Public/Global Health

Debbie Dingell has seen opioids tragedy and pain up close

Greg Nash

The opioid crisis is hitting families across the nation regardless of income, race or gender. Lawmakers are no exception. In the past few months, The Hill has talked to a number of House and Senate members who have a personal connection to addiction and the opioid epidemic. This is the second in a five-part series presented by Partnership for Safe Medicines. 

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) has seen what prescription painkillers can do.

At a young age, she saw her father misuse prescription drugs, sleep until the early afternoon, ditch work and then stay up all night.

She witnessed her younger sister struggle with addiction, and cycle in and out drug treatment centers. Dingell would call morgues when her family couldn’t find her sister, hoping she wasn’t there.

Mary Grace Insley died of an overdose in 2005.

“My baby sister, Mary Grace, who I loved with my whole heart and soul, fought demons most of her life,” Dingell said. “Our family did everything that we could to try to help her, get her the help that she needed.”

Dingell is now caring for a man with joint deterioration. 

Her husband, 91-year-old John Dingell — the longest-serving member in Congress’s history — needs opioids to help ease his chronic pain.

“I lived with a man when I was a child who did have a drug addiction, but now I’m living with a man who needs to have access, and we’re making it harder for people who need help,” said Debbie Dingell, who was elected to replace her husband in Congress in 2014.

As state lawmakers and the health industry work to clamp down on opioid abuse, they’ve begun placing controversial limits on the opioids doctors can prescribe. 

Dingell says lawmakers must enact policies that help stem the tide of the epidemic, while remaining mindful that some patients in pain need access to opioids.

“I try to tell people how complicated it is,” she said.

“We’ve got to be balanced, we’ve got to not make people with legitimate needs feel criminalized. We’ve got to keep kids from starting to begin with,” she said of the nation’s challenges when it comes to opioids.

In Congress, Dingell introduced a bipartisan bill aimed at spurring research into nonaddictive medication for pain.

Back home in Michigan, Dingell has attended town halls on the opioid crisis, joining sheriffs, health officials and more to host frank conversations on the epidemic killing more people per year than traffic wrecks.

While there, she talks of her family’s history, an effort “to put a personal face on opioids and drug addiction, to talk to parents and kids about the dangers, about where they can get resources, and how we try and fight it at the beginning.”

It was different when Dingell was young, she said, because “I don’t think anybody understood what addiction was.”

“There were a lot of things that happened inside the household, but we thought that was normal,” Dingell said. “I mean, that was normalcy for us. It wasn’t until I was out of the house and in college, and [my father] actually went and sought treatment for his drug addiction did we understand that that’s what he suffered from.”

Dingell’s family identified her sister’s addiction early on.

“It started as prescription drugs. She was buying on the street. She was drinking. She would get anything she could,” Dingell said. “And yet she was our baby sister, and we loved her, and I can still remember playing cards with her on Friday nights, which were just the best, until there was nothing that we could do to help her.”

She went in and out of drug treatment centers. 

“We kept saying she’s hit rock bottom, but then we didn’t know where rock bottom was,” she said.

More than a dozen years later, Dingell says the country still has a ways to go in terms of destigmatizing addiction and mental health disorders.

“I think that people sometimes try to stereotype who a drug user is,” she said, “and I hope that by my talking about the personal experience we’ve had in my family, … that we can get people to understand that people across this country, in all kind of places, are suffering from it. And we all have to pull together to fight it.”

The third part of this series will be published Wednesday, April 18. Read part one here.

Tags Close to Home Debbie Dingell John Dingell Opioid epidemic
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