“Donna was a bad junkie. Every day she was getting the pills.”
— From “The Death of Donna Whalen,”
by Michael Winter
Michael Winter’s 2010 novel was inspired by a real-life murder in St. John’s in 1993. But one of the most compelling aspects of the story is not the murder itself or the police investigation, but the picture he paints of dysfunctional neighbourhoods so addled by drugs that you were more likely to hear “Pass the Percocets” than “Pass the pepper” at the kitchen table.
It’s fascinating to read about, because it doesn’t affect you directly. It’s like being a tourist in a foreign land, where the customs are bizarre and potentially harmful, but you’re only there to observe and you can pack up and head home whenever you like.
Before reading Winter’s novel, the only experience I had with prescription drugs — apart from the scads of penicillin I took over the course of my childhood — was a knowledge that, in the Dr.-Feel-Good years of the 1970s, some physicians were a little quick to reach for the prescription pad.
And I mean particularly where “women’s issues,” like post-partum depression and menopause, were concerned. So many messy emotions — but ah, there was nothing a little Ativan couldn’t help.
That was then, this is now.
And while nothing has changed for me, in that I still don’t know people who abuse prescription drugs, there are plenty of people who are desperate enough to try to scam doctors to get pills, either for themselves, or to share with friends or to sell on the street.
As Winter writes:
“Iris had to get the pills that Donna wanted and Donna had to get the kind of pills that Iris wanted and they couldn’t be seen together in to the hospital. … Donna told Iris to say she had a toothache and it was really paining and even if it come to the point that she had to cry, and Iris told Donna to say she had the diarrhea really bad and she couldn’t stop going to the bathroom. They could be in there for half the night getting pills.”
What has changed, in St. John’s at least, 20 years since the setting of the novel, is that the people who have to get those pills are no longer ghettoized in certain down-at-heels neighbourhoods.
There are people in that situation in your community — probably more than you think — and there could well come a time when their life could intersect with yours in a way that you’d prefer to avoid, whether through a break-in at your house, a robbery at the gas station where your kid works, or a random act of violence.
I am not saying that everyone with an addiction is a potential criminal. What I am saying is that people with addictions — not just to prescription pills, but to gambling, drinking, street drugs — can find themselves in moments of desperation, moments when they make choices to slake their craving that they might not otherwise make.
That’s not an excuse, it’s the truth.
It’s a truth this province realized when it set up its OxyContin Task Force, and when it established a methadone treatment program to help people get off Oxy.
And it’s a truth that’s staring the province in the face — hard — again now, as the government scrambles to respond to the closure of the Downtown Pharmacy where dozens of methadone patients went for their daily dose.
The lineup of brave folks who had to stand in plain view on the sidewalk in Pleasantville this week, waiting to get their methadone from a temporary location, was proof we don’t have adequate help for addicts in this province.
The province has made inroads — and has won accolades for it — since the task force was struck in December 2003, but the response we’re providing still is not enough.
Twenty years ago, no one in this province would have been willing to talk to the media about the severity of their addiction and their frustrations with treatment options. Those people are brave for doing so today because they have acknowledged their addiction and want to be rid of it, even if in doing so they become reliant on another drug.
These are people who, in many cases, have become addicted to powerful painkillers after being injured, through no fault of their own.
Take their treatment away, or change the procedure, or give them fewer options, and you ramp up their anxiety and the potential for criminal behaviour. These are people who might otherwise be responsible, contributing citizens.
And the problem belongs to all of us.
In the United States, the powers that be are starting to become aware of its scope, and its ramifications.
In a story reported by Chris Hawley for The Associated Press on April 5, the medical director of a chain of drug treatment clinics in New York City said he feared that the sales of prescription pills are soaring in areas where there’s nowhere to go for help once you’re hooked.
As the story noted:
“In Utica, N.Y., Patricia Reynolds has struggled to find treatment after becoming dependent on hydrocodone pills originally prescribed for a broken tailbone.
“The nearest clinics offering Suboxone, an anti-addiction drug, are an hour’s drive away. … And those programs are full and are not accepting new patients, she said.
“‘You can’t have one clinic like that in the whole area,’ Reynolds said. ‘It’s a really sad epidemic. I want people to start talking about it instead of pretending it’s not a problem and hiding.’”
It is an epidemic, folks. And it’s already here.
Pam Frampton is a columnist
and The Telegram’s associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.