Ever since he could remember, Max* knew that he was born to run. When other kids were swimming in the lake during the summer, Max was running around it. When his classmates were playing hockey in the winter, Max was logging grueling hours of laps around the rink. And the years of training paid off. By the time Max was a senior in high school, he was honorarily named an All America team member, was being scouted for Division 1 schools to run, and had begun training towards the Olympics. Everything was, as they say, right on track.
Until disaster stuck in the form of a stress fracture during practice. Max immediately went to the doctor, fearing the end of his career. Max’s doctor prescribed him Lortab, a powerful opiate pain reliever, for the pain and warned him to rest and relax. Max thanked his doctor and left the office. Lo and behold, the Lortab worked wonders and Max’s pain was instantly taken away. Determined not to let his injury become a setback, Max started to train again. His injury didn’t heal, and Max continued to take Lortab. One day, he took his prescribed amount and felt… nothing. He was still in pain and worse, felt anxious – anxious about training, anxious about his future, anxious about his injury, anxious about everything.
Max knew that he needed more than his doctor was prescribing. He began to ask around at school if anyone had access to Lortab or any opiate pain medication, and all too quickly, he found a friend that was dealing pills. The moment he took more pills, the anxiety melted away.
Max was starting to become addicted. He started to notice that he would experience mood swings when his friend was out of pills and he had to wait a few days before he could re-up. He noticed that he would become sweaty and achy and like he had the flu if he ran low. Max noticed that he thought about taking pills all the time, even hours after he took them, and barely thought about track, the All-Star team, college or the Olympics anymore. He felt like he was on auto-pilot. He could barely keep it together and what’s more, he noticed that he simply stopped caring.
Max felt a tremendous sense of shame and guilt and often wondered if he should tell his family about his problem. His parents had remarked about his slipping grades and his “snippy” attitude, but Max was terrified to disappoint them and told them that he was just overwhelmed with training and applying to college. By this point, Max’s doctor had discontinued his Lortab prescription and switched it to a non-narcotic pain medication, telling Max that NSAIDs and long-term physical therapy were a better course of action since his injury had not healed.
So, Max found other friends and students who were dealing. He stole medication out of his friend’s parents medicine cabinets at parties. He went to open house estate sales on the weekends so that he could steal pills out of those homes too. He stole money out of his mother’s purse and his brother’s piggy bank to pay for pills. Every dollar from his after school job went to pay for pills.
During winter break, Max’s family always went to visit his grandmother in Maryland for 2 weeks and Max was petrified. He stockpiled as many pills as he possibly could, but one of his suppliers was out, and he could not get the amount that he needed. 7 days into the trip, and withdrawal hit. Max was vomiting, his bones ached, he was cold and sweating simultaneously, he felt like his heart would jump out of his skin, he could not sleep, he could not eat. He tried to pass this off as a case of food-poisoning but the jig was up. Max came clean to his family. Though they were shocked, they acted quickly – finding Max a local detox and treatment center close to his grandmother a few hours later and their healing journey, as a family, began.
Unfortunately, stories, such as Max’s struggles are all too common. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 140 Americans die each day from drug overdoses and 91 of those deaths are due to opiate use. That’s 33,215 senseless deaths per year. Over the past 15-plus years, the rate of opiate pain prescriptions has skyrocketed, along with the rate of addiction. In addition to an increase of pain prescriptions such as Hydrocodone, Codeine, Percoset and Vicodin, in recent years, there has been a spike in fentanyl – an opiate pain reliever that is stronger than heroin with a rapid onset – resulting in an overall increase in overdoses and deaths.
Opiate Addiction: What You Need To Know
The most important thing to know is that opioids do not discriminate. People from all ages and all walks of life have been caught up in the dangerous grasp of opiate addiction. An addiction to prescription opiate pain medication can become like a vice-like grip on the body, as well as the mind, the heart and the spirit. Not to mention, the destruction that opiates can cause the family and loved ones of the addicted person.
There are many paths to becoming addicted to opiates. Some people may have been prescribed opiate pain pills for legitimate reasons and became dependent on them, to the point of abuse, or even turning to heroin when pills were no longer an option to acquire. Some people may have never had a previous addiction or substance abuse problem prior to opiates; others may have been using different substances over time and started taking opiates in their quest for a new high or greater pain relief.
Whatever path someone was on that led them to developing an opiate addiction, the underlining key to remember is that there is help, they are not alone or unique in trying to fight this difficult battle, and that a good, healthy life is possible. What is important to know are the signs to look out for to see if you or a loved one may be developing, or has developed, an opiate addiction so that you can act fast and get the medical help and support that you or your loved one deserves.
Substance abuse and addiction is recognized and treated as a medical condition. The American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine defines it as a disease. It’s a serious problem with serious health consequences. Treating individuals with substance use disorders involves a whole-body approach that includes medications and therapy. One’s brain chemistry changes with ongoing substance abuse, it can affect memory, judgment, motivation, and the brain’s reward system, but with the right treatment and a proper after-care plan, this can be managed, and a life without substance abuse is possible.
When addiction is left untreated, the medical risks of long-term substance abuse to one’s body are severe and can include lung disease, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B & C from sharing needles, as well as new or worsening mental disorders. Therefore, treatment is so important, because you need experts in the medical and mental health fields working side-by-side with you to help you overcome this battle.
Most insurance policies cover substance abuse treatment. Insurers know how damaging substance abuse is and the consequences it can have on your health. Covering some or most of the cost for treatment makes sense, as you’ll have fewer long-term health problems in the future if you can get healthy now. They see this as a medical issue, which it is, and medical issues need to be addressed by medical professionals in a solid program so that a person who is struggling with substance abuse can get the best shot possible for maintaining long-term sobriety.
When one feels a strong desire to use opioids and they do not have the ability to reduce and control the usage, it should be looked at as a warning sign. Have you been taking more pills than prescribed? Are you running out of your prescription and wondering how you will get more, even to the point of trying to find multiple doctors to prescribe, or worse, trying to find pills to purchase illegally? Does the desire or usage start to interfere with your work? Are you missing deadlines, underperforming, missing parts or entire days? What about your social life? Look back at how you used to be with friends and loved ones. Did you go out a lot? Did you go to a movie, a restaurant, or a family gathering more in the past than you do now? Review how much time is spent in the day worrying about or trying to hustle more opiates. These are important signs to consider, as a dependence on opiate use can severely alter your day-to-day life and livelihood.
A major indicator of opiate abuse has to do with withdrawal symptoms that you may experience when you reduce or stop using the opiates.
You may notice in yourself (or a loved one):
- Changes in mood (i.e. increased depression, anxiety, irritability, confusion)
- Changes in sleeping habits (drowsiness, insomnia)
- Decreased energy levels and libido
- Muscle ache
- Enlarged pupils
- Diarrhea, cramping, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss, and upset stomach
- Respiratory changes (i.e. rapid breathing, yawning, nasal issues)
- General flu-like symptoms
You must also look at other symptoms that come with substance abuse, such as:
- Reemergence or the start of other bad habits (smoking, drinking, mixing other substances)
- Taking less of an interest in your grooming, hygiene, and personal appearance
- Losing relationships with friends, family, significant others, or watching those relationships deteriorate.
- Missing work, important deadlines, foregoing activities, losing motivation, or a sudden loss in interest in previously enjoyed hobbies
Substance abuse often comes bundled with co-occurring issues, which is why it is often extremely important to seek treatment at a center that practices evidence-based, dual diagnosis programming so that both the substance abuse and mental health components can be addressed and worked on simultaneously.
Why is this important? Well, take anxiety – an issue that many people struggle with. If someone struggling with substance got sober but did not treat their anxiety, they could experience panic attacks, which are painful, exhausting and uncomfortable. Over time, if they continue to experience panic attacks, it could trigger a relapse on opiates as opiates have a warm and calming effect – thus staving off the panic attacks but triggering the substance abuse piece to rear its ugly head.
Again, the responsibility isn’t on you to diagnose and treat substance abuse nor any other behavioral health issue. However, it is very important that you make sure you communicate any recent changes in your mood or behavior so that your physician and/or psychiatrist alongside a primary therapist can create the most effective possible treatment plan.
These issues can range from:
- Bi-polar disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Eating disorders
- Process addictions (gambling addiction, shopping addiction, sex addiction)
The decision to seek and receive addiction treatment is not an easy one. The earlier you can get help, the better. It’s never too late to take the first step towards getting clean and sober. Quitting cold-turkey doesn’t work. It’s excruciatingly painful and more importantly, unsafe. Complications from trying to withdraw from opiates on your own can lead to seizures and death. But, no one gets addicted to opiates overnight. Even after you get the opiates out of your system, treatment is the best course of action to do the emotional work that is required to maintain sobriety. Otherwise, you can get caught in a vicious cycle of detox and immediately relapse, again, without ever understanding why.
Being in a safe and supportive treatment environment makes all the difference. There, you can truly take the time to focus on the most important thing: You. The problems that you struggle with on a day to day basis cannot be tackled if you yourself are not healthy and able to take care of things.
Work, family, friends, responsibilities; these are all things that are dramatically affected when you find yourself with substance dependence and addiction. Treatment allows you the time to separate yourself from everything going on around you so that your own health and recovery is the most important focus in your life, because, most importantly, you need to get back to being 100% YOU.
* Fictional name used for storyline