Timothy McMahan King’s Addiction Nation is subtitled What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us without revealing the author’s whole story of substance abuse. Because he was blessed with all the medical, social, and economic support necessary for recovery, King has said he felt reluctant delving into his personal story of how he got better. King studied theology and philosophy at a Christian university in Chicago, Ill., and I was curious to know more about how this background influenced his experience with addiction and recovery. By interviewing him in addition to reviewing his book, I hoped he would go beyond identifying with the addict in all of us to better articulate the hope we all need to realize our full potential.
Carl Blumenthal: Addiction Nation is rooted in your addiction to opioids resulting from the complications of a failed operation for pancreatitis that kept you in the hospital during 2009. It’s a reckoning not just with your experience but with every aspect of why addictions of every kind are imperiling American society. Did you feel like Jacob wrestling the angel writing the book? Because that’s how I felt reading it.
Timothy McMahan King: I’ve felt like Jacob in a wrestling match for most of my life. The process of writing this book brought that out even more. I had to confront experiences I hadn’t fully processed as well as ideas that I thought I had worked through until I tried to write them all out. There was always more research I wanted to do, but there were also stones inside my soul that were overturned in the midst of writing that forced more introspection than I had anticipated.
CB: How long have people predicted the demise of civilization? What makes your “addiction” version different from others?
TMK: I’m not the first to warn about the broad social dangers about addiction, and I doubt I will be the last. Civilization is always in the process of demise, just like it is also in the process of rebirth and growth. My hope is that I am right enough about the causes that others will take preventive action. And I hope that I point to enough seeds of hope that even while we are seeing the demise right in front of us, we’ll also begin to see the green shoots of hope and growth.
CB: I live with bipolar disorder and tend to see the world in extremes. Given your cataclysmic addiction, aren’t you projecting that experience on the world?
TMK: Projection? Yup. But I hope it is helpful. Each of us has experiences that give us insight into ourselves, others, and the world around us. I think it is an impossible task to write in a way that doesn’t include projecting one’s own experiences. Those who claim to do so are just trying harder to hide the ways that they are projecting.
Since writing the book, I’ve become more convinced that those who struggle with addiction, and I’d also say mental illness, are some of the prophets we need for this time. Both addiction and mental illness can distort our views, but they also can give a perspective that is hidden from many others. I’ve seen what happens when we assume that if a little of something is good, then a lot of something must be even better.
CB: For all your outrage at the powers that be who prey on our dependencies, your book seems to be more about changing consciousness than “the system.”
TMK: All my professional work, such as for Sojourners, has centered around social justice advocacy, and that passion for changing the system was a lot of what drove me to write the book at all. But I also think that politics and policy exist downstream from culture. And I thought there was a deep need for consciousness raising on this issue that would start pointing at some of the systemic issues at stake.
My hope is that someone might read this book because they are initially interested in the opioid crises but then walk away ready to hear the message of someone like Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy or Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow.
CB: So you and I share the privilege of being White, straight, middle-class males, and you’re grateful for all the other ways you were saved from additional suffering. Do you experience survivor’s guilt?
TMK: I think survivor’s guilt is one way to frame it, but I think I’ve tried to focus on the more positive view of, how do I turn the pain I’ve experienced into some kind of purpose? And, are there risks I can take because of my privilege that could help others who don’t have that kind of advantage?
For that I went back to Viktor Frankl and his work Man’s Search for Meaning and to the quote from Richard Rohr, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” My own healing is wrapped up in the ways that I can participate in the healing of others.
CB: On the one hand, the book is grounded in your year of excruciating pain and ultimate addiction. On the other, you provide few details of your recovery during the subsequent ten years when you wrote it. And for all the deft quotes by addiction experts, poets and philosophers, historical and biblical figures, where are the voices of folks living with addiction?
TMK: If there was one big thing I would go back and do differently it would be to have spent more time interviewing others in recovery or active addiction during my writing process. It wasn’t a conscious decision not to do interviews, but I wish I had now.
Part of the absence of my own story was the fact that I resisted thinking of myself as having been addicted or living in recovery. I simply didn’t talk about the experience for years and wasn’t proactive around any specific practices for sustaining recovery.
CB: Addiction and recovery memoirs are typically a mixture of the fascinating and the tedious. How does this apply to your story?
TMK: I think of my recovery story as simultaneously mundane and miraculous. Just because it was a slow progression over time and not a Saul-to-Paul moment on the road to Damascus doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a miraculous nature. I think we’ve lost a great deal of our sense of awe and wonder. When we reclaim that way of viewing the world, there are a lot more miracles to see.
CB: In the last chapter, you’ve returned to your parents’ home in New Hampshire, after leaving the hospital in Washington, D.C., and you attend Easter services in your childhood church, reflecting on the Resurrection story, not as a one-time miracle but something that “requires practice,” as Wendell Berry writes. How does that story compare to Camus’s Sisyphus, who you discuss in the chapter on despair?
TMK: I love that you connect Camus’s Sisyphus to the resurrection story. I think Camus does a great job naming the malaise and sense of acedia [apathy or listlessness] in our world today. At the same time, I find his description of why he assumes Sisyphus is happy to be beautiful: “Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world,” writes Camus. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
I read that as a description of the tenacity of the human spirit to create meaning and purpose even in the midst of what seems an endless struggle with no solution in sight. It is very close to a description of faith.
I diverge here in interpreting what seems like an endless cycle with a stone as one that is an ongoing process of death and resurrection. In that scenario, we aren’t entirely alone in the creation of meaning and purpose, but are instead co-creators of that meaning with others and the Divine.