Heroin and the Fragile Beast

I reckon it’s easy to just blow this off as something that happens in other places to other people, but the fact that heroin use is so prevalent, and on the rise, is telling for a couple of reasons.

First, it reinforces that we’re fallible creatures with serious flaws and that none of us are above certain biological predispositions. As human beings, we are susceptible to addiction of certain chemicals such as alcohol, nicotine, coffee, heroin, etc. Add to this that there are socio-psychological addictions like lust, greed, drama, money, etc., and it’s a wonder we ever make it to the end of our lives unscathed. I’d imagine few of us do.

But there’s something else. Something more sinister at work here when it comes to these drugs that we know can ensnare us into addiction, or death, before we even try them that first time — a lack of hope.

People are so desperate to escape their own realities that they willingly risk their lives to do so. Unlike the idea of peer pressure that accompanies that first cigarette or beer as teenagers, people literally gamble with their lives the first time they try heroin — knowing that there’s a good chance they can become addicted quickly, or even die. And for what? A rush? A few hours of escape? I can’t imagine it’s peer pressure that makes people do it. No, it’s something darker.

Here’s a picture of two parents who overdosed on heroin last week with their child in the backseat.


Many years ago when I was freshly sober, there were moments that would creep in and whisper one drink won’t kill you. Only, it would. Eventually. To beat back those malevolent thoughts I had to think about my disease in very simple terms. Alcohol wanted me dead. Period. But I was too smart to actually believe that an inanimate thing like alcohol had a motive. So I simplified things. Once I accepted that I was an alcoholic, abstinence meant life, and consumption meant death. Thus, abstinence = good, and consumption = bad. But still, that wasn’t enough. I had to take it up another notch. If life = good, and death = bad, then maybe there was something else at play. Like good and evil. And good and evil for me was God and satan. God wanted me to live, and satan wanted me to die. Pretty much what I’d been taught in Sunday School when I was five.

So when I think about anyone desperate enough to try heroin for the first time, I think that they must have lost all hope. Hope = good. Desperation = bad. Good = God. Bad = satan, or, if you prefer, the opposite of God.

This isn’t some new idea that a crazy writer in North Carolina conjured. The battle between good and evil, even inside of us, is a theme that has always existed. It’s too simple and obvious not to.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder — The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1562


But the most troubling thing is that so much of the desperation attached to socioeconomic conditions. West Virginia is notoriously poor and has been for some time. I had relatives who worked in some of those coal mines, and they’d do it at the risk of developing black lung. Everyone needs to earn a living, even if that means it’ll kill you quicker. Everyone wants the opportunity to grab their idea of the American Dream. But when that opportunity disappears, then what?

Then we want to escape our circumstances. Our truths. Our lives. Hope diminishes. Desperation takes hold. God diminishes. Satan takes hold.

In my book Minor King, I use these themes to frame the current state of the American Dream. A dream that most Americans accept is attached to material wealth. It’s this collective idea that wealth = good which is directly responsible for a debt-riddled, double-talking celebrity to represent an entire political party in the current contest for US President. He’s rich (or at least he says he is) … he’s got to know what he’s doing. Right? Anyone that rich is perfectly capable of running an entire nation. Right?

Sure, if you believe that wealth is the new God.

Because we believe so intently that wealth = good, and that lack of wealth = bad, we gladly get up and go to work 50 weeks a year to sell our time for the advancement of commercial endeavors that only a fraction of people benefit from enough to rise above the need to continue selling this, our most precious resource. We’re trained to believe that if we work hard and keep our noses clean, we can eventually rise to achieve the idea of the American Dream where we no longer have to slave to the system. My book is fiction. But the harsh reality that many of us face in America is far from make-believe. In my book one of the last people who the protagonist encounters is a panhandler who is wearing an US Army field jacket with the name Hope inscribed above the breast pocket. It’s intended to be ironic.

Last weekend we saw the movie Hell or High Water. It’s a great story that’s well-acted and that’s scored perfectly by Nick Cave. It’s hard to put the movie into a bucket because there are so many layers. It would be easy to call it a cops and robbers movie, but it’s far from that. One of the critical layers, however, is the plight of the American Dream and the sliver of hope that remains for most people. There’s one particular scene where Jeff Bridges, who plays an aging Texas Ranger, is shooting the breeze with his partner Alberto, half-Mexican, half-Comanche (expertly played by Gil Birmingham), when Alberto explains how 100 years ago white people came and took his family’s land, and now it’s being taken from them … by banks. Watch the intense clip here.

I get it, not everyone will be rich in America no matter how hard and long they work. You can invest in the stock market for years and watch that disappear because of variables you don’t control. You can save up a nest egg only to spend it on medical bills you don’t foresee. You can get screwed in a business deal.

The point is, desperation is everywhere in America. And I believe that our high priority of money is the primary reason. We’re all killing ourselves with stressful jobs and long hours to not only make ends meet, but in pursuit of the illusion that money will make us happy. And because this is the land of opportunity, we have the freedom to pursue this idea as far as we want, by God. Even to the end.

For most of us, we either come to the realization that money isn’t everything and start living our lives in some kind of balance, or we have no balance at all and end up in a state of desperation as we chase the illusion. And for others still, they’ve given up hope of ever finding that balance, so they turn to an easy way out.

I’m not saying that everyone who tries heroin is in a state of economic desperation, but I’d be curious to see a psychographic on just who is using and dying from this drug. My guess is that they’re mostly poor. Unlike cocaine, which was the drug of choice for the white-collar class at the end of the previous century, heroin is far more accessible for regular, working-class folk. All you have to do is ask around for the devil. Because the devil preys on hopelessness.

Maybe the old adage about money being the root of all evil is true? Maybe we’ve been sold a corrupt dream that sounds innocuous and good on the surface, but is really an insidious slow drain that will leave us as a nation of greedy automatons who lack compassion? Again, this isn’t an original idea. Hell, Bernie Sanders and the Pope made the idolatry of money their primary topic when they met in April.

I don’t know whether there’s a clear solution for the rise in heroin use. But I do believe that reversing the rise in hopelessness starts with understanding that there’s more to life than how much money you have.

Should you ever reach a point where your hopeless enough to want to escape your circumstances with drugs or worse, remember that you’re a fragile beast with value that is far greater than your net worth. And realize that there may well be forces at play in the world that you just can’t understand. But the most important thing is that you never lose heart. Because your heart is where God lives. And God is on the side of good.

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Jim Mitchem

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