Nan Goldin's Misleading OxyContin Story Feeds the Myth of 'Highly Addictive' Pain Pills

Like most people who become addicted to prescription opioids, the famous photographer had a history of substance abuse.


Nicola Marfisi / Avalon.red / Newscom

Last April the photographer Nan Goldin staged an anti-opioid protest at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which she targeted because of its namesake's connection to Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin. Yet Arthur Sackler, a psychiatrist and pioneer in medical advertising, died in 1987, at which point his interest in the company that would become Purdue Pharma was sold to his brothers, Raymond and Mortimer. That was eight years before OxyContin was introduced, and Arthur's heirs never saw a dime of profits from sales of the drug. According to Thessaly La Force, who profiles Goldin in The New York Times today, the artist is unfazed by these facts: "She says that Arthur Sackler, who ran an advertising agency that successfully marketed the drug Valium in the '60s, essentially created the model that was later used by his brothers…to sell OxyContin for profit, ultimately at the expense of lives."

Journalists who cover Goldin's activism, which she attributes to an OxyContin prescription that went horribly wrong, show a similar slipperiness, gliding over the biographical details that complicate the misleading and pernicious narrative of an "opioid epidemic" driven by the accidental addiction of drug-naive patients treated for pain. La Force, unlike her Times colleague Colin Moynihan, at least acknowledges Goldin's long history of substance abuse, which includes intermittent addiction to heroin beginning in the early 1970s, more than two decades before OxyContin existed. La Force also notes that Goldin was well aware of OxyContin's reputation in 2014, when she received a prescription for it to treat wrist pain while living in Germany. "I had heard it was a really evil drug, but I didn't think it would do me," Goldin tells La Place. "I thought I had a lot of control."

It is hard to see why, given Goldin's earlier experience with addiction to pain pills. In 2014, the same year she received that OxyContin prescription, Goldin told The Guardian's Sean O'Hagan she had experienced "a few relapses" since entering rehab in 1988, "including a 'major' one in 2000, when she was prescribed strong painkillers for a serious injury to her hand." La Place does not mention that episode, which shows that Goldin knew she had trouble controlling her use of pain medication long before the OxyContin prescription that she says propelled her down a path that led to a nearly fatal fentanyl overdose and into a new career as an anti-opioid activist.

Goldin herself does not mention her decades of polydrug use in her Artforum and Time essays explaining the roots of her activism. Given the way she describes her OxyContin-triggered addiction and ensuing brush with death, most readers undoubtedly will assume she fits the profile that the government presents as typical: A patient unwittingly takes a "highly addictive" drug prescribed for pain and is hooked before she knows it. "I didn't know they'd be this addictive," say the addicts portrayed in the federal government's new anti-opioid ads, who deliberately injure themselves so they can get prescriptions for pain pills. "I didn't know how far I'd go to get more."

But the truth is that prescription opioids are not "this addictive" for most people, as this exchange between Goldin and La Place illustrates:

Goldin asked if I ever tried an opioid. I told her that in college, I took OxyContin once; it made me feel sick. She nodded. I asked her what opioids felt like for her. "They make everything all right. They're like a padding between you and the world," she said. "It's this round warmth that's covering you." She looked away. "Everything is bearable suddenly."

Goldin had a background of psychological trauma, emotional sensitivity, and addiction that predisposed her to abuse pain medication. But even patients with risk factors usually can take pain medication as directed without becoming addicted. As Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and A. Thomas McLellan, a former deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, noted in a 2016 New England Journal of Medicine article, "Addiction occurs in only a small percentage of persons who are exposed to opioids—even among those with preexisting vulnerabilities."

It is accurate to present Goldin's experience as representative of opioid addiction in the sense that her drug use involved multiple substances, predated her abuse of pain medication, and was driven by psychological problems that made life inside a warm cocoon appealing. But omitting those details reinforces the myth that the average patient who takes opioids for pain faces a high risk of addiction, which makes it harder for people to get the medicine they need to make their own lives bearable.

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  1. It’s a fool’s errand, looking for truth from addicts. And the addicts of which I speak here are, of course, journalists addicted to easy drug war narratives, to fad panics and to parrot reporting.

    1. I couldn’t finish the article. And asked why I started.

  2. “I can’t control myself so all of you need to be punished.”

  3. I wanted to get high from a really early age. I wanted to be a junkie.

    Even though each individual case of addiction is fake, addiction is still very real.

  4. Old Nan always knew how to spin tall tales.

  5. Gosh, I’d never guess from that photo that she was a person with a history of substance abuse.

  6. I was on oxy for three months in the hospital one year, then hydrocodone for a month in rehab. The bottle they sent me home with is still in the cabinet with pills in it. Coming off it wasn’t pleasant, but no big deal. I really don’t get it. I had a tougher time getting off soda and starches to lose weight.

  7. One of the many destructive side effects of the false narrative around opioids is that it discourages some patients from effectively treating their pain. My father has suffered with back pain for more than a decade, but aware of the opioid crisis hysteria, is afraid to take his doctor-prescribed medicines lest he become an addict. He has been deceived into believing that it is better to live in pain than go down the inevitable path of becoming a junkie.

  8. I had taken Hydrocodone a few times over the last 20 years and it didn’t do much. Last year I had a kidney stone and they gave me Oxycodone. That shit works! Ten minutes and the most unbearable pain of my life disappeared.

  9. I’ve had a wide range of painkillers including Oxycodone, Percocet and morphine over the last 10 1/2 years. I am soon to have another surgery which will bring all of them back into my life. I also use medical marijuana. I have never become addicted. In fact, like Live Free Or Diet, I have pills in my medicine cabinet long since expired to remind me of the risks of overusing — and my pharmacy still has me on active prescriptions for them. All I want for Xmas is to be free of this debilitating and painful condition, and never have to take another prescription painkiller in my life. But if I need to I will, and I won’t be worrying about addiction. If it hasn’t hooked me over the last decade I feel pretty safe.

    1. Sadly, unrepentant, you are the norm more than an outlier. I received a certificate in Pain Studies. Now, I am disabled with the pain of damaged nerves, in a portion of the spinal cord called the cauda equina. The rate of addiction, in those of us that have taken pain medication, is very low. But, with a success rate of 99% (considering a 1% addiction rate) why are we the ones that had our careers destroyed by the ignorant physicians, politicians, and media people?! The people like this “journalist” are the real haters. They hate the majority of us pain patients because they had basic problems that caused them to abuse their medication and become addicts. prescribed it for anything but pain. It was not to give people a “feel good” moment! But, I suffer almost daily with a period of neuropathy caused by the lacerated nerves. Some days a few minutes, other all night! The pain management doctor I saw after moving back from Illinois, Medicare stating I had exhausted all forms of pan management. He told them I needed a dorsal column stimulator.

      1. (cont)
        It would have been $10,000 for his part! He lied. Now, I get relief using a TENS unit and some THC. Tramadol helps. But, there are those days! It is like the untrained physicians are the ones running the programs. Most in my area foreign trained anesthesiologists who saw a way to get out of the OR and make BIG MONEY! Mine claimed he had no neuropathy patients on “narcotics”. I guess this “trained specialist” did not realize the Tramadol is still a narcotic. I am allowed that! I laid in an ER waiting room, a few weeks ago, for six and 1/2 hours, before they treated my kidney stone pain! They said if I had told them I was a doctor, they would have seen me sooner!…(;-P…I guess we count more than you peons!

  10. My 93 year old father-in-law was suffereing from horrific arthritic pain. The doctor/s did not treat his pain, as they were concerned he might become addicted; they did not want him to perhaps have a fall (a real concern; lots of family to help him); and he suffered for many months. “I used to be all messed up on drugs, now I’m all messed up on God”. Cheech and Chong. Papaver somniferum; a plant given us for a reason; nothing like a reformed addict to drive you to drink. I wish Nan good luck, a long prosperous life, and gone..

  11. The vast majority of the millions of patients who use opioids for pain management do it responsibly. There is a small percentage of people who will always have an abuse problem.

    It’s easy for pain management physicians to identify patients who are abusing or diverting legitimate medications to the street. Problem is they’re too busy to take the time to ask someone who knows. They’re too busy to take the time to ask patients the right questions, or take actions other than drug screens.

    It’s sad so many must suffer because a few are to busy to do pain management right. Even when you give them the information, they often throw it in a drawer until they get in trouble.

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