Comment Opinion & Features

St Paul can help us tackle the curse of opioid addiction

It is better to suffer pain than to succumb to addiction to a dangerous drug

I first learned about the opioid affliction in America on reading JD Vance’s marvellous memoir Hillbilly Elegy – his story about growing up in America in a poor white family. Vance described an epidemic affecting his whole community and the desperate addiction to prescription painkillers from which 350,000 Americans have now died.

There are now concerns that this “opioid epidemic” is appearing in Britain, with a growing number of deaths from dependence and overdose of opioids (co-codamol, tramadol, codeine, co-dydramol, fentanyl and others). There has been a 41 per cent increase in these powerful painkillers over the past decade, and about 2,000 fatalities a year. Blackpool, St Helens and Barnsley are among the many deprived areas whose communities are suffering from opioid overdose.

Opioids are initially prescribed for pain. But all drugs can entail dependence, and black markets develop. Dr Andrew Green of the British Medical Association has called for immediate action to stem the increase in opioid use.

Doctors are being told to reduce the number of prescriptions and consider alternative methods to address pain or distress. But whether patients will accept that course of action is another question. We are so accustomed to demanding “a pill for every ill” that the idea of being refused a powerful painkiller for, say, back pain is now alien to our expectations.

The relief of pain is compassionate medicine, and one that societies have sought since the Franciscans set up centres caring for the sick all over Europe – and probably well before.

And yet, if we are to tackle the curse of opioid addiction, shouldn’t we also consider cultivating an attitude of stoicism? That it may be better to endure some pain than to succumb to a drug that can enslave and even kill?

It’s hard for us to accept that there isn’t always a pill for every ill, or that some pills may turn out to be worse than the illness they purport to cure. St Paul’s injunction to “suffer in silence” goes against the grain in our cultures today.

***

Joan Bond – who died on February 2, aged 81 – was the most brilliant librarian I have ever encountered. She ran the wonderful Catholic National Library (CNA) when it was situated at Francis Street, Westminster.

Joan had almost psychic powers when it came to locating a book or a publication (of which there were 70,000 volumes, plus 150 periodicals). Whether it was an obscure reference to something an Irish bishop wrote in 1937 – a request I once made – or a literary novel or work of popular devotion, Joan knew exactly where to find it without recourse to any catalogue. Everyone who used that library was impressed by her cheerful efficiency, and when a history of the library was written (A Centenniel History of the Catholic National Library, by Gerard Skinner, published by Fisher Press in 2013), Joan’s special knowledge was crucial.

The CNA in London had to close, and eventually, the valued books found a home at Durham University. Had it not been for Joan (and Antony Fisher) they might have been dispersed altogether.

Joan and her husband, Alan, a deacon, were Catholic converts and 59 years married; they had three children. Their daughter, Catherine, tells me that in recent years Joan had written a history of the church that they both loved, St Thomas the Apostle at Nunhead, Peckham, where her funeral will take place next Thursday.

I would love to think there could be a Joan Bond Catholic Library in the London area one day.

***

The boffins are claiming that pets really do come to resemble their owners. According to Prof Mark Farnworth of Nottingham University, cats pick up our traits and reflect our behaviour.

If your cat is grumpy – you know what that says about you. Or as a professor who specialises in “feline medicine” at Edinburgh University explains: “Cats are a mini-me. They are … strongly affected by people around them.”

Our household cat, Pussolini, is affectionate but self-centred, attached to people but independent, and there are some suspicions that she leads a double life, every so often mysteriously disappearing.

Perhaps it would be neurotic to probe too deeply into a feline’s capacity to mirror our personalities – and it might only make Puss more neurotic.

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4