Of poverty and prescription meds

Neither story was new news, but seeing both of them on yesterday morning’s front pages made me stop and ask, what is wrong with our country, and what is wrong with me?

First the San Jose Mercury warned, “Poverty Rate at 18-Year High,” with an article that largely recounted census data already known, such as 27% of African-Americans and Hispanics have incomes below the poverty line, and the hardest-hit among us are children and young adults.  But it also offered some personal vignettes to make the numbers seem more real.  For example, the author, Matt O’Brien, highlighted a single mother of two children who has moved in with her grandmother after losing her own apartment, but is in fact now moving from place to place since her grandma’s home is in foreclosure.

Stories like this woman’s are repeated all too often among the 46.2 million people who live in poverty in the U.S., officially earning less than $22,113 for a family of four.  It’s hard to wrap my mind around the numbers, but we’re talking about more than 15 percent of our population.

Then I turned to the New York Times on my iPad (yes, I acknowledge the irony), and one of the featured stories was about a clinic in rural Kentucky that has decided to stop issuing new prescriptions for Xanax and its generic equivalent, as well as to wean current patients off the drug because of concern over its abuse.  According to the article by Abby Goodnough, “While Kentucky and other states have focused largely on narcotic painkiller addiction, experts say that benzodiazepines, the class of sedatives that includes Xanax, are also widely misused or abused, often with grim consequences.”

I’ll be honest: my initial reaction was less than charitable. At first I thought, well, it seems like a drastic step to cut off all Xanax prescriptions, but maybe people in rural Kentucky just don’t know what’s best for them.  My judgmental attitude was only heightened by a quote from a disappointed clinic patient whose style of speech indicated a lack of education.  Referring to how her panic attacks had increased after switching off Xanax to its generic counterpart, she said, “But if this ain’t doing it, something’s got to change.”

Then I stopped myself.  You know, this lady was speaking the truth.  Something does need to change.  Why has this clinic and others like it experienced so much drug abuse among its patients in the first place?  Why do people in Appalachia and other rural areas suffer from panic attacks and depression?  I would guess it has a lot to do with the other story I happened to read about burgeoning poverty in America.  It’s hard to feel optimistic about the future when you’ve lost your job, haven’t been able to find another one and don’t know how you’re going to feed your family.  So changing my mind, I began to despair about the state of our economy and society, where people can’t find “honest work,” but somehow are able to get free or reduced-price prescriptions that help them deal with the stress of not being able to pay the bills — that dull the pain when they lose hope.  Not unlike the use of street drugs in poor urban settings, prescription drug abuse of the type seen at this Kentucky clinic goes hand in hand with rural poverty.

My reaction to problems that loom so large they seem unsolvable is, regrettably, one of distancing and distracting myself.  Other than writing checks to support organizations that assist the poor, or greeting a homeless “friend” I encounter regularly, I have little personal interaction with the poverty that exists right in front of me.  As for prescription meds, I wholeheartedly support using them to alleviate pain, anxiety and depression.  But my knowledge of prescription drug abuse is limited to things like the TV show “House,” where although the main character is an irascible Vicodin addict, he is nonetheless brilliant and, in his own way, lovable.  So in short, I know nothing of true poverty or real abuse of prescription drugs.  And I’m fine keeping it that way. 

But that’s the problem. I’m ashamed to admit how trivial my own concerns are when contrasted with societal challenges like these, and on a more personal level, with the individual struggles with which poor people wrestle every day as they try to eke out a living, to hold onto their dignity.  I feel guilty that, if I’m worried about something, it might be the multiple tests my son has tomorrow, or how to build community among the new group of women I’m leading on my tennis team this season.  Sure, I may be concerned about meeting long-term financial goals, but I’m not feeling anxious about whether there’s food for my kids to eat tonight, or where we’re going to live next month.

Shame and guilt are understandable responses, but gratitude is a better one.  Just as I can’t be blamed for having a place closer to the top of the pyramid than the bottom, I also can’t take credit for it.  If I focus on being grateful for the gifts I’ve been given, however, I can have a more charitable attitude towards those who didn’t receive such abundance.  For example, Second Harvest Food Bank runs a campaign every summer called “Share Your Lunch,” where for the cost of a lunch (about $10) you can provide twenty meals for hungry kids.  It doesn’t seem like much by itself, but if all of us who have plenty to eat skipped lunch once a week and directed the money towards feeding the hungry, the impact would be huge.

I’m not advocating any particular solution.  The problems of poverty and drug abuse are vast even within a wealthy country like the United States.  But walling myself off from problems is not an option I can live with.  Retreating to my suburban enclave where I don’t have to feel guilty or ashamed about my discomfort with the poor and their problems is not the answer.  Instead I need to reach out in gratitude, not feeling bad because I have more, but feeling good because I get to share.  It’s not going to be easy.  But I have to try.



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