By Timothy McMahan King. Herald Press, 2019. 272 pages. $30.99/hardcover; $17.99/paperback; $13.99/eBook.
“Faith is simultaneously a journey and a waiting, a movement forward and a standing still.”
Addiction and substance use disorders, like other mental illnesses, are often experienced as a continuous cycle marked by alternating periods of intense euphoria and utter despair. Writing has saved my life; writer’s block has almost killed me. I live with bipolar disorder and crave the hypomania that fuels my creativity, between panic attacks and suicide attempts. Is that state of mind a sweet spot or a tipping point? Knowing the difference depends on the right therapy, medication, and other supports.
Timothy McMahan King arrived at a similar existential moment when in 2010 his doctor told him he was addicted to the fentanyl and hydromorphone that had saved his life after a year of complications from a botched operation for pancreatitis. Paradoxically, by deadening the nerve endings of his stomach muscles, the pain meds caused gastroparesis, a painful inability to process food. This double “gut punch” is the revelation on which Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals about Us is based.
Thus, he reports:
My story is one of early detection—of things that went right. It is a story that should be more common than it is. This story isn’t so much about who I am or what I did as about what I had—or more accurately, what I had been given. In the end, I had excellent medical care and full insurance coverage. I have a mother who is a nurse, a supportive family, and an upbringing that shielded me from the challenges that many others face. My employer ensured I was financially supported and had a job when I returned. The stigma that so often hangs around the necks of those struggling with addiction was largely absent.
I’m writing this book because if everyone had what I had, the opioid crisis would not be what it is today. . . . I believe [it] is not an aberrant tragedy or an unexplainable phenomenon, but rather a reflection of ourselves, our culture, our history, our politics, our economy, our materialism. It is about the failures of religion and of an anemic spirituality that we have not wanted to face.
That employer was Sojourners, the Christian social justice organization based in Washington, D.C., with a magazine by the same name. King grew up in a strong Christian household on a maple syrup farm in New Hampshire and studied theology and philosophy at a Christian college in Chicago, Ill., where he became a community organizer. (One of the best chapters is on the racial injustices of how we treated cocaine vs. crack addicts in the 1990s.) So it is no surprise he was bound to make a holy mountain out of this hellish molehill in his life.
As King states, “Addiction is a kind of faith gone wrong.” It is a search for meaning, perfection, love, safety, salvation, grace, control, serenity, transcendence, and hope that fixates on the object or substance rather than the transubstantiation of faith. In other words, addiction is like idol worship.
Thus, what grounds King’s story is his year of living dangerously, of what felt like knives attacking every part of his body. Every 15 minutes, he pushed a button that released a hydromorphone, that “blessed, blessed, blessed analgesic” into his IV line.
King quotes from a poem in Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Book of Hours, which was named for a breviary, or illustrated collection of daily prayers, psalms, and hymns of French monks in the late Middle Ages. Coincidentally, Addiction Nation contains 24 chapters, each with a one-word title that, like a mantra, is meant to be the focus of a meditation on some aspect of what it means to be addicted, such as disease, shame, blame; despair, pain, sin; control, choice, denial, and, finally, to recover through faith, love, grace, and resurrection. Furthermore, each chapter is divided into three, four, or five short sections, reminiscent of the rhythm of the quarter-hour “blessings” in a book of hours.
Combining personal and historical anecdotes, quotations from addiction experts as well as by poets and philosophers, and biblical references, not to mention his own bon mots, King weaves a verbal tapestry with the artistry of those medieval breviaries.
Carl Blumenthal is a member of Brooklyn (N.Y.) Meeting and a retired arts reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Read Carl’s interview with Timothy McMahan King at Friendsjournal.org/interview-addiction-nation.