• October 27, 2020

Presidential Debate Reveals the Stigma Around Addiction in US

 Presidential Debate Reveals the Stigma Around Addiction in US

Former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump spar in first presidential debate of 2020. Photo from C-SPAN

We all – including President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden – seem to have survived last night’s national nightmare of a presidential “debate.” Forget reality TV politics: America needs more than an awkward verbal brawl (or was that a limp-wristed hand slap fight?) from two impatient septuagenarians who require the likes of Chris Wallace to babysit them on national TV.

Politics is supposed to be boring. Politics is supposed to be policy, and all policy is necessarily dependent on people: Politics is people. Period.

That’s what was missing from the first presidential debate of the 2020 Election cycle: Humans – you, me, your mom, grandpa, dad, grandma, sister, awkward cousin, brother, normal cousin, etc. All of those categories, i.e. our families and communities, seem to have been left out of that made for TV slap fest.

The worst part was that the nearly half a million lives lost to the opioid epidemic over the past two decades were only brought into the debate as dueling punchlines. So too were the millions of Americans still struggling with addiction to opioids – a bipartisan, government subsidized killer.

That’s where the president of the United States of America – a nation losing as many lives as were lost in the Vietnam War ANNUALLY to overdoses – let the nation down.

That unseemly outburst gave Biden the chance to truly open about his son’s struggle with addiction.

But Biden stopped short of truly going there. Sure he’s being praised for his “honesty.”

“Biden acknowledging his sons addiction and embracing recovery is a meaningful sign to any American struggling through addiction – that things can get better, and that help is on the way,” according to Dave Marlon, the CEO of CrossRoads of Southern NV, the largest drug and rehab center in Nevada. “It’s also important to remember President Trump has said similar things about his brother Fred’s fight with alcoholism many years ago.”  

The spat only highlights a glaring problem in America: Culturally, we’re trained to hide our family or our own personal struggles, especially if they involve substances. But that’s a part of the problem. Addicts aren’t novel or rare. They’re our family members, coworkers, friends, lovers, and they’re even many of us.

That’s why Americans can surely handle more than a snippet on the addiction epidemic plaguing the nation, which is currently represented by the opioid crisis. But if it weren’t an opioid epidemic, it would surely be another substance because Americans are obviously longing for something they aren’t getting.

Many of us have already had to learn these hard truths on our own. That’s why we need political leaders to start a sustained and focused discussion about how addiction has now been normalized; well, at least the government approved drugs that have fostered this downward spiral have been.

America needs a president to not just go there once, but to keep the national focus there. And ‘there’ is the depths of despair addiction pulls entire families and communities into. For too many, it’s a death spiral. That downward spiral can be reversed but not through petty partisan barbs and surely not through ‘winning’ a contest of one-liners. Americans need frank talk about these issues from an adult; not from politicians who speak out of both sides of their mouths.  

Thus far, most American ‘leaders’ have kept their family problems private, so it was good Biden finally opened up about something that his opponents have whispered about for years now. That’s wrong; both Republicans using a personal struggle for political gains, and also for a public figure like Biden to keep a family struggle that millions of other families also are struggling with private for so long.

Thankfully it’s now out in the open, because addiction, overdoses, and drug abuse are now public utilities: Congress and numerous White House’s have fostered this culture, and they – leaders of both parties – now own all they helped break.

Some newer members of Congress get it. Especially members with children who went through the hell of withdrawal, even as they themselves endured the hell that is loving an addict (and it’s hell; even if a temporary one).

“I think sometimes opioid addiction is kept in the shadows. We know we still struggle with stigma,” Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) told The News Station . “I want to try to do everything I can to shine a bright light on addiction as a disease, not a moral failing.”

Earlier this month Trump accused Biden of having a “drug problem.” The problem with that statement is multi-layered. For starters, if Trump would bother to take the time to read a briefing book from his campaign (let alone one from the nation’s intelligence agencies…), he’d know Biden is a teetotaler like he is.

And if the president took just one more second to pause and think about the pain and sorrow he and the other grandfather on stage have shared, as opposed to the election he seems to care about more than his own family and more than our collective American community, I bet he’d reconsider his barbs.

But Trump isn’t one to show his cards. Even though – if he’s ever listened to a briefing from his Health Department – he knows America is in the grips of an opioid epidemic of untold proportions.

Both the Biden and Trump families are truly American. These days, sadly, that means they’ve both endured un-quantifiable pain after losing or struggling alongside cherished relatives who struggle(d) with addiction. That makes both Trump and Biden feel more like average Americans than anything else, because about 1 in 3 Americans (well, at least the honest ones…) report knowing someone addicted to opioids.

Instead of coming together to tackle a bipartisan (or nonpartisan? Even ANTI-partisan?) issue on the national stage, addiction became fodder – or worse, an afterthought or punchline – for the cameras. The pain wrought by that dismissiveness was surely felt by millions of Americans, because sorrow, pain, scars, wounds, and heartbreak are never far from those of us who’ve had to say goodbye to loved ones who used pain meds until those pills flipped the script and used them.

Cameras aren’t people though, and political points aren’t refundable here in reality. As someone who’s lost countless people to the opioid epidemic – an aunt, an uncle, a best bud, a best bud’s brother; to name just a few I was forced to say goodbye to through caskets or shitty ceramic vases in the past two years alone. I know the families of those inflicted by addiction don’t need reality TV fireworks from the political class. They need answers. They’re – we’re – desperate for solutions.

Potential solutions are there. Thankfully, unlike that debacle of a presidential debate, those solutions remain bi-, non-, and anti-partisan. They’re American. This opioid epidemic is preventable. Or it was until both parties decided to put fundraising, GIFs, and memes over sound policy.

If last night is the new standard for a “presidential” debate, I’d rather see these two men put America truly first and ditch the next two altogether. Because, at least at this point – as a large swath of non-politically engaged Americans are tuning in to the election for the first time – the nation would be better served by having these two senior citizens find a nursing home with an expansive outdoor shuffleboard court.

Even stupid male feats of ‘strength’ would be better than that first debate showing. Whatever that was, it surely wasn’t an answer to a glaring problem plaguing millions of American families.

Matt Laslo

Matt Laslo

Based in Washington, Matt Laslo is a veteran political and music reporter. Since 2006, he’s been a contributor with VICE News, VICE News Tonight HBO, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Billboard, The Atlantic, NPR, etc. He’s taught journalism at Boston University (MA) and The University of Maryland (BA). And he teaches political communications at The Johns Hopkins University MA in Government and Public Policy program. He can be found on most all social media platforms as @MattLaslo.

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