Opioid Crisis: Glimmers of Hope

I once had a friend (we’ll call him “T”) who liked to get a buzz on. While it’s not preferable to use substances like alcohol, they never disrupted his life. He could drink a few beers and call it a night. After an evening with delinquent friends, he would say “you guys are too crazy for me, I need moderation.” We never thought he would fall into addiction.

It started when T broke his leg. It was really nasty and the pain was, as he described it, indescribable. The doctor put him in a cast and prescribed oxycodone, a strong opiate painkiller.

At first oxycodone served its purpose by numbing the pain in his leg. He used the pills throughout physical therapy. As the pain faded oxycontin became a way to blow off steam. Finally there was no pain at all, but he took a few leftover pills to feel good during the weekend. When the prescription ran out he found a dealer. Soon it became a way to relax on weekends plus Wednesdays…you know. Get over the hump. Until it was every other day. Then every day. Then he was sick all the time when he couldn’t find or afford the drugs.

By now he knew he’d gone astray and he was making a terrible life decision. It was already manifesting in an empty bank account and pawned valuables. He itched all the time and suffered from alternating constipation/diarrhea. Intellectually it was a no brainer to stop – but in practice he just kept going. I asked why and he told me “I don’t know, it just feels so good.” He eventually got so consumed that I cut contact. Always waiting for that text or call. “T OD’d. I’m so sorry.”

Many of these stories don’t end well. We hear all the time about addicts passing away or being locked up. Luckily for T and everyone who loves him, he got clean a few years later and never went back. He still occasionally sees a therapist to keep his addiction at bay.

To understand the opioid crisis we must first understand opiates. Opiates get their name from the source drug opium, a chemical found in certain strains of poppies. It produces a euphoric, pleasurable feeling which is particularly good at masking pain. Opium was originally smoked to get its effects, but as technology advanced, stronger versions of the drug were produced pharmaceutically. Oxycontin (oxycodone), Vicodan (hydrocodone), and heroin are just a few of the opioids synthesized as painkillers.

These chemicals had a high risk for recreational abuse despite drug companies claiming the opposite. As rates of addiction rose some drugs stayed legitimate while others like heroin went almost totally black market. Epidemics sprung up throughout the decades, culminating finally in the one happening right now in the United States. Fueled by an unusually strong opiate called fentanyl, deaths from opiate addiction are higher than they’ve ever been.

The consequences of opiate addiction, as seen with my old friend T, are numerous and severe. Mentally the urge to use drugs commandeers all facets of life. This leads to damaged relationships, strained finances, and other life hinderances. Physically one can experience itching, constipation, irregular sleeping patterns, and of course the dangerous possibility of overdose. Over time, a tolerance to the drugs develops and a user needs more and more to reach the desired effect.

Drug addiction is a mental disorder. The mind becomes dysfunctional as the priority of getting high takes first, second, and third place. An addict becomes compulsive and the symptoms soon mirror those of other mental illnesses. Comorbidity (suffering from at least one additional mental disorder) is common.

The problem in this country is bad right now. It’s really bad. More than 2 million Americans are addicted to opiates and about 130 people die everyday from them… But things are starting to turn around.

A USA Today report recently documented a slight dip in opioid fatalities.

Professionals have been developing new strategies. Several states have taken different measures with varying degrees of success – but they all share an increased emphasis on medication-assisted treatment. This involves administering doses of alternative opioids, helping patients taper off without debilitating withdrawal symptoms. A

Another drug, naloxone, blocks the effects of opiates. Naloxone is useful for stifling the appeal of opiates to begin with, as well as reversing an overdose before it is too late.

Note: For assistance with behavioral health issues, contact us at 305-740-3340 or schedule an appointment with BregmanMD.

Medication-assisted treatment has shown the most promising results but there are drug-free alternatives for less serious addicts. Addiction is a mental illness so extensive therapy is highly recommended. Regardless of the exact treatment method, if you or someone you know is suffering from addiction to opiates, please reach out for professional help at the soonest opportunity. Opiates can ruin an addict’s life and the lives of their family. There is always hope and a way out. Below are two great resources for finding help:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Hotline: https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline

American Society of Addiction Medicine Resource Page: https://www.asam.org/resources/patient-resources

References:

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, January). Opioid Overdose Crisis. Retrieved on February 17, 2019 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/opioid-overdose-crisis

Painter, K. (2019, January 22). Opioid overdose deaths appear to be leveling off as states intensify efforts to save lives. USA Today. Retrieved on February 16, 2019 from https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/50-states/2019/01/18/opioid-overdose-deaths-progress-centers-disease-control-cdc-data-fentanyl/2501866002/

US Department of Health and Human Services. (2019, January 22). What is the U.S. Opioid Epidemic? Retrieved on February 17, 2019 from https://www.hhs.gov/opioids/about-the-epidemic/index.html

U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2019, February) Opioid addiction. Retrieved on February 19, 2019 from https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/opioid-addiction#sourcesforpage