Timothy King, author of Addiction Nation, joins Carmen to discuss his book which examines the epidemic of opioids through a number of related angles: the injustice of the war on drugs, the crisis of meaning in our culture, institutional greed, technology and the pervasiveness of addiction in our society today. This is an uplifting, informative, redemptive conversation about a reality no one seems willing to face.
Carmen LaBerge: My next guest is Timothy McMahan King. He is the author of a book called Addiction Nation. “Opioids claim the lives of 115 people per day. One of them could have been me.” Tim King, welcome to Mornings with Carmen.
Timothy King: Thank you for having me.
Carmen LaBerge: Let’s just start with this. When you make a statement like that, “Opioids claim the lives of 115 people per day,” first of all, we should pause on that statistic and recognize the preciousness of each and every one of those lives, and the impact on those families and communities. Then, you say, “One of them could have been me.” Tell us your story.
Timothy King: Thanks for letting me share this story, because this is something that I truly believe we need more spaces to share these kind of difficult stories, so that people can come forward and do the same. One of the wild things with that statistic is even since the book has come out, since we first designed the cover, that number is now up to 130 per day.
Timothy King: My story started in the hospital. I had a procedure go wrong. I was put on heavy doses of narcotics. I was in the ICU. The doctors thought that I might go. My family came in to say prayers by my bedside. I came through. I knew while I was in the hospital, I was in the hospital for months, that I was on the precipice, that it could be life or death, but I didn’t realize when I went home that I was facing a new potentially fatal complication, and that’s opioid addiction. There’s a greater awareness today than when that happened to me about 10 years ago, of the potential for addiction with opioids, but at the same time, one of the things is while opioids are one of the most obvious forms of addiction in our country today with people overdosing every day, I really believe that the opioid crisis is about more than just opioids. That we in our country are in a broader addiction crisis. In fact, overdoses have been doubling every nine years since 1979.
Carmen LaBerge: Tim, I want to be sure that people understand what we’re talking about, because there’s at least some stigma, or imagining related to this that’s like, you know, “Opioids are just heroin, and we’re just talking about addicts shooting up in really nasty houses in parts of town we wouldn’t go to if we could avoid it.” When you talk about you, and you talk about becoming addicted to opioids because of a medical procedure that was dangerously unsuccessful, you open our eyes to the reality that opioids is an issue that people deal with in America from literally every sector of our culture and society. Talk about that.
Timothy King: Yeah. With opioids especially, they can be a powerful medicine. For some people, and for me for a little while, it was something that helped me recover, because my body was in so much stress, I was in so much pain that I needed that relief for a while. That’s true of some people today. It’s important that we don’t just demonize the substance, but we understand everything that’s related to addiction. One of the first things that I learned, that was just stuck in my head, was this idea that anyone who gets addicted is just a bad person, right?
Timothy King: One of the things I was so grateful for, is when my doctor finally sat me down, and he had seen that I was taking more pain medicine instead of less, and that I was coming in more and more often for refills, he said, “Tim, I know you’re addicted, but you didn’t do anything wrong.” I think that’s so important for listeners out there to hear, that when it comes to addiction, for a long time, we kind of sectioned people off as if they were like this unique group of immoral people somehow. When in fact, we understand now that addiction does happen to us all.
Timothy King: In one level, it’s important for doctors to be able to distinguish an addiction that needs to be treated by professionals, but another more spiritual level, we all are addicted. Addiction might be one of the best ways that we can understand sin today. When Paul says, “I do the things that I don’t want to do, and I don’t do the very things that I want to do,” that is a description of what it feels like to be addicted.
Timothy King: My hope is that more people are able to talk about it in that kind of way, where it’s not something that we feel shame about that, right? When Paul is talking about sin in that way, that’s just not to make everybody to feel bad, but to say to his readers and to say, you know, that we can say to our brothers and sisters today, “You’re not alone. When you have those moments, when you feel like you can’t do the thing that you are here to do, that you want to do, and you’re struggling, that’s not a unique category of a person. That’s the very description of what it means to be human struggling with sin.”
Carmen LaBerge: Here is quote from Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us. It’s by Timothy McMahan King. Here’s a quote. “The question for each of us is not whether we are addicted, but how we are addicted, and to what. Denial of the existence of addiction in your life is not a mark of moral accomplishment, but a sign of blindness.” The pervasiveness of addiction is one of the things that you deal with in the book, but you deal with the reality of our addiction nation from a number of angles. The injustice of the war on drugs, the crisis of meaning, institutional evil, technology.
Carmen LaBerge: When we come back from the break, Tim, I’m hoping that maybe we can delve into one of those. Let’s take the crisis of meaning component of the book, and let’s grapple with that, because I think that, for folks listening right now, you know, that may be the touch point where we can dig in a little, maybe more easily than we can on some of the things that are going to require culture-wide change. I think we can all peel back this concern about a crisis of meaning in our own lives, in our families, in the next generation, in the culture around us.
Carmen LaBerge: I’m going to continue my conversation here in just a moment. Timothy King is my guest. The book is Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us. We’ll be right back.
Carmen LaBerge: Continuing my conversation with Timothy King about Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us, and when he’s talking about us, he’s talking about us as a people. Not just individually, but as a culture. Tim, let’s talk about this crisis of meaning. Help us grapple with the addiction crisis from that particular angle.
Timothy King: One thing to understand with addiction is, normally how I had approached it before, is to think of addiction as the relentless pursuit of something bad, or just a physical pleasure. Where, at its heart, addiction is actually the pursuit of something good. I want people to hang with me on that for a second. Addiction, at its heart, is the pursuit of something good that goes wrong. All of us are searching for some sort of connection, some sort of transcendence. Or, in my case, it was a relief from pain.
Timothy King: What happened is, in the early stages of addiction, my use of opioids provided that. They provided not just a relief from physical pain, but also a temporary sense of safety even when I wasn’t safe in the hospital, or a connection, when I was home, and actually growing increasingly isolated from people. One thing to understand with opioids is they are so powerful not because they’re so foreign to our brains, but because they actually mimic what happens in our brains naturally.
Timothy King: Endorphins, the molecules of emotion. They’re what can bind parents to children, or you know partners to each other. That chemical, endorphin, is actually named after morphine. It’s the two words, endogenous, which means occurring within, and morphine. Those endorphins that connect us to each other are closely mimicked by opioids like morphine. When you look around at our country today, and you look at how people are so disconnected from each other, and in desiring of community, it’s not a surprise that so many people have turned to opioids that mimic that sense of connection, that mimic that sense of love.
Timothy King: I think all of us are carrying around some sort of pain. We’re all carrying around some sort of desire for something more. A lot of your listeners might be familiar with that idea, that all of us have some sort of God-shaped hole in our lives that we’re seeking to fill, and that’s a good desire. What happens with addiction, is we fill it with something finite instead of something infinite. That finite thing, no matter how much of it we get, and if we keep wanting more and more, we’re never going to add up to that infinite.
Carmen LaBerge: You make a lot of sense. I hope people are telling you that, and I hope you’re hearing from a lot of people that the way you are articulating this is helping people understand maybe what they’re experiencing in their own lives, if they’re at the point where they’re recognizing that they are addicted to something, as you note, actually, we all are. We just each have an addiction that may be different.
Carmen LaBerge: I take note of this quote. This is, really, I think, what captures the heart, maybe, of my concern, and that what we’re talking about here, is a real devolution of our culture. It’s not just opioid addictions, although that’s the presenting concern here in this conversation. You say this, “When hundreds of thousands of individuals decide to give up on life at the same time,” and here you’re pointing to rising drug overdoses, alcohol related death, suicides, which are now epidemic in our culture. “When hundreds of thousands of individuals decide to give up on life at the same time and in the same ways, we need to reflect on a broader societal failure to create a context of meaning and connection that makes life worth living.” What are you talking about?
Timothy King: We hear that word a lot, that there’s an epidemic. When you look at any epidemic, you can look at what has been introduced into the environment that’s new. In that case, opioids. Really, the other thing that you need to look at with an epidemic, is what has changed in the host? What has changed in us? What has changed in society? Really, right now, I think opioids are one substance that we need to worry about, but if it isn’t opioids, it could be something else. If what is really at heart of this is something that has changed within all of us.
Timothy King: I think that what we’re seeing right now is a deep desire for something more. We are looking for a deep desire for a life that gives us deeper meaning. This was one of the oddest things. When I was in my doctor’s office, he was a pancreatic specialist, and I was not expecting him to ask me the question, “Tim, what does a full life look like for you?” What he was getting at is that overcoming an addiction is not so much about saying no to a substance or to a behavior. Overcoming an addiction is ultimately about saying yes to something greater. Saying yes to something that’s worth living for.
Timothy King: One of the stories Jesus tells, is he talks about the casting out a demon from a home, and then the home being left empty, and then seven coming back in even worse than before. That’s something where even if someone is able to give up the substance, or give up the behavior for a little while, if there isn’t something greater, if there isn’t hope that that person can latch on to, then I think you’re going to end up in a place even worse than before. That’s why I think, with this crisis, we need to start with that compassionate understanding of, “Where is this desire coming from? Where is this desire to heal pain, or to transcend a mundane life coming from?” If we’re able to answer that, if we’re able to provide a greater yes, the no will come in time.
Carmen LaBerge: My conversation partner is Timothy McMahan King. The book is Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us. Timothy has a Facebook page. You can follow him there. I know that there are many of you who are seeking information about how to track him down. On Facebook at Timothy McMahan King, McMahan is M-C-M-A-H-A-N. He is on Twitter. I just found him. Give us your Twitter handle.
Timothy King: It’s @TMKing.
Carmen LaBerge: All right, so it’s @TMKing on Twitter. One of our listeners has commented here on our text line, Tim, that this is a beautiful conversation. I hope that’s what people are hearing, in not only what you’re saying, but the way in which you’re saying it. This is very invitational. You don’t seem angry, and you don’t seem resentful. You seem very hopeful and committed to helping others understand not only the journey that you have been on and your family has been on, because nobody journeys this alone, but the journey that really, as a culture, we are all on together. We’re just not all actively engaged in our sort of collective recovery, and confronting the addiction that’s now just rampant in our culture.
Carmen LaBerge: As we conclude our conversation today, I’m wondering, maybe just talk about why you moved home to New Hampshire. After your recovery, why did you go home?
Timothy King: That actually came a few years later. I had been in Washington, D.C. and working there. I hit a point in my life where I realized that some of the most valuable things that I could find in life were not in Washington, D.C., not in the halls of power, not with what was happening there, but with connection to family, friends. My family’s had a farm there for hundreds of years, and that sort of deep connection was what mattered.
Timothy King: At the same time, as I moved home, I was able to see what was happening in the community around me, and I wanted to be involved in that. I hadn’t told my story publicly before I came back to New Hampshire. When I was able to look around and think of this not as a, “I did something so great,” or, “I was so strong,” or, “I had this great willpower,” but realizing that I had gifts, I had grace in my life from other people, and if more people had that, then we wouldn’t have the kind of crisis we have today.
Timothy King: One of the reasons why I think it’s so important for us to change how we talk about addiction, how we think about it, was this great study that I found by two researchers. They went to three different alcohol recovery centers, and they studied everybody who was being treated there. At the end of their study, they went to the staff and to the counselors, and they provided them a list. They said, “Here are the people we believe are most likely to recover.” Sure enough, the researchers come back a year later, and they were spot on.
Timothy King: Everyone wanted to know, “What did you guys figure out that was so powerful to predict exactly who would recover and who wouldn’t?” The answer was nothing. They had randomly assigned everybody to that list. The only thing that had changed was the expectations of the staff and the counselors. I believe that while each of us has a role to play in overcoming this addiction crisis, each of us whether we know it or not right now has someone in our lives, who needs compassion, who needs grace, who needs understanding. They don’t need blame. They need someone who understands that each of us is looking for some sort of relief of pain, some sort of connection, some sort of transcendence to something higher and greater than in ourselves. People in my life were that grace to me, and I know that each of us can be that kind of grace to another person.
Carmen LaBerge: I just want to say thank you. Timothy King, thank you so much for being with us today. Thank you for the book, Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us. Thank you for the manner in which you are speaking grace into this issue.
Timothy King: Thank you so much for having me.