Ghost in the opioid crisis? Haunting New York Times report probes New Hampshire's pain

If you spend much time in New Hampshire, as I do (visiting family), you know that it's a complex and interesting state.

Lots of people know about "Live free or die," the state's motto. Lots of people -- The New York Times quotes the regional slang, "hella wicked many” -- know about the state's unique tax structures and its state operated liquor stores.

Of course, I am interested in the state's interesting mix of secularism and radical individualism. Take a look at the Pew Research Center's "How religious is your state?" website and there's New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, right at the bottom of the chart. Note that 43 percent of folks in New Hampshire are absolutely sure that they believe in God.

So, how does one handle religion -- or a glaring lack of religion -- when dealing with haunting subjects like this state's opioid crisis? When dealing with hurting hearts, tortured minds and ravaged bodies, should journalists raise any questions about the human soul?

I thought about that as I read a stunning New York Times feature that ran with this headline, "1 Son, 4 Overdoses, 6 Hours." It was based on a year of face-to-face research with an addict named Patrick Griffin, his father Dennis (a recovering alcoholic), his mother Sandy and his sister Betsy, a recovering addict.

This is the rare case in which I want to praise a story that appears to have zero religious content. It's a great story, one that few readers will forget if they read to the final shattering lines. However, I also want to raise a journalism question: Should someone, at some point, have asked a few religious questions when covering a story that is packed with stark, life-and-death questions about moral issues and choices? Yes, where is God during this family's agony? Are there religious issues linked to the drug culture in this secular region? The Times notes:

In Patrick’s home state of New Hampshire, which leads the country in deaths per capita from fentanyl, almost 500 people died of overdoses in 2016. The government estimates that 10 percent of New Hampshire residents -- about 130,000 people -- are addicted to drugs or alcohol. The overall burden to the state, including health care and criminal justice costs and lost worker productivity, has ballooned into the billions of dollars. Some people do recover, usually after multiple relapses. But the opioid scourge, here and elsewhere, has overwhelmed police and fire departments, hospitals, prosecutors, public defenders, courts, jails and the foster care system.
Most of all, though, it has upended families.

This is, of course, a story centering on a health crisis that affects mind and body. But, throughout the piece, there are constant references to a great mystery: Why do some people recover and others do not? Why do some people make "good" choices and others "bad" choices? Or, as the omniscient voice of the Times asks:

All of it raises a question: Why is one person from the same family, the same background, and who has the same attraction to drugs, able to stop, but another cannot seem to?

I was struck by a simple, human symbol in one of the photo captions. Patrick and his mother have a "worry ring" that they trade back and forth, twisting it around and around as they struggle to focus their minds.

It's a kind of secular prayer ritual in response to fear and temptation. More than anything else, there is a haunting sense of personal pain.

As a young teenager, Patrick had been bullied, and later he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, his parents said. He said he started self-medicating at age 14 with beer and marijuana, then moved on to cocaine and crystal meth. “All I wanted to do was get high and forget,” he said. The meth made him vomit, so he turned to prescription painkillers that his friends stole from their parents. When the government tightened the supply of painkillers, Patrick sought out heroin and fentanyl. ...
Years later, he was diagnosed with major depression and borderline antisocial personality disorder, his family said, and more recently, post-traumatic stress disorder, illnesses that often go hand-in-hand with substance misuse. He has worked with mental health counselors for years, his family said, and has been on and off antidepressants.

Yes, the story is packed with people stepping into roles that are clearly pastoral, as well as medical or legal -- from mental health counselors to folks at the local gym, from public defenders to people offering their testimonies at the local Al-Anon group.

For example, am I the only person who senses a kind of religious ghost haunting this passage?

At Al-Anon sessions for families of alcoholics, Sandy learned what are known as the four C’s -- “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it and you can’t cure it, but you can contribute to it.” She said she came to understand that she had been an enabler. “Even though you think you’re helping them, you’re not,” she said. ...
On this evening, 17 people showed up at the group, called Families Sharing Without Shame. All had adult children either in the throes of addiction or in recovery. As they sat in a circle, they shared their horror at discovering the drug use going on under their roofs. They drew nods of recognition when they said they finally understood why their teaspoons were vanishing from their kitchens (powdered opioids are heated in a spoon with water to convert them to a liquid that can be injected).

A few lines later there is a simple, but crushing statement of fact: Some of the children of these parents "would die in the ensuing weeks."

Please, read this whole story. My praise for this piece is sincere. It's stunning work.

Nevertheless, I want to ask: Is this, in the end, a strictly "secular" subject? If all of these family and community dramas are faith-free, what does that mean? Have religious groups in New Hampshire simply looked the other way? If so, I would think that is part of the larger story, a story with larger moral and even religious themes.

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