Yesterday at around 2 in the afternoon I started watching Dopesick, an eight-part Hulu miniseries about how one family’s greed got America hooked on OxyContin. I figured I’d spend a few hours immersed in the world of opioid abuse and then return to old Arrested Development or Veep episodes to reset my nervous system before I got on with the rest of my day.
That reset never happened.
At 3 a.m. I was sitting upright in my bed watching the final scene of an eight-hour binge with tears in my eyes and rage ricocheting around my brain and into my fingertips. I sent a middle-of-the-night tweet into the void, then spent the next few hours trying to will myself to sleep despite knowing that no one in the Sackler family— who made billions of dollars destroying millions of American families—will ever see the inside of a jail cell.
I’m sitting here now at my desk trying to figure out why this show shook me up so badly. Maybe it’s my growing resignation that there is nothing we can do about late-stage capitalism incentivizing the very rich to exploit the pain and labor of the rest of us to their great economic advantage. After all, any system that doubles the wealth of the 10 richest men on earth during a global fucking pandemic seems irretrievably broken.
But maybe it’s more than that.
As someone who has dealt with depression and anxiety since I was roughly 11, I know what it’s like to desperately want to swallow a pill just to make the pain stop. Most people who have never endured chronic physical or emotional pain find it difficult to fully grasp how debilitating it can be, and how when things are bad, every single thought in any given day revolves around the question: How can I feel better?
I used to think that the reason I’ve never gotten hooked on drugs or booze is that I just wasn’t born with the addiction gene, but I don’t believe that anymore. I think the reason that I couldn’t sleep was because I knew in my gut that had I been born in Appalachia or rural Maine or anywhere in the Rust Belt that some doctor at some point probably would have handed me an Oxycontin or 50 to help ease the toll of a much harder life, and that I’d now be long dead. After watching Dopesick, I don’t know how anyone who has ever been addicted to heroin or oxycontin or fentanyl or any other opioid ever makes it out alive.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to publish this post, because I don’t feel like I’m adding anything new or valuable to this conversation. I know that our prisons are filled with low-level drug dealers who may never have even killed anyone, while members of the Sackler family seem merely inconvenienced that high-society Manhattan has (temporarily?) shunned them, as they are forced to count their money in chalets in Gstaad and on yachts off the coast of Florida. It’s great that the world’s greatest museums are no longer accepting their blood money, and that last month a federal judge overturned a proposed $4.5 billion settlement against the company that legally shielded members of the family from being personally sued. But neither of these moves go anywhere near far enough to hold these people accountable.
Dopesick is based on the book of the same name by Beth Macy, who also wrote for the miniseries. Patrick Radden Keefe may have written the definitive account of the Sackler family in Empire of Pain, and I plan to pick up a copy of that book as soon as I can stomach it.
We lost more than 100,000 people in the U.S. to opioid overdoses last year, and the odds are that somebody reading this right now is in the throes of that addiction. I wish I knew what to say to fix it, or to even just make one moment better for anyone who is suffering. But I couldn’t watch Dopesick and not say anything. So if you are reading this, and you are struggling, please do not feel ashamed to seek help. I see you, I love you, and I’m so, so sorry that our systems have failed you.