The human side of the opioid scourge

The human side of the opioid scourge

This week’s Allegheny Institute Policy Brief (Vol. 17, No. 22) explores the high and growing economic cost of this nation’s opioid abuse scourge. Indeed, the numbers are a stark indictment of the severity of the problem.

But far too many also know the human cost – the soul-numbing experience of losing a loved one to drug addiction.

Eleven years ago, before this story became the public health crisis it now is considered to be, its ugly tentacles reached into the McNickle family.

Below, a reprint of my Aug. 27, 2006, column in the old Pittsburgh Tribune-Review detailing my daughter’s heart-rendering experience with her late boyfriend. It was headlined “A death in the family”:

Losing a first love to a breakup surely is heart-wrenching. But losing that first love to death must stretch the limits of all known feelings. I don’t know that feeling, thank God. Sadly, my first-born now does.

My elder daughter Taylor — all of 20 and struggling to find her place in the world as so many 20-year-olds do — last week suddenly had her first love peeled from her heart. Suddenly, but not necessarily unexpectedly.

I don’t know if Taylor and Jay, 25, eventually would have married. But I do know they were in love. Dads know these things and understand love’s unstoppable force. Daughters might always be daddy’s little girls but we know our limits.

Jay strived to overachieve but found only little success, as “success” popularly is measured these days.

There was a tangle with the law as a juvenile; there was a more serious encounter as an adult.

There were jobs, fought for hard and won; there were jobs lost when the immutable law of life — actions have consequences — was invoked as surely as the sun sets each day.


There were accidents, near-death experiences — at the beach and on the road.

There was pain and there was anxiety. Great pain and wicked anxiety.

Taylor, no stranger to struggling to master the basic vagaries that life presents — but with far more successes than she gives herself credit for — formed a kinship with Jay. In her heart of hearts, she wanted to protect this fellow struggling traveler.

Indeed, for the last year and a half, she did. As best as a young woman a score old knew how and with a capacity for empathy — empathy, mind you, not sympathy — that runs deep and wise in Taylor beyond her years.

And in the process of protecting Jay, she learned much from him. A math whiz, he opened her mind to numbers and their relationships; it always had been her weak spot.

She also better learned humility and how to give of oneself when the gain is not pecuniary but personal: Jay set a wonderful example by regularly volunteering at a homeless shelter.

Taylor grew up. Her eyes were opened to a wider world of the far less fortunate. She learned to laugh more, particularly at herself. She spread her wings and embraced new things.

And she learned of love and to love — the deep, abiding kind that is the rarest of commodities, the kind for which most people long search but seldom find.

But Jay’s pain and anxiety were his demons. As happens with so many people — too many people — with both afflictions, prescribed drugs can become addicting crutches. If the addiction goes denied, untreated or half-treated, the demons win. And when the prescriptions run out and cannot be had, the demons demand substitutes.

The demons won Tuesday last. What he took, why he took it and where it came from remain question marks. But Jay died. In his bedroom. Photographs of “T,” as he called her, nearby. Found by his devoted mother. His sister had the lousy job of calling her brother’s girlfriend.

I held my sobbing daughter on her bed Tuesday night. Taylor wondered if Jay, a master of frugality who would bargain down a $1 flea-market item, had a last will and testament.

“I don’t know if there’s anything to leave to me,” Taylor said, the tears rolling down her cheeks as her dad did a poor job of maintaining his composure. “But if there is any money,” she said, “I’m giving it to the homeless shelter.”

“He’d be oh so very proud of you,” I said, finally breaking down.

And perhaps the demons won’t have the last laugh.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (