Timothy McMahan King Combines Christian Theology With His Personal Drug Addiction in ‘Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us’

“Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us” by Timothy McMahan King.

Timothy McMahan King’s opioid addiction began in the hospital.

When a routine outpatient procedure went wrong, threatening his life and causing him severe pain, doctors put King on heavy doses of painkillers, including fentanyl.

At the time, the painkillers were medically appropriate, he said.

“But over the course of being in the hospital for months, being home recovering, what started as an important medicine eventually turned into dependence and then into addiction,” he said.

King recognizes he was lucky. Doctors quickly caught and addressed his addiction before things went terribly wrong.

But many others aren’t as fortunate. For some, medical treatment with painkillers can turn into a full-blown addiction that destroys their lives.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in 2017. And a recent study by the Pew Research Center found more Americans agree drug addiction is a major problem than any other issue.

That’s why King, a media consultant and former chief strategy officer for Sojourners magazine, felt it was important to share his story and what it had taught him about addiction.

In “Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us,” published last month, he combines his story with Christian theology and scientific studies of addiction.

King talked to Religion News Service about the opioid crisis and what people of faith can do to respond.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

When did you know you were addicted?

In my book, I describe sitting down with my doctor and having him telling me I was addicted.

At first, I was defensive. I’d already had three separate doctors accuse me of faking pain in order to get more pain medicine. Each time, they had failed to diagnose a medical complication that threatened my life. For them, the easiest thing to do was to blame me for faking pain.

Author Timothy McMahan King.
Courtesy photo

Unlike other times, this doctor didn’t judge me, wasn’t angry at me, didn’t accuse me of anything. The first thing he said was, “You didn’t do anything wrong.” And then he told me that he believed that I was still in pain.

One of the things that’s misunderstood about addiction is addiction is always rooted in some kind of pain, whether that is on the surface or hidden underneath.

And when an addict is confronted without understanding the underlying pain, all that results in is defensiveness. The person has figured out the drug is serving some kind of positive purpose in their life; otherwise, they wouldn’t have gotten addicted in the first place.

I keep going back to that moment with my doctor because he didn’t focus on controlling my behavior. Instead, he focused on drawing out of me what I wanted a healthy life to look like. That was the emphasis that helped me start taking steps towards recovery.

You write at the start of the book, “I’m writing this book because if everyone had what I had, the opioid crisis would not be what it is today.” What made your case different?

My story is one of early detection, where my doctor saw the early signs of addiction. I had always thought of addiction — whether I admitted it or not — as something that only happens to bad people. They are weak-willed or immoral, and that’s the only way things can get so bad.

My doctor stepping in at that time and disabusing me of that notion actually gave me the freedom to focus on the positive. That is a stronger motivator than any kind of punishment, any kind of shaming.

Addiction, by its very nature, is self-harming behavior. Harming people who are already engaged in self-harm doesn’t accomplish anything — in fact, it often makes things worse.

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Source: Religion News Service