Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell shares personal connection to opioid epidemic

On many issues, our congressional representatives have to do their homework -- talk to constituents, drill down on matters that might be a little foreign to them.

But on the opioid crisis, congresswoman Debbie Dingell has more than enough personal experience to guide her. Too much, in fact, starting with her father.

'I lived in a household with someone that had an opioid drug addiction before anyone talked about it or understood that prescription drugs could be dangerous. I had a sister who died of a drug overdose. and I live with a man who doesn't like me to talk about it but who lives with chronic pain. I just had an MRI, an x-ray and a sonogram done on his shoulder and the collar bone was gone. It's bone on bone. He lives in pain every single day,” said Dingell.

And therein lies the juggling act for crafting policy -- trying to stem the addictions that plagued her father and sister and yet respecting the pain management needs of those like her 91-year-old husband and predecessor in Congress, John Dingell. Congresswoman Dingell admits it isn’t an easy subject to talk about because she has lived with both sides of it.

As a child in St. Clair, Mich., she didn't understand that all wasn't right in her house. She thought it was normal to have a parent who slept all day and was up all night like her father did most days.

And if that had been the extent of the backwash on the family, it probably would've been fine. But in the middle of the Democrats' sit-in over the debate on gun control, the truth spilled forth on the house floor of what it was like for young Debbie Dingell to grow up with an addict.

"I know what it's like to live in a house with a man who should not have had access to a gun," said Dingell. "I know what it's like to see a gun pointed at you and wonder if you were going to live. And I know what it's like to hide in a closet and pray to God, 'do not let anything happen to me.'"

Her father eventually made it into a drug treatment program, but not until after it had cost her parents their marriage.

And agony would visit the family years later. Her younger sister Mary Grace, perhaps most damaged by the pains of her childhood, started using drugs in her teens and they finally killed her in an overdose at the age of 40 after years of attempts at rehab. And while her father suffered by the stigma of a problem no one talked about, Mary Grace was just as tormented by a drug problem that lived in the open. 

“We did everything we could to save her. There was nothing that I didn't experience in those decades of trying to save her,” recalls Dingell. 

And now, after all of that, she labors in the building that debates and creates the nation's healthcare. Since 1999, the number of prescriptions written for opioid painkillers has tripled. Of the more than 30,000 opioid deaths in 2015, about half were from prescription opioids. And of course many of the others were from drugs that became the go-to after an opioid prescription created a dependency.

The prescription angle means the seeds of the epidemic are sown not on the streets, but in the home. Congresswoman Dingell says the prescription drug problem is in the medicine cabinet in almost every family’s home which complicates the matter greatly.


Time and again during our conversation, the congresswoman returned to that word -- complicated. It is deeply complicated to clamp down on the rampant distribution and use of opioids while at the same time appreciating that those turning to the drugs are in pain. Dingell worries about stigmatizing people who have a legitimate need for pain relief.

"When you go to the pharmacy people are almost being made to feel like a criminal when you fill that prescription. And how do we ... that's the challenge ... how do we make sure that people who have a legitimate health need are able to have what they need and be taken care of and at the same time not promote a drug habit or a drug problem?" said Dingell.

In the middle of America's debate on healthcare, Dingell wonders if we've given up too much by moving away from an iconic staple -- the family doctor. She also believes that while much of this boils down to the management of physical pain, much of the problem is entangled in our mental health. 

"A lot of people who become addicted to either prescription drugs, hard drugs on the street, heroin, cocaine, the drugs that we buy or alcohol are self-medicating. They have anxiety, they're depressed. They can't get the help they need, so they self-medicate," said Dingell.

Yes, the often overlooked truth of drug abuse for too many people: Daily life is either too much, or not enough.

MORE: Opioid Nation