Let’s Start Talking About Naloxone in the Rooms

By Jess Williams 11/17/17
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“Lo-oving you…is easy ‘cause you’re beauuutiful.” That’s how I usually feel about the 12 steps and its people. I find it darn lovely. I’m proud to be a part. I’m awfully grateful for it all.

And then there are the occasional ugly spots, most of which I don’t feel the need to comment on. Mostly, the ugly is just part of the beautiful—the rooms are diverse and real and sometimes that’s not easy or harmonious. No problem.

I’ve found that there’s one area I can’t embrace and I can’t be silent about anymore: the breezy acceptance of preventable deaths.

This phrase in particular makes me shudder: “Some have to die so that others might live.”
I also dislike it when people wield the number of deaths they’ve seen as some sort of old-timer cred. “Stick around and you’ll see: people die,” they say.

I understand that people die from their addictions, directly or indirectly. But we’re sitting in the middle of an opioid epidemic. Last year in the United States, more than 100 people a day died from opioid overdose. I think these people deserve to be more than just cautionary tales. I think there’s more to be done to stanch this terrible flow, and that the people in the rooms are the exact right people to be doing it.

In my view, here’s what ought to be happening: we should be openly talking about the overdose antidote naloxone in recovery circles. If we see someone who’s new and has a history of opioid use, we should try to get naloxone into their hands. If we find out someone relapsed back to opioid use, we should ask if they have naloxone. And if not, we should try to get some naloxone into their hands.

Naloxone isn’t hard to get. In every single state, naloxone is now available in pharmacies for laypeople to access. That means you or I can stop into a pharmacy and request it under a standing order, just as we would request a flu shot. Our insurance will cover it. That means people in the rooms don’t have any barrier to access.

I understand the urge to distance oneself from a person who’s relapsing. “Stick with the winners,” they say, and that’s fair. I’m not arguing that we should get heavily entangled with people who are struggling to stay sober. But making sure someone has naloxone doesn’t need to be heavy. It demonstrates that we’d like that person to survive. That we see hope and possibility for their lives. That just because they aren’t sober, doesn’t mean they deserve to die.

This is a slippery slope, some might say. Am I going to bring condoms to these people’s houses? Show them a PSA on drunk driving? My job is to help them stay sober if they want to be—not babysit them if they want to use drugs.

If as many people were dying of drunk driving as overdose—and if we had as effective an antidote to those car crashes as naloxone—we would have an obligation to address that issue. But it’s not drunk driving: it’s overdose. That’s what’s killing 100-and-some Americans every day. I’ve known five people who died in five years. Young people. Twentysomethings. I don’t believe they died so that others might live.

Many of us have had dozens of chances at recovery. AA founder Bill Wilson talks about intentionally experimenting with alcohol to see if you can moderate. “Step over to the nearest barroom and try some controlled drinking,” instructs the Big Book, if you’re not sure whether you’re powerless over alcohol. Most drugs don’t kill you as fast as opioids; they give you room to make mistakes. People with opioid addiction deserve those chances.

Here’s another thing: it appears that, of the strategies for distributing naloxone to prevent overdose, getting naloxone into the hands of drug users is what works best. This poses problems for governments and other well-meaning groups who want to save lives but, well, they’re not exactly sure where to find drug users. People in 12-step programs know where to find drug users. They’re there to help drug users.

Why am I talking about “drug users” like they’re someone else? Heck, I’m a drug user. These are my people. They’re dying in my community. They’re dying all over the country. I didn’t really care for opioids, but that doesn’t make me any different from opioid users. I used drugs dysfunctionally, and if opioids had helped my headspace, I would’ve gone to town with them.

That’s what I come back to, when I think about this issue: these are OUR PEOPLE, and I believe we’re in position to save their lives. All it takes is a trip to the drugstore.

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