The Opioid Crisis: Addiction and Emotion


In light of the rapid spread of the Opioid Epidemic across North America, I've been thinking about the relationship between substance use, trauma and systemic oppression.

Addictions (chemical or otherwise), have a direct correlation to seeking comfort, solace or relief from emotional pain and difficulty. Think about coffee or cigarettes – these substances provide us with energy, a moment to ourselves or a sense of relaxation.

As humans, we all experience stressful and traumatic events from which we may seek relief or escape. How we cope and adapt depends on our support systems and whether or not we feel a sense of belonging in our environments. Having a space, a relationship or a group within which you can share your emotional experience and feel validated can drastically impact your recovery and emotional well-being.

Further, when we gain tools to manage our emotional realities and have people we can trust with our feelings, emotional stability without substances is possible because we begin to feel more present, grounded and equipped to handle our feelings.

Culturally, we are not well equipped with skills in emotional regulation, awareness and maturity. We avoid our feelings and call it ‘independence’ and ‘strength’. We are an emotionally stunted society which is a significant contributing factor affecting rates of substance use and the current Opioid Crisis.

Support systems can be family and friends, professional services and institutions (education, law enforcement, government). When someone suffers a trauma without secure supports in place to manage and process their emotions, they will naturally seek alternative means to deal with/avoid their feelings.

For many, professional services are the only supports available, and often they are difficult to locate or access due to long wait lists, narrow eligibility criteria and challenges in system navigation. Marginalized communities often face systemic barriers to getting their needs met through cultural institutions. This is because cultural institutions are designed to support some (white, wealthy, able) at the expense of others (POC, working class, people with disabilities, mental health and addictions challenges).

People use substances to hide from their pain. Practically speaking, more access to support navigating emotional healing work is needed. We need programs and services that are accessible and responsive, and to dismantle systemic barriers that perpetuate the oppression of marginalized communities. Factors contributing to substance use like inadequate housing, mental health challenges, lack of employment opportunities and support services must be addressed.

Additionally, addressing the current Opioid Epidemic as well as addictions generally will require a paradigm shift to revision our approach to emotional management. In my view, we must dismantle the association of emotions to weakness. This is an idea steeped in misogyny that works to the detriment of people of all genders.

My clients are resilient and work tirelessly to find the support they need. Everyone does what they can to get their needs met. In my experience, people are doing their best with what they have access to, and this is an ideology we should adapt in lieu of the prevalent belief system that people who need support are lazy.

We all need support in our lives, and some are more privileged than others in this area. We would do well to humble ourselves and recognize that none of us are ‘independent’, and that facing and managing our emotions requires supports, education and a great deal of inner strength.

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