographer James Nachtwey and deputy director of photography Paul Moakley across the country to gather stories from the frontlines of the epidemic. The result, The Opioid Diaries, is a visual record of a national emergency and a call to action.
When I was 25, my dad asked me a simple question that ended up changing my life. He asked me if I was happy. At that point, my drug addiction had led me to a place of deep depression and self-hate. I couldn’t get away from the shadow that opioids had cast over my life. My love for making music was gone. My relationships with friends and family were strained at best, and permanently damaged at worst. I spent most of my time in my room with the blinds drawn. The world that I once loved was going on outside without me.
“Are you happy?” The answer was simple, yet the process to attain this estranged happiness seemed impossible in that moment. It took my dad’s question to make me realize how far gone I really was. That act of love and compassion saved my life. After years of trying to get sober on my own, I went to rehab.
When I went to treatment, I learned about my disease for the first time. Until then I didn’t know that I had a disease. As the weeks went by, I started acquiring tools to stay sober, one day at a time. When I got out I became immersed in a recovery community that I rely on to this day. Without a group of people who share my experience, I start slipping back into old behavior and start thinking I can do this on my own. My experience time and time again is that I can’t. My parents’ willingness to show up for me and offer me the chance to go to rehab came from a place of love rather than judgement. It’s that kind of compassion our country needs to fight the current opioid crisis.
There are a lot of misconceptions about addicts and a lot of stigma surrounding addiction. People ask: Why don’t addicts just stop? Why don’t they just give it up? I certainly asked myself those questions when I was addicted, but this is a disease. I had to educate myself about addiction in order to learn compassion for myself. No one wants to be miserable, depressed, suicidal and slowly killing themselves. That’s not a choice that people make; it’s where drugs lead you.
We’ve been conditioned for so long to think of drug addicts as bad people, that somehow addiction is a moral failing or a personal choice. But the truth is addiction can affect anyone. Almost every family in America has been touched by the disease in some way. Our society is at a crucial point and more people are coming forward and being honest about the disease and how it has impacted their lives. And as we learn more about addiction, the stigma around it is decreasing and giving way to compassion.
That’s an important step forward, because stigma helps perpetuate the problem. It prevents policy makers and those in power from focusing on treatment and solutions, and instead puts the focus on punishment. Rather than punitive laws that don’t address the root of the problem, we need to provide more tools to help people get their lives back together, get their kids back, get jobs, be happy and be functioning members of society.
One way to achieve this is to give addicts and their families a platform to share their stories because that’s how we’ll learn compassion for this issue and each other. We have to have these conversations. We have to discuss these stories. We have to discuss the over-incarceration of addicts and the over-prescription of America. We need to mobilize around recovery and restoration, and find ways to get addicts who want help the resources to do so.
These actions will bring about progress and change how we treat those affected by this disease. Without discussion, it’s too easy to ignore the problem, too easy not to care. If our nation can treat addiction with compassion, I think we’re going to see a beautiful transformation, a reorientation toward recovery.
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