April 23, 2019

The United States of Pain – Interview With Harry Nelson

The opioid crisis is serious. 130 people die in the US every day. The estimated cost to the U.S. economy for opioid misuse is $78.5 billion a year, through healthcare, lost jobs, addiction treatment and more. L.A. lawyer Harry Nelson, an active member of the Pico-Robertson Jewish community, is one of the most visible lawyers in the country working with the addiction treatment industry, and his new book “The United States of Opioids” – Liberating a Nation in Pain provides analysis, comment and possible solutions for slowing and reversing this deep source of pain faced by so many US residents. 

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is one of the most addictive drugs known to mankind. Part of the problem is that fentanyl fantastic when injected, as I experienced a couple of years ago when being treated in ICU following a major surgery. The thing is that the drug is intended for medical use and disbursement, but when it is illegally created and sold on the streets, the trouble begins. 

I was personally averse to prescription opioids once home from hospital, and as soon as I experienced some negative side-effects I promptly flushed my remaining pills down the toilet. Unfortunately many people are not so lucky, and quickly get addicted to prescription opioids which can lead to lifelong problems. 

In a recent conversation with Harry Nelson, he told me how his book “The United States of Opioids” is specifically designed to bring healing to a nation in pain. 

MJF: What initially got you interested in the opioid crisis?

HN: I came out to California in 2001. I had been working for seven years doing legal work for the healthcare system. Back then it was the early days of the opioid crisis. I was dealing with doctors who were in trouble. They were self-prescribing opioids and became addicted because they were in proximity to the drugs in the hospital, so could easily get hold of the drugs. 

MJF: What happened to those doctors?

HN: Many of them lost their licenses, and many of them who retrained came to the awareness that they couldn’t be in a hospital where they were exposed – it was like being a kid in a candy store. A couple of them had a storng sense of mission that they wanted to treat addiciton and address the emotional pain that people got addicted self-medicated for anxiety and depression.

MJF: What are the main reasons that people are currently turning to self-medication?

HN:  We are being deluged in this media age. It is causing a amount of stress that our systems aren’t built to take. Every time your phone rings or something pings, you are being forced back into a moment of being focused, rather than allowing your system to calm down. There is a whole school of thought as to why we might be seeing a new biological response to modern technology, where people get isolated and face more personal problems.

MJF: What coping mechanisms do you see people using to successfully balance out this stress? 

HN: Sitting with friends and reconnecting on shabbat table is a form of healing, as is exercising, meditation and yoga.

MJF: How can we remedy the opioid crisis?

HN: Ultimately, healthcare isn’t going to fix this problem and the government isn’t going to fix this problem because certain pieces are unpopular messages that government won’t deliver. We need other settings to take on this crisis. We need a call to action where we empower people to do something, to empower them in their own lives to deal with their own pain, to change the culture in the workplace, and within religious communities. We can understand that people are in pain and need, and we can help with their suffering through other means.

There is also a problem with shame. A lot of people are walking around shaming people – this can lead to self-medication – but if we can eradicate the shame, express ourselves without judgement, we can help people without their having to resort to opioids.

MJF: This sounds different to the usual “war on drugs”

HN: Exactly. There is a very efficient market between people who want drugs and people who suppy drugs. If you push down on one drug then another pops up. If you eradicate crack and people move to meth. If you eradicate meth, people move to heroin and so forth. Instead we can ask why is there so much anxiety amongst young people? Why is suicidality off the charts? What is the technology age doing to our biological systems? What about the increase in isolation?

Opioids have created the easiest way to kill yourself. Literally, you take some pills, go somewhere quiet where nobody can disturb you, go to sleep and you won’t wake up.

MJF: What can we do?

HN: There a lot of people who want to help but don’t know how. We can start speaking in the Jewish community since this is an issue that hits people straight between the eyes. A campaign of public awareness around liberating peoples’ pain, and increasing their mind-body communication. We can deliver the message that our health system is reactive and we have to address multiple levels of health system failure by supporting people, offering ways to help them heal and alleviate their pain, before they resort to self-medication and the patterns that created the current opioid crisis.

Harry Nelson’s book “The United States of Opioids” is available on Amazon.