Opioids and Obituaries

The motivation behind Jellybeaners — to shine light upon the opioid epidemic taking Americans at the rate of fifty per day — remains front and center in the news, and burns painfully in our collective hearts.

 Logically, one should abstain from indulging in news the first thing in the morning.

Soaking up death, stabbings, arson, child neglect, fracking, meth-lab explosions, sex slavery, environmental disasters, racist cops, neglected infrastructure, enduring slave wages, endless CEO profit raking, idiotic politicians blubbering pie-in-the-sky promises with no intention of following through … mixing all those nauseous facts with prodigious amounts of caffeine … well.

That can’t be good for the psyche.

But the routine never varies.

Out of bed, slurp coffee, devour news, cautiously turn to the obituaries, brace for the blow.

This week?

A recent law-school grad with a long history of academic success, a loving family, and a promising future. Twenty-seven-years-old.  Here’s a brief paraphrase from the obit:

God protected him many times when his parents were unable.  His earthly life ended unexpectedly but his everlasting life has begun.

We’ve watched the font-size of our local print paper decrescendo for thirty years to the point where it’s barely readable.

After all, they have our subscription money, and we’ve read the news on our iPhones and  internet feeds, old print news takes up valuable paper and ink, so we’ll minimalize it, shrink it with a pissant font, and look for other revenue streams.

To balance the loss of readership and revenue to online outlets, our local newspaper doubled the size of its obituary text,  colorized large head shots of the recently-deceased, and unknowing created a daily parade of local folk now leaving eternal digitized images. 

If you plan ahead, love to scribble, and can afford to throw even more cash at a local newspaper publisher, up goes your twin column half page manifesto, a.k.a. bird-cage lining.

Follow the money.

We’ve known for decades that newspapers and other media leverage sex and death to sell products.

Obituaries sell local papers. Furthermore, the family of the deceased wanting to run an obituary is billed up to $600 — approximately five times an annual subscription price — to purchase the publication of their loved one’s death notice.

And newsprint corporations will continue to milk grieving readers until obituaries naturally migrate whole herd onto the “everlasting” cloud — which is subject to evaporation any second of any day.

***

So we slurp coffee, wipe crust from our eyes, and suffer the dark parade of endless young-people obituaries — two or three “mysterious passings” per week — digitized head shots projecting health, vitality, and promise … while the shocking dissconnect of truth and image confounds the thoughtful reader.

Cancer victims either declare outright the nature of their earthly battle, or direct donations toward eradicating the scourge, which indicates the cause of their passing.

But prescription or illegal opioid drug deaths — cloaked in self-painted societal shame — lie hidden between the lines of the family-or-funeral-home-produced death notice.

We’re talking perhaps 2-3 opioid-connected deaths per-week in a region supporting a newspaper circulation of 43,000.

National statistics suggest nearly fifty-two Americans perish every day from prescription opioid overdoses — eighty per day if you figure in heroin — so two-or-three deaths a week in such a tiny demographic seems outrageous.

Heroin deaths are linked to the pill trade because recently skyrocketing street-prices of prescription opioids allow cheap heroin to flourish across the land, hitting rural states and Appalachia especially hard due to decades of high unemployment and a culture slow to raise education standards, though the epidemic appears to cross all lines, racial, religious, geographic, and socio-economic.

Many of our locals succumb to fentanyl, fifty times more potent than typical street heroin. They go to a party, try a little, forget how much they’ve taken, dab a little more, and before the dawn appears …. the sun sets on their precious lives.

The alarming potency of fentanyl — and even more horrendous Chinese exports washing ashore — steals our best and brightest, the folks we’re staking our future upon.

Opioid availability first soared (in recent history) after 26 states and D.C. legalized weed in some form and jerked market out from under Mexico, who made up the loss by dumping cheap heroin and opioid-laden chemicals on an already addicted North America poised to dull the pain with ever increasing amounts of opioids, a class of drugs that has debilitated us since the Civil War.

***

One family, six months ago, actually came clean in the second paragraph of their boy’s obituary, saying that the deceased fell victim to prescription drugs after losing his father two years prior. The son couldn’t bear the loss.

That’s the only self-admission I’d seen in thirty years of obituary reading, though I must confess that for twenty-eight years I only skimmed obits for astounding stories of WWII vets who’d conquered the world and returned home to build new lives.

***

The truth remains:  we all wear a mask.

mask
The Coalition for Positive Energy

This concept came home to me thirty years ago when I taught Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veil to a class of honors English students in a suburban Chicago high school.

A small village church must deal with their minister, Mr. Hooper, who takes a notion to don a black veil covering his upper face — much like a widow would wear at an old-fashioned funeral. Everything goes south when he chooses to leave it on.

Permanently.

He becomes a better minister after this decision, ironically, and though his fiancé breaks off their engagement, she watches his entire life and comes to be with him on his death bed, where he admits all of us wear a mask.  Upon his death, Mr. Hooper is buried with the veil in place.

Let’s look into the mirror.

 When we’re at Sunday school, we wear the Sunday school face. Job interviews conjure a competent strong obedient flexible yes-sir face. Thursday night dollar-draft-beer Raccoon Club meetings at the local sports bar requires a special façade.

And since random acts of unprovoked violence occur in this crazy world  — say the unexpected death of a child through accident or SIDs — well, that means perhaps even God wears a mask.

No one is immune from the natural instinct to project a happy face while masking reality through omission.

Facebook is simply a party-line on steroids, a party line with enough bandwidth so a billion users may share photos, text, videos, music, and fake news.

For whatever psychological reason, the vast majority of us prefer to keep the laundry in the closet and to project the shiniest image of ourselves and our loved ones, clean photo-shopped textually-tweaked  images of success and prosperity.

Under this unspoken societal code lies a message

Vitality, good luck, success, look-what-I’ve-done, look-where-I’ve-been, see-where-I’m-going … that’s what’s important.

Let’s face it, we’re all the billboard producers of our archived lives, turned digital and pulsing across the electronic social universe — Google Plus, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, et al. — social media entwined through massive servers grown muscular through carrying an ever-increasing crescendo of porn to the sex-starved masses.  Thirst begets thirst.

Irony. Cleanliness afforded by dirt.

As a result, we can now Photoshop and video-edit our pimples and purple lives while projecting sanitized, filtered, smiling, I’m so happy, self-assured-selfies, eternal masks frozen in digital clouds of memories, gigabytes juggled in “perpetuity” for dollars a month.

Even when people freak out, breech social barriers, and reveal their dark sides on social media, it’s often ignored until the post mortems roll in.

dylan roof
Dylan Roof

When an individual’s mask slips down,  the tribe doesn’t WANT to look, or doesn’t want to acknowledge some of us actually DID look and failed to respond.

Which brings us back to the Double-O-Demons.

opioid deaths 2015
opioid deaths 2015

Jellybeaners is a topical novel about opiates and obituaries, and the fact that shame drives many of our decisions.

And until we supplant shame with grace and help people recover from addiction through counseling, financial incentives, and work opportunities, well.

Jellybeaners will remain topical in perpetuity.

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About the Author

Gene Scott, a retired English and reading teacher, was born and raised on the prairie of Western Illinois, and has lived in Johnson City, Tennessee for thirty years with his much better half, Lana.

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