It’s 4 in the morning and I’ve just woken up in searing pain from my neck surgery. On my nightstand I have 3 pills of 5 mg Oxycodone that I take for pain every six hours. I take the medication and watch the clock… I know that in 30 minutes I will begin to feel the warm flow of relief that I depend on. Then I can sleep for a few more hours before I need to take more. I end up taking Oxycodone for a year because of recurrent chronic pain from a very serious surgery. That “warm flow” of relief becomes a rhythm in my life that intertwines into my nervous system and becomes necessary in a way that is hard to describe. The pain doesn’t stop, doesn’t get better even though I have completely healed from the procedure. I end up going to the University of Washington Center for Pain Relief and join an opiate taper study. I begin the journey of learning about pain, about receptors in my brain and how opiates operate and why it’s important to slowly taper off the medication. Even with the taper, withdrawal is hell.

That was 4 years ago and after three more back surgeries I have been on and off a series of pain medications and now suffer from a chronic pain condition called Small Fiber Neuropathy. Even though I am no longer taking any medication for the pain, there is no therapy, allopathic or “alternative,” that has helped. So, I suffer with burning neuropathic pain every day with no end in sight. This is hell too.

I imagine my nervous system like a watershed on fire, the dendritic river-like patterns inflamed in a chronic panic response.   Was this because of the medications I have been on or is there a deeper interconnection between what my experience is and the wildfires ravaging the too-dry forests of the Pacific Northwest? Are the watersheds that are burning like the wildfire of my nervous system? Are we experiencing a collective chronic pain response? Is that why we are experiencing an opioid crisis of epidemic proportions? The opportunistic pharmaceutical companies are surely to blame – but are they the cause??

In last Tuesday’s New York Times there was an article about the connection between the condition of the Klamath River and the abuse of opioids by the Native Yurok people who depend on the wild runs of salmon for their subsistence.

The article wisely and carefully makes the connection of the abuse of both prescription opioids and heroin to the loss of the wild runs of salmon in the Klamath River. Yurok tribal attorney Amy Codalis said:

“Now it feels like the river is as sick as it has ever been. I think last year was the first time in history that the Yurok people did not fish on the Klamath,” Ms. Cordalis said. “When you start separating those ties, it really affects people.”

Could the pain from this loss, the river too-warm, “on fire,” be reflected in the pathways of the nervous systems of the Native people? Does this push some of them to use opioids as the only relief, the only way to stop the unbearable pain from this loss?

Maybe this story helps us better understand what is at the deep, dark ruined root of our collective response to the panic we experience when we breathe in wildfire smoke, watch the Orca mother carrying her dead calf for 18 days, and notice wild plants and young trees withering from lack of rain here in our Pacific Northwest rainforests. And, salmon, desperately trying to find their way home in oceans of plastics and then dying in their too-warm rivers polluted from reservoirs created by outdated and unnecessary dams.

I wrote The Same River to be an exciting and passionate story about the possible process of dam removal. It is also a teaching story, one that inspires us to look more deeply at who we are and how we can begin to imagine a world where;

“The sound of the Nesika grew louder and louder, drawing the women’s attention to the current and for a moment the salmon disappeared and the water changed as the dam rose up and then came down. Then in a breath, the salmon returned and continued spawning in the shallows.” p. 241

Maybe there is also something in this story that is about understanding the pain we are all feeling. The chronic fire in our nervous system that cries out for relief, for the “warm flow” that opiates offer us. But the relief becomes tangled, and hard or impossible to unweave from our bodies. Perhaps, if we can look more deeply, slow down and attend to the panic and fear ravaging our earth and our bodies we can listen for the story that will help us take care of each other and our home in a new way.

There are stories of restoration and redemption, like the colorful flags and the powerful songs and speeches that helped to welcome the salmon back home to the Elwah River here in Washington State after its dams were removed.

The capacity of that watershed to respond and adapt has been a powerful testament to the ability of ecological systems to move in and take over when we get dams out of their way. I bow to the wisdom of those systems and to the broken hearts of the people who live along the banks of the Klamath and other rivers, their veins broken open looking for relief from unbearable, unnamable suffering.