My name is Alex C. and I am an addict. I have been struggling with addiction since 2005. My drug of choice is more, but opiates initiated my descent into active addiction.
This disease does not discriminate. I was born the granddaughter of the chief justice of Tappahannock, VA. My father was the assistant attorney general in Richmond, Virginia. Everyone in my father’s family are either lawyers or judges.
I graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2004 with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Psychology. I graduated second in my class with honors (Magna Cum Laude). I went on to land a job straight out of college on an outstanding scholars program with the federal government. I was married, owned a home, and was making 50,000/year right out of college.
Everyone was so happy for me. Everyone but me. Looking back on it now, I realize I was depressed. Two-thirds of addicts suffer from an underlying mental j
I have a family history of both alcoholism and mental illness. Make no mistake. I am not going to cry about what a hard life I’ve had. We all have challenges. I made the decisions that I made and I take full responsibility for that.
The Origins of The Opioid Epidemic: An Epidemic fueled by Big Pharma
In the late 1990’s early 2000’s, I was just beginning in life. I began taking a full course load at the university. Unbeknownst to me, there was a new trend beginning in America. According to 2011 report published by the Institute of Medicine, (Lopez, G.), about 100 million United States adults were suffering with chronic pain. Looking for money, the pharmaceutical companies, (aka Big Pharma), began a huge marketing campaign for opiate prescriptions to be the go to method for the treatment of chronic pain. This all happened despite the fact that research indicated serious adverse effects from the long term use of prescription opiates used in patients suffering from chronic pain. Nevertheless, the pharmaceutical companies pushed opiates to the doctors regardless of studies indicating that long term use of such medications as Percocet, Oxycontin, and Fentanyl actually resulted in long-term addiction, mental decline, and in some cases, even death. (Lopez, G, 2016).
As I mentioned, as a 21 -year-old college student, I had been completely oblivious to the nation’s drug problem. Like my father, I very much enjoyed my “spirits.” I suppose I realized that a lot of my peers were using prescription pain pills however, I dismissed it as a phase. After all, we were young and in college. I never gave it too much thought. I certainly wasn’t overly concerned. If only I knew then what I know now.
After five years of marriage and at 24 years-of-age, I filed for divorce from my husband. You see, I had gotten married when I was 19 years old. My husband was 20. It turned out that the only thing we really had in common after some time was our alcohol addiction. At barely 100 pounds, my husband was the only man that I wasn’t able to out-drink. That should’ve been a sign.
The last semester that I was in school was when we separated. From spring break in 2004 until after my birthday that year in June, I partied. Truth be told, I was actually very heartbroken and scared. My 21 year-old ego told me that I didn’t need anyone. I was going to be just fine. Or so I thought…
I became ill during my final exams that semester. While I was home trying to study, my husband cheated on me at a party with all of my friends watching. Literally! A friend of mine, (or so I thought at the time), started slipping me her “magic little pills”, anytime I was feeling sick, or sad, or bored, or even when I was happy. I soon found out that the pills took away the hangovers, the heartache, the sickness, and the emptiness. They made it easier to smile when I felt like crying. My family was so happy for me. I was twenty-one-years-old. I had filed bankruptcy after my husband left. I hated the people I worked with. I was alone.
I realized that I couldn’t maintain my drinking habit and still make it to work on time. I started taking more and more Vicodin (a prescription opiate) just to make it through the day. I started drinking less. Before I knew it, I had put the bottle down completely however, I was taking about 20 to 25 pills a day and I was running out of resources to get more. I began dr. shopping, or going from one doctor to another to get enough opiates to feed my habit. I started buying them off the street. I didn’t want my family to know how ultimately miserable I felt inside. I didn’t want to lose my job.
About this time, I realized that on the rare occasions that I was unable to find any opiates, I became very ill. I couldn’t make it to work. I had already taken so much advanced sick pay that I was running out of excuses. My co-workers and managers were becoming suspicious.
Desperate, I reached out to a friend of mine that had experience dealing with her own addiction to opiates. She advised me to go to a methadone clinic to be detoxed off of Vicodin. Once again, I wish I knew then what I know now.
An Epidemic fueled by Big Pharma and The United States Government
The clinic was a run-downed one story building that smelled of urine and had a line of people out the door. I met with the supervisor of the facility who advised me that once I paid my intake fee, ( I think it was about 100 dollars in 2005), that I could start the detox process.
The problem was, as with the pharmaceutical industry, The Methadone Clinics, which are run by the state, seemed to care only about the almighty dollar instead of the lives of its patrons. After I had been there about 3 months, I had had enough. I was on 90 mgs of Methadone. Despite the fact that I was forced to take a class at the clinic called “Methadone Myths,” that informed a group of us that the common side effects of Methadone, (i.e. it gets in your bones, it rots your teeth, it causes weight gain, etc) were nothing more than myths made up by ungrateful heroin addicts, I had begun experiencing terrible side effects. I had gained 20 pounds the first month. Although the staff at the clinic vehemently denied it, Methadone made me pack on weight, as it did with everyone else I saw there. It caused myself and others to sweat profusely, nod out at work, shake, have body aches and no energy. I was often late to work because of the long lines at the clinic from everyone trying to get “dosed” at the same time, the mandatory groups, as well as the random drug tests. If I did not provide a urine sample when my number came up, I would be denied my medication. This could result in flu-like symptoms produced from Methadone withdrawal.
The acute withdrawal phase from heroin is approximately seven days. The acute withdrawal phase from Methadone takes approximately 30 days at the least. It is quite common for Methadone withdrawal to last anywhere from one month to a year, depending on individual tolerance, weight, dosage, and duration being on the medication. withdrawal symptoms from both opiates produce anxiety, restlessness, runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing, insomnia, stomach cramps, gooseflesh (the sensation that your skin is crawling), muscle cramps, profuse sweating, depression, body aches and muscle spasms, nausea, and the inability to experience pleasure.
Once I realized that they were not intending on detoxing me, I approached my counselor at the treatment center and asked her when they were planning on detoxing me. I will never forget the way she leered at me over her bottle capped glasses like I was crazy. She responded, “This is not a detox program. This is a maintenance program.” I felt so betrayed and so…stuck. I asked her to at least lower my dose so that I could function at work exclaiming, “I was told it was a detox program before I gave you my intake fee. Now that I’ve paid, you tell me it’s a maintenance program.” Although the counselor was supposedly a person in long-term recovery herself, she demonstrated absolutely no compassion for me. She refused to lower my dose, exclaiming that I did not get to choose my dose. I had to take what they gave me.”
I left the clinic in tears that day. Determined to detox myself. I started buying Methadone pills off of the street. I managed to taper myself way down, yet I could not get off of it entirely for fear of becoming extremely ill and losing my job, thereby letting the cat out of the bad so to speak about my addiction to my friends, supervisors, co-workers, and worst of all, my family.
One day, after explaining my dilemma to a man I used to work with at a restaurant during college, I found out that it would be easier to withdraw from Heroin than Methadone. and that is how my heroin addiction began.
90% of Heroin addicts begin with prescription pain pills (NIDA,2017). Only 10% off people suffering from opiate addiction seek treatment (Mcshin, 2017). No one that I have ever met ever just woke up one morning and randomly decided to shoot up heroin. As I keep saying, (and my motivation for writing this blog), if only I had been given the knowledge before going to the clinic that I gained after becoming dependent on the drug, I do not believe it ever would have escalated from Vicodin to Heroin. It is my hopes that any addict seeking recovery from active addiction, after coming to my site, will have enough factual information to make an educated decision so that their lives won’t be ruined like mine was because of pure ignorance when it comes to opioid addiction.
My intention in sharing my testimony is not to make anyone feel sorry for me. I have paid my dues. I am grateful (by the grace of God) that I have come as far as I have. I have had some wonderful support systems in my time and I still have a wonderful support system. I cannot emphasize more how important this is! My goal in sharing my story is:
- To personalize the story of one addict’s struggle with addiction in hopes of combating the negative stigma associated with Substance Use Disorder (aka addiction); and
- To offer my experience, strength and hope so that other addicts in active addiction and their loved ones won’t have to make the same mistakes I did;
- To connect those suffering with up to date resources and information regarding treatment and prevention for all types of individuals; and
- To do my part in disseminating information and ultimately finding a solution to the national epidemic that has caused more Americans to die in 2016 than car accidents, AIDS, and gun violence combined. (NIDA, 2017). The Opioid Epidemic is also responsible for reducing the life expectancy in America for two years in a row (2015 &2016).
What Role does Stigma Play in finding Solutions for and Treating Opiate Addiction
As a nation, I believe that it is a defense mechanism to attribute The Opioid Epidemic to a “moral failing”, if you will. It is easier for us to dismiss the problem that is The Opioid Epidemic as a problem that affects only those of us who are morally corrupt. If we believe as a society that opiate addiction is caused by morally weak people who do not deserve the level of care afforded other diseases, then we don’t have to actually work at finding a solution.
The problem lies in the fact that overdose rates are so high that we are now in a National Crisis. The war on drugs, Big Government, and Big Pharma has done nothing but fuel this nationwide killer of about 91 people per day and rising.
The Opioid Epidemic: Facts and figures:
- 92% of incarcerated Americans suffer from some form of Substance Use Disorder. (Lundholm, 2012).
- According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, 75% of prisoners who suffer from a Substance Use Disorder also suffer from some other mental health disorder. (see blog post on dual diagnosis, comorbidity).
- 21.5 million Americans over the age of 12 battled a Substance Use Disorder in 2016, according to the Center For Disease Control (CDC).
- Also according to the CDC, 91 Americans per day are dying of drug overdoses.
- The fastest growing population for Substance Use Disorder are adolescents and young adults. (CDC, 2016).
- More than 6 out of 10 of these deaths are opioid related.
- According to The Mchsin Foundation, a recovery center in Richmond, Virginia, 85 million Americans are affected either indirectly or directly by addiction in America.
- The Opioid Epidemic cost America roughly 504 billion dollars in 2015. Thats roughly a half a trillion dollars!
Almost 2 million people were addicted to prescription opioids in 2014.
The Debate: Is it a Choice or is it A Disease?
As a psychology student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, I learned that Substance Use Disorder, along with other mental health disorders, is 50% genetic and 50% environmental. In other words, as an addict, we are born with a genetic predisposition that makes it extremely difficult to control our using once we have started. Experts tend to agree, that while environmental factors usually contribute to the initial decision by a person suffering from Substance Use Disorder to use drugs, after their addiction takes hold, it is genetic and environmental factors that make it almost impossible to stop. (CDC, 2016).
Is Addiction a Choice or is it a Disease?
Whether or not addiction is a disease or a choice has become a huge and very controversial issue surrounding The Opioid Epidemic. Most medical and psychological experts agree, that addiction is a disease. The rational behind it being classified as a disease is multi-faceted. For example, according to the National Council on Addiction and Drug Abuse, addiction is defined as, ” a complex disease of the brain and body that involves compulsive use of one or more substances despite serious health and social consequences. Addiction disrupts regions of the brain that are responsible for reward, motivation, learning, judgment and memory. It damages various body systems as well as families, relationships, schools, workplaces and neighborhoods.’
A lot of people who argue that Addiction is a Choice, not a disease, believe this because either (a) the average addict does make a conscious decision to pick up that first drug or (b) some addicts are able to stop using with relative ease while others remain hopelessly stuck in active addiction.
While both of these assertions are true, I believe it is irrelevant. A disease is not defined by whether a choice is made or not. Cancer, diabetes, and heart disease are all diseases that involve choice. (NCADA, 2017). What makes it a disease is the changes that the body undergoes after that initial choice that make it almost impossible to stop using. I’ve oftentimes heard addicts in recovery talk about the fact that they were, “using against their will.”
I recall an addictions counselor telling me back in 2006 that as an opiate addict, you don’t have a monkey on your back. You have a gorilla on your back! Every morning when a person suffering with this disease wakes up, there is a metaphorical gorilla on their back that demands to be fed. At this point, the addict must feed his or her addiction, so as not to face extreme psychological and physical withdrawal. The person who has become addicted has to use opiates in order to feel and function normally.
And while some addicts are successful in their attempts to stop using at the slightest sign of distress, still others go on to the bitter ends: Jail, Institutions and Death and even though they most likely desire very much to get clean, they are unable to quit using without intensive treatment and lifelong management of the disease. This is because every individual has different genetic and environmental components that contribute to their success ratio in overcoming active addiction.
Possible solutions to The Opioid Epidemic
- More government control of the pharmaceutical industry
- A move from the criminalization of Substance Use Disorder towards therapy, treatment and prevention.
- Increase Public Awareness of causes, prevention, and treatment for Substance Use Disorder.
- An increase in funding for and support for addicts and their families who suffer from Substance Use Disorder and other mental health disorders
- Work to reduce the stigma associated with Substance Use Disorder.
- A move towards decriminalization and finding appropriate treatment programs for addicts and their families.
- An increase in funding from the government for addiction prevention, treatment and awareness.
- The answer to this epidemic, (In my opinion), is NOT going to come from the pharmaceutical companies or the government. They both have proven to me that Substance Use Disorder, those that suffer from it directly and indirectly, are irrelevant to them. The war on drugs, Big Pharma, and the lack of attention from public figures even in the midst of a national crisis is insulting.
- If we are to find a solution to the crisis that is The Opioid Epidemic, I predict that it will come in the form of one addict helping another. We must join together to disperse information, resources, experience, strength, and hope to those affected. It says in the literature of Narcotics Anonymous that, “One Addict helping another is without parallel. That will be the only solution because people that have never experienced it either directly or indirectly are not compassionate to our cause. It is obvious they are not interested in helping us. We must join together to help ourselves.
- Families must be educated to know how to help their loved ones suffering from addiction.
- Each addict seeking recovery must find their own path to recovery. Not everything works for everyone. There is no, “recipe for success.” The addict seeking treatment must be educated to know their options. They must have an adequate amount of information and resources available to make an informed decision and we must create a new life, with new coping skills and a support system in order to recover.
Writing in Psychology Today, a licensed therapist (and recovering addict) explains that the development of his habit was like a time bomb, just “waiting for the right configuration of events” to kick into a higher gear.