Up until a few months ago, Susan started her day by getting high. She’d crush a cocktail of drugs that included Oxycontin and Roxicodone, two forms of the narcotic painkiller Oxycodone, and then snort them so they’d get into her system faster. Within hours the symptoms of withdrawal would set in. An unbearable panicky feeling, muscle cramps, diarrhea and nausea. So she’d quickly snort another round. If there were no drugs left, she’d find a way to get more. Either from someone she knew or by buying them from a dealer.
This scenario wouldn’t seem shocking if Susan were a junkie living on the street, but that’s not the case. She’s a 32-year-old, well-educated, middle-class mom holding down a job as a nurse. Her spiral into addiction started seven years ago, when she was 25 and often in debilitating pain. After finally being diagnosed with fibromyalgia, she was relieved to have a name for her condition and a prescription to ease her suffering. “The Oxy didn’t just take away the pain. It gave me energy and helped me feel less stressed,” says Susan. “When I took those pills, it was like I could get everything done.” But soon the drug stopped giving her that false sense of control, and she needed to take more and more just to feel normal. When popping pills wasn’t working, she started snorting them. By the time Susan realized her drug habit had become a problem, this real-life “Nurse Jackie” was powerless to quit.
Chances are, you know a Susan even if you don’t realize it. “After alcohol and marijuana, prescription pain relievers are the most widely abused drugs in the United States,” says John Coleman, PhD, president of the Prescription Drug Research Center. Why are pills so ripe for abuse? They’re easily available. Last year, 139 million prescriptions were written for hydrocodone-containing drugs like Vicodin (up from 112 million just four years ago), making them the most-prescribed drugs in the country. They’re also highly addictive. Especially painkillers like Vicodin, Percocet and Oxy, which come from opium or a synthetic version of it. They are actually chemically related to heroin, but without the stigma. “People who would never dream of trying an illicit street drug may be prescribed Vicodin or Percocet for pain relief after a car accident,” says Coleman, “and after just a few weeks they can end up dependent on these drugs.”
“About 10 percent of the population has a genetic predisposition to addiction, whether it’s to painkillers, alcohol or substances like nicotine,” says Russell Portenoy, MD, chairman of the Department of Pain Medicine Palliative Care at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. “A personal or family history of alcohol or substance abuse suggests that you may be one of those people.” Other risk factors include suffering from a psychiatric condition like depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, or having experienced past trauma such as sexual or emotional abuse.
Unfortunately, most people who become addicted to narcotics can’t stop on their own. That’s what Susan is in the process of doing. Her wake-up call came one morning when she realized she’d finished a month’s worth of her prescription in less than a week. This time, instead of trying to get more pills, she decided she’d had enough. She sat on the bathroom floor, sweating and shaking. She opened the phone book and called one rehab center after another until she found one with a bed open for her. She went in to treatment the following morning.
Addiction is defined as the compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (such as heroin, alcohol or narcotic pain medication) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal. In other words, persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful. If you’re struggling with addiction, please pick up your phone book or go online and find the number for Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous. Don’t wait 30 years to seek help like I did. Know this: If you find that when you drink or take narcotics you cannot control the amount you consume or, if when you want to, you find you cannot stop, then you are at that jumping-off point where it will never get better. Only worse.