Review: On Pills and Needles by Rick Van Warner

Over the past few years, media coverage has made me increasingly aware of the opioid epidemic plaguing the United States. As a youth worker, I believe I have a responsibility to educate myself about issues that affect teenagers in the United States. That way, when the teens I work with are either directly or indirectly affected by them, I am at least a little equipped to care for them.

In an effort to better understand the opioid epidemic, I read Rick Van Warner’s On Pills and Needles: The Relentless fight to Save My Son from Opioid Addiction. As its subtitle suggests, On Pills and Needles is a father’s account of his son’s opioid addiction. It is a brutally honest, heart wrenching story of just how devastating this kind of addiction is.

On Pills And Needles

On Pills and Needles does a good job of educating readers about the opioid epidemic. According to Rick, “this growing epidemic kills over ninety Americans per day, eclipsing auto accidents as the nation’s leading cause of accidental death.” It is an “equal-opportunity problem” that impacts affluent teens as well as those living in poverty; Those with a history of addiction as well as those who have always been clean. It shows, through the story of Rick’s son, Tommy, how horrific this kind of addiction is. As Rick explains, “Drug use had replaced any happiness with nothingness.”

As Rick recounts Tommy’s destruction, he naturally deals with treatment, and is often very critical of treatment centers as well as 12-step programs. According to Rick, “The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry, written by a psychiatrist who has spent over two decades studying and treating addiction, pegs the success rate of AA-based twelve-step programs at 5-10 percent. A seasoned counselor and Narcotics Anonymous veteran I once discussed the subject with agreed with this assessment but pegged the recovery rate for opioid addicts, defined by him as staying off drugs for at least a year, at less than 5 percent.”

In addition to detailing how Tommy’s opioid addiction affects him, On Pills and Needles also addresses the impact of this kind of addiction on the addict’s family – especially their parents. According to Rick, “One of the most difficult lessons a family of an opiate addict on the hamster wheel of destruction must learn is that the person they love has absolutely no regard for the impact their behavior has on those around them.” Rick adds, “Perhaps the most difficult part of being an addict’s parent is accepting that you cannot control or change that person or their actions regardless of how much time, effort, or money you devote to the effect.”

Because of its emphasis on parenting, in many ways, On Pills and Needles might well be classified as a parenting memoir. As Rick reflects on his family’s journey, he concludes “The most important thing Mary or I could ever give any of our kids was our time and focused attention. Nothing was more important to each of them than this.”

Surprisingly, very little of On Pills and Needles addresses faith, something that’s unusual for a title published by Baker Books. Even so, I am glad I read it. I now have a better understanding of opioid addiction. What’s more, On Pills and Needles is a book that I will keep on my shelf and pass along to parents whose children are dealing with addiction issues. I have no doubt that they’ll see themselves in the pages of this book and, in the process, find hope and grace.


Disclosure: I received a free copy of On Pills and Needles from Baker Books in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the Minister of Youth and Family at Atonement Lutheran Church in Barrington, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

More about Jen

Jen's Books

Now Available!

A Mission That Matters: How To Do Short-Term Missions Without Long-Term Harm

Order Now

Now Available!

Unleashing the Hidden Potential of your Student Leaders

Order Now

The Real Jesus

Order Now

The Jesus Gap

What Teens Actually Believe About Jesus

Based on National Research

Order Now




Recent Posts