“I was heavy into denial, but down deep in my heart I knew I was taking more than I should,” said Mary Jones. (Names have been changed to protect privacy.) “Both times I was addicted to pain medications I watched the clock, anxious for the hour I could have more. My husband monitored my medication, and as time went on, I would get angry and cry when he would not give me more than the prescribed amount. I needed more; my body needed more. My husband was wise enough to see what was happening. He did something about it because I couldn’t help myself.”
Right now you may have a relative or friend who, like Mary, may need the involvement of someone close to them to notice the symptoms and help them to get the help they need.
Profile of the Respectable Addict
Prescription drug addiction is more common than we would guess. Because it often involves intelligent, responsible, people and well-meaning, credible physicians, it is difficult to get behind the subterfuge to see the reality and depth of the dilemma. Admitting there is a problem comes first.
Prescription drug addiction can happen to anyone, but it happens to women much more frequently than to men. Women are twice as likely to receive prescriptions as men, and there is a direct correlation between number of prescriptions written and incidence of abuse. The majority of women drug addicts are white, do not use illegal drugs, and receive their drugs through a doctor’s prescription.
Utah leads the nation in per capita use of some prescription drugs. Most women addicted to prescription drugs would never consider using alcohol or illicit drugs. Prescription drugs, however, are legitimate, sanctioned, even encouraged for many problems, yet can easily lead to a dependence not intended or invited. Once a woman is innocently ensnared, guilt coupled with the feared stigma of judgment or disapproval can create barriers to treatment and increased reason for denial.
How Does Addiction Happen?
People are unknowingly drawn into prescription drug addiction in several different ways. I interviewed two women who have recovered from serious addictions. Mary became addicted when she sought relief from the intense headaches she had suffered since her youth. Jan Smith’s addiction happened because she sought medical help for nervous problems and depression. My own father was addicted to valium and pain medication the last few years of his life, both of which were prescribed for headaches. It was such a sad thing to watch the effect those drugs had on him.
After receiving help to overcome their own addictions, Jan and Mary both feel strongly about helping others avoid drug problems. They suggest several important preventive measures:
Become educated about the drugs most commonly prescribed or purchased over-the-counter that can be addictive. The most frequent offenders are pain and nerve medications, tranquilizers, diet pills and cold medicines. In my plea for caution I don’t mean to imply that medications for short periods of time are never needed. For serious problems, accidents, injuries, and acute anxiety, appropriate medication can greatly decrease suffering and actually be lifesaving. But use of some medications for more than 27 consecutive days can be addictive and we need to educated to know which ones. For instance, medications that simply provide what the body is deficient in, such as insulin and thyroid, must often be used long term and are not addictive.
Which Drugs Are Most Commonly Abused?
The most commonly used prescription drugs fall into three classes:
1. Opioids-that keep the brain from receiving pain messages-such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and meperidine (Demerol)
2. Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants, such as pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal), diazepam (Valium), and alprazolam (Xanax)
3. Stimulants, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall)
Look for ways to get to the source of your problem instead of covering the symptoms with medication. My friend recently went for a physical and her doctor said her problems were stress-related. He suggested a muscle relaxant and a tranquilizer. She declined and instead tried relaxation tapes, meditation, and counseling which helped get the underlying problems under control. She also finds daily walks therapeutic and has decreased the number of commitments that were causing her stress. Jan Smith said that watching a river or the waves on the lake is wonderful therapy for her. Hobbies such as ceramics or water-color are also good. Mary Jones said, “I used to be so caught up in service I ignored my own needs. Now I add to my list the question what am I doing for me?’ A little pampering is a must for any woman!”
Ask questions. Jan and Mary both suggest you take care in choosing a doctor, and get two opinions before going on any potentially addictive medication for any length of time. Be monitored closely and ask questions. Ask what is in the medication, what effects can be expected, what it can do to you. It’s your body and you deserve straight answers. Ask if there are other treatments besides drugs and try other things first. Be aware that there are no warnings on many over-the-counter drugs. Avoid diet pills, cough medicines, anything with caffeine, alcohol, or other stimulants. Jan says, “I can’t stress enough the need for caution. It’s just not worth the big price you pay for drug addiction.”
The bottom line for prevention is to see the reality of your own worth and take care of your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs as your top priorities. Many find it hard to remember, hard to consistently stay in that mind-set. But it is so important, because self-denigration, depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation and detachment are the most common problems associated with drug dependency.
Tips for Recognizing the Problem
Jan and Mary also have excellent suggestions for recognizing when you have a problem and getting the help necessary. Jan said, “Hibernation, neglecting hygiene, and hiding medications were the most telling symptoms of my addiction.” Mary said her main symptom was wanting more and more medication, not to relieve pain but to satisfy the craving. The drugs made her feel good so she wanted more. It was as simple as that.
When addiction exists, if people try to go off the medication, withdrawal symptoms with a wide range of intensity create great discomfort. They may then resume medication, seeking relief, and find all the discomfort temporarily eliminated. Then they conclude the drug is good for them, and very much needed.
Some withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous and need medical supervision. Some symptoms may not start for several days after medication is discontinued. Consequently, they may not seem directly connected. It is important to have a professional educated in drug withdrawal to offer advice. Two kinds of treatments are available: Behavioral treatments teach people how to function without drugs – handling cravings, avoiding drugs and situations that could lead to drug use, and preventing and handling relapses.
Pharmacological treatments give patients special medications to help them overcome withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings.
Jan suggests that if you have any suspicion at all that you may have a problem, call one of the excellent facilities available for help, tell them what you are taking and how much, then ask if they would advise a consultation. Many drug dependency programs give free consultations to help you determine the extent of your problem and whether treatment is needed.
Getting Help Is Not Admitting Failure
Mary Jones said, “Don’t be afraid to say, I need help!’ It’s an erroneous notion that if we are living a good life we won’t have problems and won’t need help. It takes courage and wisdom to go after the help we need, whether mental, physical, or with our families. But the help is there, and we need to be smart enough to take advantage of it. My motto now is, take one day at a time and take care of me.’ If I do that, then I have the energy to reach out to others.”
Many do not know that treatment is easily available. Others may avoid it for shame, or for fear of legal action or what it might cost. Many good recovery programs are available–most covered by insurance. These programs can provide hope, understanding, and new options. Many believe they are admitting personal failure if they seek treatment. Yet in the case of addiction, it is rarely possible to solve the problem without help. It can even be dangerous to go off some drugs without appropriate supervision.
We live in a day when the problem of prescription drug addiction is no longer hush-hush, but is openly talked about. Even better, professionals know what to do about it. Few tragedies match a life lost to drugs when help is so readily available.
Twelve-Step Recovery Programs
In addition to professional help, many people are finding support in Twelve-Step Recovery programs. In many metropolitan areas, such as the Wasatch front, it is now possible to find meetings every day of the week, early morning, noon, and evening. [Google Twelve-Step Recovery Programs for specific information.] Members of the Church can ask their leaders about LDS-sponsored twelve-step meetings. Another resource, the Addiction Recovery Program, available through LDS Family Services, is a free and confidential resource for individuals struggling with addiction and for their family members. The Church also offers a written manual, based on the Twelve Steps, called A Guide to Addiction Recovery and Healing. It is available in five languages in print form, as a downloadable PDF document, or an MP3 audio file. These resources lead us to the ultimate Source of healing.
Prescription drug addiction is on the increase. We need to be educated, we need to practice prevention, we need to be facilitators of help for others, and we need to reach out for help if we need it ourselves. Life is too short to put off really living.
Sources of information
1. Report: Women in Substance Abuse: Kimpfer, Ph. D.
2. Alcohol and Drug Abuse Facts, by Lorraine Furie, Utah Divison of Alcoholism and Drugs.
3. Benzodiazapine Dependency and Detoxification: The Consequences of Mis-prescribing, by Josette Mondanaro, M.D.
4. Alcohol and Drug Use and Abuse in Utah: State Division of Alcoholism and Drugs.
5. Article: “Prescription Drug Abuse,” Nemours Foundation, online