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The addiction next door: Prescription drug abuse
 
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock
 

Four years ago, Randi had a loving husband, five children, a good career in the nursing field, and a killer addiction to “poor man’s heroin.”


Randi, who lives in Madison and prefers not to divulge her last name, wants to share her story of addiction to prescription drugs because she knows that if it can happen to her, it can happen to anybody. And she believes she is alive today because of Dr. Michael Miller of Meriter’s NewStart program, and a medication called Suboxone.

 

Randi’s story begins innocently enough, with a visit to a doctor at the age of 18 for severe migraines. The year was 1978 and it was commonplace for migraine patients to be prescribed opiates. Randi started taking Tylenol 3, which contained codeine. The medication helped with her chronic headaches, but it also had a side benefit – euphoria.

 

“I felt like I could do anything, get through anything,” Randi says. “I went no where without the pills.” The doctor kept prescribing them, and Randi kept taking them. “As long as they were prescribed by a doctor, I thought they were OK,” she says. And when she ran out, it seemed there was always someone around who could give her a Tylenol 3 or a Vicodin.

 

If she ran out of pills and couldn’t borrow any, she wound up getting sick, with body aches and vomiting. “I figured I had the flu,” she said. “What I didn’t realize is that I was having all the symptoms of opiate withdrawal.”

 

Randi’s career and home life continued on, but her obsession was more and more about the drug. “My kids had shelter and food, but I wasn’t there emotionally for them,” she says. And she began missing work when she developed “flu” more frequently.

 

A friend at work told her that her brother had “the best painkillers … the first one was free, but before long I was paying $40 a pill, for 80 mg of OxyContin (what she calls ‘poor man’s heroin’).” She eventually escalated to taking three to four 80 mg pills each day. “I could have OD’d at any time,” she said. And the euphoria she’d experienced in her early days of opiate use was gone. “I wasn’t taking them to get high anymore, but just to survive,” she says.

 

Randi’s been drug-free for four years now, with her support group and a drug that blocks the effects and the craving for opiate drugs. Miller, at NewStart, says Randi and others like her experience addiction “as the result of a complex interaction between the drug and a person’s own biology. Genetics play a major role. It’s about how the brain is hardwired. Social and cultural issues and family stress are all variables.” Those likely to experience addiction from prescription medication “get a strong euphoric response that others don’t experience. (But) the drugs by themselves don’t ‘produce’ addiction.”

 

Dr. Richard Brown, an associate professor of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, provides drug screenings as part of his routine practice as a family physician. He says he wants to “make alcohol and other drug abuse screening as routine as blood pressure measurements in primary care settings.”

 

A host of prescription drugs can be addictive, says Brown. “(Opiate) painkillers; stimulants like Ritalin and Dexedrine, and tranquilizers are most commonly abused,” he says. “Other mediations that cause sedation, like muscle relaxants and antihistamines, are occasionally abused as well.” A patient is on dangerous ground if she takes prescription medication for “stress, frustration, anger, sadness, to sleep, or to get high,” he says.

 

The highest rates of addiction are seen in teenagers and young adults, “but the problem can strike at any age – even in the oldest elderly who are receiving medicines from health care professionals,” says Brown.

 

Brown explains that “use of potentially addictive medicines, as prescribed, should relieve symptoms and improve one’s ability to function. Some red flags include a worsening of function with drug use, preoccupation with obtaining or using the medicines rather than on getting well and functioning better, obtaining prescription drugs from multiple sources rather than just one prescriber, and taking these medicines with alcohol or illicit drugs.”

 

Treatment can be problematic. Not only is there a stigma involved, but “funding and insurance coverage for these problems is so poor, and waiting lists are long. All but the wealthiest individuals who need inpatient and residential treatment have a very difficult time finding it and affording it,” says Brown.

 

Luckily, support groups like those at NewStart; 12-step groups like Narcotics Anonymous; and promising new medications are available. These new tools in the fight against addiction came just in time for Randi, who underwent treatment several times unsuccessfully during her 20-year history of addiction.

 

 “The medication saved my life,” she says. “Addiction is a dead-end street. You lie, you cheat, you steal. It’s a horrible way to live. And I never thought it would happen to me.”

 

Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in Wisconsin Woman. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at words@chorus.net or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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