Last year, I was faced with a decision that landed me face up on an operating table. In an effort to keep my chances of bearing children as high as possible, I explored every means possible beyond medical intervention to manage my fibroids (benign tumors attached to the womb). A strict regimen of dairy-free, gluten-free, intense exercise, and caffeine-free diet topped with supplements managed my symptoms very well, but didn’t reverse them. Two years later I walked into the ER with my uterus the size of a nine month pregnancy and feeling dizzy from loss of blood. At last, I chose to have my uterus removed to avoid this from ever happening again.
I was legally prescribed OxyContin to manage pain after surgery. Per doctor’s orders, I was to take 1 pill every 12 hours. I remember being handed a yellow tube filled with 60 painkillers. At first, I didn’t think anything of it. They were just pills after all. I had never had a major surgery and knew it was protocol to send someone home with mind-numbing narcotics. I did, however, recall my former problem with using alcohol as a means of escape and committed myself to using the pills with caution. Before I left the hospital, I wanted to test my pain tolerance to see whether or not I needed the pills. After a few hours of no oxycodone in my system, I was writhing in pain. I had to obey doctor’s orders.
Two weeks into my prescription, my pain alleviated which made the effects of the prescription painkiller more euphoric. I felt a rush of chemicals to my brain—suddenly, I felt loopy and a world away from my normal mental and emotional state. It was as if I’d stepped into Wonderland with a mouthful of slurs and a surge of lightheadedness. When I realized that I was experiencing a high--and more alarmingly--that I was enjoying it, I forced myself to stop taking the pills altogether. I felt scared and dismayed. I could easily take advantage of my situation and take the prescription as needed and no one would know whether I truly was in pain or not.
I held the pill bottle in the kitchen, staring at it in disbelief. The yellow bottle was still filled almost halfway. I was shocked at the ease of which I could “get away” with a bad habit on someone else’s dollar. I finally understand how one can so easily slip into the throes of opioid addiction. Had I made the choice to continue using the pills per doctor’s orders instead of listening to my body, I would most likely have been headed down a dangerous path which has no guaranteed exit.
From Popping Pills to Shooting Up
Unfortunately, I know I’m not alone in my story. As Big Pharma pumps pills to incentivized doctors who sell their souls for paychecks, the face of addiction is changing. Once credited to an individual's lack of impulse control or a means of escape, addiction is now becoming attributed to sound medical advice.
In 2015, the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality surveyed 20.5 million Americans suffering with addiction and revealed that 2 million people, 12 years old and older, were addicted to pain medications. Of those users, 591,000 had substance use disorders involving heroin.
This study, along with numerous patient testimonies, shows a frightening link between prescribed medications and heroin use. Deemed as safe by medical professionals, opioids are a common relief provided to patients for pain. That is the starting point for a downward spiral towards addiction to heroin.
To further complicate things, patients who suffer with chronic pain may be coaxed to go elsewhere for meds if insurance becomes too expensive. Instead of going to the doctor, well-intentioned users may then purchase pills online. Since many of opioids retailed online aren't regulated by the FDA, it is unclear the potency of the drugs. In turn, this opens the door to two possible scenarios: an addiction forms or an accidental overdose.
The Next Step
Whether to avoid costs of pills (heroin is cheaper) or to feed an addiction, heroin is becoming the next step for opioid users. Since heroin is easily accessible and treats pain better than pills, it is also much more addictive. Just last month The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported a trend of heroin use within suburbia.
JAMA investigated heroin prevalence by polling respondents in 2002 - 2003 and then again in 2012 - 2013.
Its findings state:
The nonmedical use of prescription opioids preceding heroin use increased among white individuals, supporting a link between the prescription opioid epidemic and heroin use in this population.
Tragically, as opioid dependency increases, so do heroin related fatalities. A 2015 study by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention revealed the death rate of heroin users has tripled from 8% to a staggering 25% since 2010. Popping pills and shooting heroin are no longer isolated issues, but are part of a bigger problem.