Opioid addiction an all-too-familiar tale

OU News Bureau

Chris’ addiction began soon after he graduated from high school and fractured several vertebrae in his back while skydiving.

“The pills helped take the pain away, but then I started using them even when I didn’t have to,” said Chris, who didn’t want his last name used. “All I had to do was schedule an appointment with my doctor, discuss the chronic pain I was dealing with and walk out with a prescription that I could have filled the same day.”

The Oakland County resident’s addiction affected every aspect of his life.

“There were days where my biggest worry was finding more Vicodin,” he said. “It got to a point where I was lying to my family and friends and actually losing relationships because of the habit.”

While opioids may conjure images of needles and syringes filled with addictive heroin, other ways of getting a fix are abundant.  

Tylenol-Codeine No.3 is a commonly prescribed opioid used to alleviate mild to severe pain. PHOTO/CHRISTIAN MILLER

According to the Centers for Disease Control, opioids include heroin, prescription drugs and synthetic options, such as fentanyl.

Despite containing only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States is responsible for consuming roughly 80 percent of the global supply of prescription opioids.

Combined, these drugs killed 33,092 people – about 91 each day – in 2015 alone.

Michigan is not exempt from these numbers. In 2016, opioids accounted for 72 percent of all overdoses in the state, claiming 1,365 lives.

Easy to get opioids

A motivating factor behind these statistics is the ease of access individuals have to prescription opioids.

Trisha Zizumbo is the public health education supervisor for Oakland County, handling opioid-related issues within the community.

“Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of injury-related death, surpassing deaths from motor vehicle crashes or firearms,” Zizumbo said.  “The number of hospitalizations involving opioids increased 120 percent between 2000 and 2011, from 9,157 to 20,191 hospitalizations, respectively.”

Opioid-related hospitalizations were accompanied by a surge in fatalities, as well.

“Opioid-related deaths increased by 267 percent from nine deaths in 2009 to 33 in 2015,” Zizumbo said. “However, through our opioid-related death study, we discovered that in 2016 we had 165 deaths that were related to opioids.”

Noticing the escalation, Oakland County launched efforts to drive public discussion, education and prevention.

One such program is the Oakland County Prescription Drug Abuse Partnership. Created in 2015, the partnership develops strategies for preventing and reducing prescription drug abuse.

The partnership of more than 40 members includes physicians, pharmacists, substance abuse treatment and prevention agencies, judges, law enforcement, academia, grassroots organizations, public health and federal partners such as the DEA and FBI.

Along with community counseling, the partnership holds medical professionals accountable for prescribing the drugs.

Oakland County Health Department’s collaboration with Boston University’s School of Medicine aims to train physicians on safe and competent opioid prescribing.

Managing pain

Maryann Verardi is a pain management specialist who is aware of how readily accessible these addictive substances are.

“It used to be that you didn’t have to worry about patients becoming addicted because they’ve built up a certain tolerance,” Verardi said. “The bigger problem is that these patients have it in their homes and their kids are getting a hold of it.”

Even with new restrictions, like only being permitted to prescribe patients dosages of 300 milligrams or less per day, the problem with addiction still persists.

“It is easy to write a script, but now it’s gotten harder because it’s so stringent now,” Verardi said. “You have to do maps and you can only write so many days’ worth of pain management, but the difference arises when dealing with acute or chronic pain.”

Patients are still able to obtain copious amounts of the substances if their physician thinks that they truly need the script.

“Anyone can easily get it because people can go from one doctor, to another, to another,” Verardi said. “A lot of doctors feel that they can treat their patients with guidance because that’s what they were taught to do, but now they’re becoming more apprehensive.”

A month of pills in a week

Doctor hopping became a ritual of desperation for Chris when he was consuming a month’s worth of pills in a week.

“I felt like I needed opioids, just like I needed food, water and shelter to survive,” Chris said. “I went online and rehearsed what I would have to say to these doctors.”

Once a victim of the system of over-prescription, Chris hasn’t used since January 2016.

He learned that discussing his experiences was an important part of rehabilitation.

“I learned something new about the disease every time I went to treatment because every addict is different,” Chris said.

Along with voicing his story and regularly attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, Chris credits suboxone for managing his disease. Ironically, it is a synthetic prescription opioid that works by blocking opioid receptors in users’ brains so they are unable to feel the drug’s effects when they use.

While Chris was fortunate to seek and receive help with addiction, others were not.

“I’ve known people who were clean for 30 years and make one bad decision that leads to their relapse,” he said. “In the past two years, I have lost several friends to opioid overdoses and even my father to pancreatic cancer caused by alcoholism.”

The losses were a stark reminder of maintain sobriety for Chris.

“People don’t understand that addiction will find anyone,” Chris said. “It doesn’t care if you’re white or black, or rich or poor, or even old or young.”

Chris had to rethink virtually every aspect of his life to remain clean.

“I’ve found that it’s best to keep myself busy,” Chris said. “Until we find a way to deal with the disease of addiction, people will continue to die.”


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Posted by on Dec 6 2017. Filed under Featured article, Oakland County. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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