Leave the world a better place than when you entered it.
Arthur Sackler to his children
I SURVIVED THE OPIOID CRISIS. I narrowly escaped. I went from the darkness and ran full speed into The World. I was isolated, but I realized I wasn’t alone. When I got out of treatment I became absorbed in reports of addicts dropping dead from my drug, OxyContin.
I learned that the Sackler family, whose name I knew from museums and galleries, were responsible for the epidemic. This family formulated, marketed, and distributed OxyContin. I decided to make the private public by calling them to task. My first action is to publish personal photographs from my own history.
My relationship to OxyContin began several years ago in Berlin. It was originally prescribed for surgery. Though I took it as directed I got addicted overnight. It was the cleanest drug I’d ever met. In the beginning, forty milligrams was too strong but as my habit grew there was never enough. At first, I could maintain. Then it got messier and messier. I worked the medical field in Berlin for scripts. When they shut me out I turned to FedEx. That worked until it didn’t. The drug, like all drugs, lost its effect, so I picked up the straw.
I returned to New York. My dealer never ran out of Oxy and delivered 24/7. He had massive prescriptions and made massive amounts of money. For every penny he spent on a script he made a dollar on the black market. I went from three pills a day, as prescribed, to eighteen. I got a private endowment and spent it all. Like all opiate addicts my crippling fear of withdrawal was my guiding force.
I didn’t get high, but I couldn’t get sick. My life revolved entirely around getting and using Oxy. Counting and recounting, crushing and snorting was my full-time job. I rarely left the house. It was as if I was Locked-In. All work, all friendships, all news took place on my bed. When I ran out of money for Oxy I copped dope. I ended up snorting fentanyl and I overdosed.
I wanted to get clean, but I waited a year to go into treatment because of my fear of withdrawal. Then in January I went into rehab for two and a half months. I was one of the fortunate ones who could afford an excellent hospital, which isn’t an option for most people. I’ve stayed clean for almost a year. Getting off drugs and staying off drugs are two different things, each painful in their own way. But going back is not an option. My endowment was cut off and I regret the money I wasted. I regret the time I lost, which is irretrievable. Now I find the world hard to navigate, but I have a sharpened clarity and a sense of purpose.
I believe I owe it to those affected by this epidemic to make the personal political. I read the brilliant articles by Patrick Radden Keefe and Margaret Talbot (in the New Yorker) and Christopher Glazek (in Esquire) and I interpreted them as a call to arms. I knew of no political movements on the ground like ACT UP. Most of my community was lost to AIDS. I can’t stand by and watch another generation disappear.
The Sacklers made their fortune promoting addiction. OxyContin is one of the most addictive painkillers in the history of pharmacology. They advertised and distributed their medication knowing all the dangers. The Sackler family and their private company, Purdue Pharma, built their empire with the lives of hundreds of thousands. The bodies are piling up. In 2015, in the US alone, more than thirty-three thousand people died from opioid overdoses, half of them from prescription opioids; 80 percent of those who use heroin or buy fentanyl on the black market began with an opioid prescription. These statistics are growing exponentially.
I’ve started a group, P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), to hold them accountable. To get their ear we will target their philanthropy. They have washed their blood money through the halls of museums and universities around the world. We demand that the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma use their fortune to fund addiction treatment and education. There is no time to waste.
We want to leave the world a better place than when we entered it.
Nan Goldin, New York, 2017
Instagram and Twitter: @sacklerpain
Nan Goldin would like to thank Alex Kwartler, Claudia Poulter, Sam Roeck, and Alex Sturrock.