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Among the many reasons opioid addiction is so destructive is that it’s easy to begin taking the medications
Among the many reasons opioid addiction is so destructive is that it’s easy to begin taking the medications-due to their widespread availability and pleasure-inducing effects-but stopping is extremely hard. Often, people with addictions only do so when faced with financial ruin or permanent damage to their health-or both.
Such was the case with Kelly, a recovering opioid addict who agreed to share her story with Medical Economics. Now in her mid-50s, Kelly formerly enjoyed a successful career as a consultant for a Chicago-area pharmaceutical company. She and her husband both earned good salaries. “We worked really hard and we played hard,” she recalls of the early years of their marriage.
However, much of their “playing” included drinking which, for Kelly, gradually devolved into alcoholism. That was followed a few years later by her husband contracting cancer, for which he was prescribed opioids to manage his pain. Kelly saw his disease as an opportunity to help herself with her own struggles.
“As soon as they started prescribing him pain pills, I picked up a couple-not just one, because I’m a good addict-and it was the perfect answer to my situation,” recalls Kelly, who requested to be identified only by her first name to protect her identity, as she is still in recovery. “I didn’t need to worry about alcohol anymore because I had opiates.
“The first month or so I took those pills I was flying high, and despite what was happening with my husband was in a pretty good mood,” she says. “Then it ended and I spent the next four years chasing that feeling.”
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As the search to recreate the initial opioid-induced euphoria continued, Kelly’s craving spiraled out of control. After her husband discovered she was taking medications meant for him, she turned to the physicians with whom she worked at the pharmaceutical company.
“I would say, ‘these doctors treating my husband don’t know what they’re doing, so could you help me out and write a script for him?’” she recalls. “I had worked with these doctors for many years, and they trusted me. They’d write me anything until they eventually started to catch on.”
Next she turned to purchasing opioids on the Internet. “At the time it was an easy thing to do,” she says. She made purchases in her husband’s name and her own, eventually spending upwards of $5,000 for her purchases.
When she could no longer afford to buy opioids, she resorted to stealing them. “I would steal from every house I went into,” Kelly recalls. “I would look through their medicine cabinets, and I wasn’t picky about the type of pain pill it was-morphine or Percocet or Demerol, it didn’t matter. I just needed them in my system.”
By that point Kelly had lost her job and knew she was close to hitting bottom. “I became this person I didn’t even know,” she says. “I was a thief and a liar. My need for drugs had turned into a chronic obsession. I couldn’t focus, couldn’t sit still, and I was sleeping maybe two hours a night. I was in really bad shape.”
Finally, in 2005, Kelly had had enough. She checked herself into an outpatient treatment program consisting of 30 days of intensive classes and therapy sessions. She also began receiving Suboxone (buprenorphine and naloxone) treatments-an unusual step at the time, but one that helped taper her from the drugs she’d been taking and focus her energies on getting healthier. She also began attending meetings of a 12-step program several evenings a week-a practice she continues today, accompanied by her husband-and one that helps fight any urges to relapse.
“I look at treating addiction like someone with diabetes has to treat their disease,” she explains. “A diabetic has to check their blood sugar, take their meds, eat right and exercise. For me, it’s going to meetings, talking to my sponsor, working with the 12 steps of the program, gaining a spiritual life and taking Suboxone every day.”
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The latter, she says, has been particularly important. She dismisses the argument put forward by some in the recovery field that a person taking Suboxone isn’t truly drug-free. “It changed my life literally overnight,” she says. “I first took it on a Friday night and Saturday morning I was sitting in my living room reading a magazine, something I hadn’t been able to do in weeks, and without it I don’t think I ever could have again.
“It’s not about getting high off this drug,” she adds. “It’s about being able to live a normal life, learning how to live again.”