There is a stigma attached to drug addiction that other diseases do not have. If a person is diagnosed with cancer, receives treatment and becomes a survivor, he/she is worthy of honor for their courage and perseverance. If someone suffers from heart disease or diabetes, the reaction they get from others is generally sympathetic and people do not point their fingers at them and condemn them for being sick. That’s not true of drug addiction, because people do point fingers. Drug addiction can also lead a confrontation with the criminal justice system if you don’t have the power and money to fight the system.
If you’re poor, you’re a junkie. If you’re rich, you’re courageously facing your greatest challenge. Those without political power go to jail. Those with political power probably don’t get prosecuted. Those who have lost everything as a result of the disease are social outcasts, while those who have everything let their lawyer handle the tawdry details, or keep the whole thing quiet. Addiction doesn’t care who you are and there is no inequality, because addiction is what it is. But pride and power create inequality, separating one addict from another.
We are in an interesting political season, as voters will be selecting a new president in November. One of the sub stories in this election is the opiate addiction of Cindy McCain, wife of Republican nominee Sen. John McCain.
It was also a story in 1999, when McCain ran for president, subsequently losing the nomination to George W. Bush. It has resurfaced. She was addicted to Percocet and Vicodin and used her position and influence, going to great lengths to make sure she had an ample supply during her struggles in the early 1990’s. The McCain political spin machine both contributed to the story going public and keeping damage control to a minimum.
Like so many people who became dependent on prescription pain medication, McCain’s problems began after sustaining knee and back injuries. The progression of drug addiction, however, is not the key point I want to make. Rather, it’s how the rich and powerful can deflect the pain or ridicule, while those without political or financial resources are left to face the legal consequences head on, like a butterfly trying to ride out a hurricane.
One aspires to be First Lady, while the other will probably go to prison and lose her family. In both cases, their addiction has taken total control over their lives, causing them to do things that are completely out of character, things they never thought possible. One is the rich wife of a U.S. Senator, while the other is a single mom living paycheck to paycheck. One pilfers drugs from a charity she heads, the American Voluntary Medical Team (AVMT) and has volunteer doctors write phony prescriptions using names of people who work for her, while the other buys her drugs on the street.
The rich and powerful avoid legal entanglements, while the poor get the book thrown at them. The contrast is staggering. It’s the same disease, causing the same behaviors, yet one is celebrated while the other is scorned.
Drug addiction doesn’t care who you are. McCain was able to receive treatment and has come through the tunnel. More importantly, she got her life back together and her husband may become president. Those who don’t have the resources may receive some treatment, but may also go years without any intervention.
Perhaps Cindy McCain can use her experience to advance drug addiction treatment in much the same way that Betty Ford did. She may be able to use her wealth, her political influence and her own story to bring about positive action and understanding. Perhaps that would help the single mom avoid become another statistic.