The current opioid epidemic is ballooning into one of the greatest public health crises in our nation’s history, and its impact is being felt by families across the spectrum of society. Young people and their still developing brains are especially prone the drugs’ addictive powers, and in the past decade death rates among teenagers stemming from opioid abuse have skyrocketed.
And even more alarming? These killer drugs can be found in household medicine chests across the country, in the form of brand-name pharmaceuticals — Percocet, Demerol, OxyContin. Though commonly prescribed as painkillers, these drugs, like heroin, are opioids.
Janis McGrory lost her 23-year-old daughter Liz to a heroin overdose in 2011 and has since become a tireless advocate for families and children who have also fallen victim. Her mission now is to fight the pharmaceutical companies that continue to peddle the lethal substances and to change an unforgiving public perception of a life-threatening condition that deserves to be treated with the same dignity and compassion as cancer.
“Addiction is a disease,” declared McGrory. “Not a moral failing.”
In a powerful interview with filmmaker Perri Peltz at the 2018 Women in the World Summit in New York on Saturday, McGrory recounted the tragic tale of how her once-vibrant teenage daughter — an honor student, athlete and “all-American girl” — was quickly derailed by the insidious grasp of drugs. During a party one night at the home of a classmate, Liz was offered an OxyContin pill. She liked it: It made her feel “good” and “powerful.” Soon enough, she was hooked.
McGrory recalled feeling utterly helpless — like she was stuck in the movie The Exorcist — as the daughter she loved disappeared before her very eyes. “That drug owned my daughter!” she lamented. “Wrapped its tentacles around her, squeezed the life out of her. It took over her brain.”
After she cleared out her bank account on prescription meds, Liz turned to street heroin and eventually spiraled into a futile cycle, in and out of detox and rehab. Desperate, McGrory even turned to the court system, begging a judge to throw her daughter in jail and not let her out until she agreed to get clean. Ultimately, Liz was too far gone. McGrory’s grief was palpable as she described the day she received the dreaded call from the police that her daughter had died.
Though activists have since won some battles against Big Pharma — including the passage of a Massachusetts law in 2016 mandating a seven-day limit for new opioid prescriptions and supporting anti-drug education for both students and doctors — those victories have done little to quell the epidemic. McGrory spoke of the need for continued vigilance against drug companies, government intervention, and more enlightened treatment options. And she urged everyone to run home and make sure their medicine cabinets were free of opioids that might fall into the hands of someone susceptible.
Additional reporting by Yasmeen Qureshi.