Erin Marie Daly is the author of Generation Rx: A Story of Dope, Death, and America’s Opiate Crisis, which tells the personal stories of young people whose addiction to painkillers led to heroin and, often, to death. Her book explores the causes, realities, and scope of America’s epidemic of opioid addiction, and the effect on families left behind—including her own. On September 28, Daly will be a special guest at the FED UP! Rally in Washington, D.C. Co-sponsored by Phoenix House, the Rally will shine a spotlight on the epidemic and serve as a call to action.
Erin Daly: My younger brother Pat died in 2009 of a heroin overdose at age 20. Because I was a journalist, I naturally tried to understand why. Pat had been battling painkiller addiction since high school, but at the time I didn’t know about the link between pills and heroin. As I started learning more about Pat’s downfall, I discovered that it wasn’t just my brother who had gone down this path. I was shocked to learn how many other young kids were getting hooked on painkillers and switching to heroin, which provides the same high as opiate pills but is cheaper. Painkillers are involved in more than 16,000 deaths each year, and heroin use has doubled. Once I understood the scope of the problem, I felt it would be unconscionable not to speak out about it.
Losing my brother was earth shattering. He was such a beautiful, light, kind person who brought so much joy. Writing the book helped me understand him more, as I dug into his life and learned how much pain he was in and how badly he wanted to get clean. I also learned about addiction: that it is literally a disease of the brain that if left untreated can be fatal. I didn’t understand this when Pat was addicted, and I might have acted with more compassion toward him had I known.
As I reported and heard other people’s stories, I also realized how much shame and stigma are associated with addiction—and the only way to break down those barriers is to talk about this enormous problem. Writing the book was very sad, but it was a learning process for me, and I hope others can benefit from it. I hope this will be Pat’s legacy instead of just one more young life lost to drugs.
PH: You tell the stories of many suburban families who have lost a child to opioid addiction. Why do you think this epidemic has hit suburban families so hard?
ED: There’s a lot of money in the suburbs, so kids are more likely to have disposable income to spend on pills, which can be pricey (thus the common transition to heroin). Their parents are also likely to have health insurance and be under the care of a doctor, which may mean more pills around the house. And I think part of it is just the fact that there is always a drug du jour, and right now, opiates are it. The story behind how that came to be is complicated, but in a nutshell, several major drug companies launched a massive marketing campaign in the 1990s claiming that patients’ pain wasn’t being adequately treated and opioids were the answer. The market became inundated with these powerful painkillers, which ended up in the hands of legitimate patients who became addicted, as well as the black market. In every place where painkiller abuse became rampant, heroin followed, and that’s why we’re seeing this epidemic affect places where heroin previously hadn’t been an issue—though this is obviously an urban issue as well.
PH: Feelings of regret are a major part of your story, as you write about things you wish you’d known or said to Pat before he died. Looking back, do you believe there’s anything you could have done that would have made a difference?
ED: That’s a difficult question. I think the answer is probably no; I don’t think I could have affected Pat’s outcome, but I do think I could have treated him with more compassion had I understood more about addiction in general, and the extent of his addiction in particular. Part of my healing process involved forgiving myself for my failures toward Pat. I often said things to him in anger and desperation, because I was scared of losing him and didn’t know how to help him. I also expressed how much I loved him; I wish I had done more of that. I don’t know if it would have made a difference in terms of preventing his death, but my hope is that others might learn from my mistakes and maybe have a different outcome.
PH: Relapsing is also a common theme in the book. Do you see lasting recovery as a real hope for people with an opiate addiction?
ED: Absolutely. Relapse is unfortunately often a part of recovery, but there are people who make it through. My book doesn’t focus on those who have achieved lasting recovery, partly because the demographic of the book is young adults who haven’t had a chance to build up those years yet. But it definitely happens.
PH: We were delighted to learn that you will be a featured speaker at the FED UP! Rally. Why did you decide to be a part of the Rally, and what do you hope comes out of it?
ED: I want people to get serious about taking this situation into their own hands, and the Rally brings together a community that is focused on doing just that. We need to figure out ways to spread awareness about addiction in general, and about the risks of painkillers and heroin in particular. There also needs to be more education and access to naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opiate overdose and can save a life. And the pharmaceutical companies need to be held accountable for their role in the epidemic. Above all, there needs to be more support for people who have been affected. It has been incredibly difficult to go public with my story, but the truth is that this is happening to so many families, and we shouldn’t be stigmatized or made to feel ashamed. If it’s happening to you or your family, know that you’re not alone; speak out, talk to people, and seek help. It’s not worth losing someone beautiful like Pat.
PH: How hopeful are you that we can turn things around, and what do you think we can do to make that happen?
ED: I do think that we can turn things around, but we need to be realistic about what success will look like. Success doesn’t look like the absence of heroin and prescription opioids—I don’t think that’s possible. To me, it looks more like lessening the death toll and increasing awareness.
To that end, I believe there are concrete measures we can take. For one thing, something needs to be done to address the marketing practices of Big Pharma. Consumers and doctors need adequate, truthful information to make informed decisions about these products. Secondly, given the fact that so many are already addicted to pills and heroin, harm reduction strategies like naloxone should become a greater focus. The fact is that kids are dying, and we have a way to stop some of those deaths; naloxone has saved at least 10,000 lives since 1996. We need to increase public awareness and accessibility to this overdose-reversing drug. And third, those who have been affected need to speak out and possibly prevent others from going down this path.
PH: What is the most important thing you hope readers take away from your book?
ED: I hope readers will come away with greater compassion for those struggling with painkiller and heroin addiction. Addicts are often judged to be lazy or immoral or weak willed. But addiction is so much more complex than the behaviors it entails. I’m often asked for advice by family members who have a loved one in the throes of addiction, and the first thing I say is to tell the addict, “I love you.” In my experience, addicts always know the extent of the pain they have caused, but they don’t always know how much they are loved. It won’t be the magical thing that fixes everything, because that thing does not exist. But it may have a positive impact on that person’s mindset, and put them on a different path.Back to Index