“The Conners” television series tackles the nation’s problem of opioid addiction on several fronts.
Do people who misuse opioids really just stop breathing when they’re asleep?
And how common is it for family and friends to secretly obtain prescription pain medications for each other?
At least initially, it appears the show didn’t exaggerate the problems.
This opioid plot line was put into place long before the “Roseanne” show was canceled in May due to a series of racist tweets from its star, Roseanne Barr.
In the spring revival of the 1990s comedy, audiences saw the Roseanne character coping with chronic pain from a long-delayed knee surgery.
Her husband Dan, played by John Goodman, is even seen disposing of his wife’s pain medicine, trying to nip a potential problem in the bud during her surgical recovery.
What Dan and his family didn’t realize, however, is that Roseanne’s problem grew worse — quietly.
The coroner eventually reveals that the Roseanne character took a dose of an opioid painkiller and stopped breathing in her sleep.
“Not possible,” Dan says to his sister-in-law Jackie, played by Laurie Metcalf. “We knew she had a problem. She was only on pain pills for two days. Then it was just ibuprofen.”
Little did he know.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that
That’s more than 40,000 people in one year.
The number isn’t shrinking either.
Roseanne’s death puts another face on the opioid crisis, albeit a fictional one.
Indeed, the family assumed because their matriarch died in her sleep that she’d suffered a heart attack.
This painful realization is one all too many families have after the loss of a loved one, says Peter Grayson, an addiction expert at The Recovery Spot in New York City.
“I’ve heard numerous stories of partners of long-term opiate or heroin addicts waking up next to unresponsive partners in bed, saying that they thought they were OK when they fell asleep,” Grayson told Healthline.
“It’s very common for opioid overdoses to result in death due to respiratory suppression,” Odom told Healthline. “During medical detoxification, patients are monitored closely for breathing status, as opioid medications are central nervous system depressants.”
The website Drugabuse.com explains this type of death simply.
Opioids halt pain sensations in your brain. They can also slow your breathing, helping you relax. But too much of a good thing can also be dangerous.
“The right amount of drugs slows your breathing; the wrong combination stops your breathing. Big difference,” the website states.
The site estimated that 44 people per day in the United States die as “a result of respiratory arrest brought on by prescription opioid overdose.”
On “The Conners” show, as Dan and Jackie are talking, daughters Darlene, played by Sara Gilbert, and Becky, played by Lecy Goranson, join the two, and Becky reveals she found a bottle of opioid medication in Roseanne’s closet.
However, the name on the bottle wasn’t Roseanne’s. It was the name of a neighbor, Marcy Bellinger.
Dan, feeling a mix of anger and despair, hangs a sign on his truck, calling attention to Marcy’s role in his wife’s death.
“Thank you Marcy Bellinger for the pills that killed my loving wife Roseanne,” he writes.
Marcy, played by Mary Steenburgen, comes to the Conners’ home to ask Dan to remove the sign.
In her request, she unveils another aspect of life at the economic seams. Medication is expensive. Insurance isn’t generous. And some people do things that’re less than legal to get by.
“Nobody can afford their meds. We all help each other,” a visibly distraught Marcy says. “When Sally Benson needed Lipitor for her husband’s cholesterol, they got some from Maria Ramirez, and they gave her the anxiety meds she needed for her son because they dropped her insurance. Rosie needed painkillers. I had some, so I gave them to her.”
Odom said he’s heard reports from patients that they knew people who had pain issues and they’d ask these friends, peers, and family members for pills or to refill their own prescription so they could borrow.
“It is especially common in occupations with higher injury rates, such as construction, first responders, and healthcare,” Odom said.
Grayson says it’s reasonable that the show’s producers would incorporate this portion of the opioid epidemic as part of “The Conners” storyline.
“It’s both very realistic given the established history of prior abuse, coupled with the blatant lack of education or insight into the disease of addiction,” he said. “Many textbook stereotyped forms of enabling, lack of understanding, and opportunities to continue discussions presented themselves through the dialogue, which translates into a greater opportunity to bring more to the forefront of mainstream discussion and education.”
Grayson added that shows like this can lead to de-stigmatizing the opioid epidemic issues so more people may be willing to seek out treatment they need.
Not everyone agrees.
The Pain News Network reported that many of its readers were incensed that the Roseanne character died of an opioid overdose.
Those readers said the show does a disservice to people who do need prescription pain medications for chronic pain.
They added that opioids aren’t as easy to obtain as the show portrayed.
“It was bad enough when they made pain meds a focus of the rebooted show when the first episode of the show’s return aired. Now we have the added stigma, as intractable pain people, of them choosing to have Roseanne die from opioid misuse,” a reader identified as Jack said.
“The producers handled the circumstances and facts surrounding Roseanne’s character’s death with sensitivity and accuracy,” Odom said. “The manner in which it was handled as a way to highlight our opioid crisis is timely and appropriate.”
If you or a loved one is dealing with substance abuse issues, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357).