In the first two parts of the series, “America’s Costliest War” we have looked at the issue of legalization and the human cost to one man who has spent much of his adult life addicted to drugs. Today’s third installment in the series looks at the issue of prescription medication through the eyes of a local high school student, who unwittingly became addicted to a prescribed painkiller and overcame the habit with the help of a teacher.
Editor’s note: A local high school student was interviewed as part of this story. A false name is used in this story to protect his identity.
Part 3 of 4Ross is a good student. He makes good grades and has taken on leadership roles among his peers.
So it was a bit of a surprise when a teacher pulled him aside one day and pointed out something even he wasn’t aware of.
He was addicted to pain relievers.
The drug that gave him that relaxed feeling was hydrocodone, one of the most commonly-prescribed pain killers on the market, and also one of the most-abused.
Like many who find themselves addicted to prescription medication, Ross’ introduction to the drug was through legitimate means. An accident had left him with a severe break in his arm. A doctor prescribed hydrocodone to help relieve the pain following surgery.
For about a month to a month-and-a-half, Ross used the medication like the doctor prescribed it – for pain relief. But eventually he found himself craving the drug, even when no pain was present.
“I would fake pain during class to go and get the pill and take it,” he said. “No one knew I was faking it just to get the feel of the hydrocodone. It happened at home as well. I would fake pain so that I could take the pill.”
He followed all the rules at school: he would check in his medication with a school nurse, and the nurse was the one to administer it. He took the right dosage, and he didn’t take it at more than the prescribed intervals.
But he also found ways to make it last longer.
“The bottle would say take two. I would cut one in half, take one-and-a-half and hide the other half and keep them going. When I’d get my refill, I’d do the same thing to have some for later,” he said.
Ross said he had a teacher who had shared his own story of addiction with the class. In the teacher’s case, it had been marijuana in his younger days. He told the students how he had been able to overcome his addiction and put his life on the right path. The teacher talked about his students being on the right track in life and making sure nothing derails them from that path.
Ross decided to talk to this teacher about his issue with hydrocodone.
“He helped me realize what I was doing was wrong, that I was going completely off what I wanted to do,” he said.
Ross soon realized that there were other students at school who had struggled or were struggling with addiction. Many of those had been helped by this same teacher.
“When I got to meet some of the other students he’d helped, it was like I realized, hey, I’m not alone. We’ve all been addicted to something or done something wrong. We help each other out. Push each other forward. And get back on track with what we want to do,” he said.
Ross threw away the pills he had been stashing, and he stopped refilling his prescription. He discovered a simple recipe for staying off the drug – focusing his mind on being the best student he could be.
“Then I realized I didn’t need the drug to give me that feeling …” he said. “If you do everything like it is supposed to be done, if you do it correctly, you do what you want to be in your life, it gave you that feeling, that stress-free feeling.”A COMMON PROBLEM
Ross is far from alone in his use of painkillers or other prescription drugs to achieve that “feeling” that the drug can provide. One in six teens has used a prescription drug (when a doctor had not prescribed it for them) in order to get high or change their mood, according to a 2011 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study, sponsored by MetLife Foundation.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that two-thirds of teens who abuse pain relievers say they have gotten them from family or friends. The same survey found that prescription medicines are now the most commonly abused drugs among 12- to 13-year-olds.
But it’s not just teenagers who are struggling with prescription drug addiction or abuse. County Attorney James Stainton said he has seen an increasing number of driving while intoxicated cases where prescription drugs, or pills, are a contributing factor.
“Most of our (drug-related DWI cases) we see are people who are popping hydrocodone or Xanax (Alprazolam) or a combination of both, and many are also doing that plus alcohol,” Stainton said. “That’s where we get a lot of DWIs these days. People will test positive for a little bit of alcohol, maybe a .02-.05, under the legal limit (.08), but they’ll be popping Xanax on top of it. The combined effect is more than what you would get with just either one.”
And that is a real concern, Stainton said, because people who are intoxicated on pills or a combination of pills and alcohol seem to be more impaired than those who are intoxicated on alcohol alone.
“The people who are intoxicated on pills and alcohol … they are really bad,” he said. ” … There is just something different. They are definitely more impaired in their judgment, their thinking.”
The increase in prescription drug abuse is the reason Stainton has pushed for blood draws during “no refusal” weekends such as around July 4, he said. A person may be intoxicated, but a simple breathalyzer might not show a level of intoxication because it only measures blood alcohol levels. A blood draw will determine other substances such as prescription drugs.
If you view the problem by the demographics reflected in the cases in Stainton’s office, you find there is no true demographic for prescription medicine abuse.
“They’re wealthy people, they’re poorer people. They’re older people, they’re younger people. People with jobs, people without jobs. With families and without families,” he said.
For Ross or those who are prosecuted for prescription drug-related crimes, they might be considered the lucky ones. Someone – whether a teacher, friend, officer or prosecutor – has stepped in to take action before the problem reaches the most critical of stages. Increasingly in the United States, that isn’t happening.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of overdose deaths involving an opioid pain reliever such as hydrocodone, oxycodone and methadone now exceed deaths involving heroin and cocaine combined. In 2008, opioid pain relievers were involved in 14,800 deaths, or 73.8 percent of all prescription drug overdose deaths in the United States.
This increase has contributed to the growing number of overall drug overdoses in the United States. More people now die of drug overdoses than in vehicle accidents, according to the CDC.
Ross doesn’t want to see one of his classmates become another statistic. In the years since his addiction, he has helped other students he’s seen at the school going through their own troubles.
“I’ve told them, ‘You know this isn’t right. You are so much better than this,” he said. ” … You don’t need to smoke that joint, you don’t need to pop that pill. You don’t need to do any of that stuff. You don’t need to drink. You can live the life you want and be who you want to be without that, and they are some of the few people who do know my story. I hope I did make an impact on their life.”
Few people know Ross’ story – not even his parents.
“I know if they knew, they’d be really upset,” he said. “For me, I guess I’m waiting for a time to tell them. I don’t know when that time will be, but I know they love me and I love them. They’ve helped me so much, and I just don’t want to hurt them with this. So I’m just trying to find the right time to tell them.”
The Partnership at Drugfree.org has recently started a national campaign aimed at bringing attention to prescription medicine abuse. The website offers tips on safely securing medicine, proper disposal, the importance of talking to your children about medicine abuse and how to get help. For more information, visit medicineabuseproject.org.