May 23, 2015, started out as a particularly good day for Travis Rieder. He enjoyed the early morning hours with his toddler daughter while his wife slept, then set out for a motorcycle tour in the mountains. Less than three blocks into his ride, however, disaster struck when a van pulled out of an intersection and broadsided Rieder, traumatically injuring his left foot. While doctors were able to salvage the limb, he was left with an open wound for a month and faced multiple surgeries, years of recovery and the news that he was unlikely to ever walk unaided.
Sadly, there was even more to this nightmare. Those first months of seemingly endless, searing pain left Rieder addicted to opioids, with no medical professionals willing or able to help him withdraw from his medications, despite his and his wife’s desperate pleas for help. “I thought I would die—either from the withdrawal itself or by my own hand,” Rieder writes in his powerful, informative memoir, In Pain: A Bioethicist’s Personal Struggle With Opioids.
A research scholar at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, Rieder is uniquely equipped to narrate not only his own story but also a broader look at America’s opioid problem. His prose is clear and compelling, whether he’s describing a torturous night spent writhing on the bathroom floor, not sure he can survive until morning, or examining the science and history of addiction and the changes needed in our health care system and society’s approach to the issue. Never pedantic, Rieder eloquently explains that addiction is “a health problem rather than a criminal justice problem” that needs to be addressed “with evidence-based therapies rather than punishment.”
Rieder was lucky. His unyielding determination allowed him to kick his opioid habit and learn to walk without assistance. Realizing that he was hardly alone in his addiction struggle, he listened to the advice of his colleagues: “Tell the story. Shine a light. Don’t let the suffering of people . . . exist in darkness anymore.”
The result is an important book that goes hand in hand with Beth Macy’s Dopesick. Readers of both will not only be enlightened but likely find their attitudes about this devastating crisis transformed.