According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, opiates are “outranked only by alcohol as humanity’s oldest, most widespread, and most persistent drug problem.” This problem, particularly in America, is growing exponentially as more doctors turn to opiate-based medications for pain. Columbia University researchers found that, “opioid addiction had tripled over a 10-year period, with the proportion of Americans reporting abuse or dependence increasing from 0.1% of the population in 1991–92 to 0.3% in 2001–02. The 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that nearly two million Americans were dependent on or abusing prescription pain relievers — nearly twice as great as the number of people addicted to cocaine.” These statistics are incredibly disturbing for someone, like me, who works for an organization dedicated to recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism. It is even more disturbing when I consider my own experience with opiate addiction and heroin addiction.
Where People Find Opiate-Based Prescription Medication
The Advent of Addiction
My problems with drugs and alcohol began with beer and marijuana. I was a late-bloomer by today’s standards. By 16, I had dabbled in beer and liquor but managed to stay away from substances of the illegal variety. I was introduced to marijuana during my junior year of high school and found its relaxing effect very attractive. By 18, I was a daily pot smoker, and my drinking became more frequent. As I continued to abuse alcohol and marijuana, my academic and athletic performance substantially declined. I resolved to quit for a period of time, and I spent most of the second semester of my senior year sober. My grades, extracurricular activities and athletic performance rebounded. Prior to leaving for a prestigious university, however, my use dangerously escalated. My parents were concerned and expressed doubts about my ability to function in a college environment. Defiant as ever, I scoffed at their concerns and attempted to assuage their doubts. I left for college thinking I’d never look back.
The next ten years proved my parents right. I lasted a half semester at my first college, almost a year at my second. By the time I left my second college, I abused drugs on a daily basis. Marijuana was my staple narcotic, but by this time, I was experimenting with prescription drugs like Xanax and Ritalin. I had my first blackout around this time and wrecked my car. I began to encounter legal troubles year in and year out.
In 2009, I hit another vehicle head on at 55mph. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured except me. After two surgeries, I was introduced to opiate medication on a daily basis. Though I had dabbled in opiate medication before, I had never had consistent access to it. I started with Lortab and Percocet. This combination kept me comfortably numb while I recovered from multiple broken bones, including a shattered left foot. Though I did stop using opiates after my prescription expired, I resumed use as soon as I found a steady source.
Spiral into Full-Blown Addiction
By 2010, I was intermittently abusing oxycodone. Somehow, I managed to graduate college after ten years of trying. I thought if I got a degree, my problems would be resolutely solved. I was wrong. My oxycodone use became daily, and by 2011, I was introduced to heroin. Shortly after, I began using a very potent variety of heroin intravenously (IV). My transition from smoking heroin to IV use was swift. My “bottom” came quick too. With nothing to my name, living in a basement and existing only to get high, I reached out for help. For months, I had been trying to use everything at my disposal to stop “shooting” heroin. My best efforts failed. A dealer once told me, “…no one gets clean off heroin because no one can get through the dope sick (withdrawals).” And I certainly fit into this category. As soon as the withdrawals became acute, I would use again. I tried switching back to oxycodone or taking Xanax, but these attempts just seemed to compound the problem.
I will never forget the day I told my mom I was addicted to heroin. I wanted to tell them for months. They later told me that they suspected something was awry, but they had no idea it was heroin. My mom also told me that when I came clean, she felt like she was “sinking in quicksand.” But I had no choice. I knew at the rate I was using, it was only a matter of time before I overdosed. I checked into a detoxification (detox) facility in Nashville, TN. At one point, the physician’s assistant walked into my room and told me that they had not observed heroin withdrawals like I was exhibiting in years. Despite being administered a drug to help with the detox process (suboxone), my withdrawals lasted for weeks. The pain, at times, was excruciating. Morbid thoughts pestered me, restless legs ensured I would stay sleepless and the hot chills kept me incredibly uncomfortable. But I sucked it up.
Recovery from Heroin and Opiate Addiction
After 30 days at a recovery center outside Nashville called Discovery Place, I thought I would be welcomed home. Fortunately, my family said “no.” I stayed at Discovery Place and went through the long-term recovery program. This was a blessing, since I am sure I would have relapsed had I returned home after 30 days. In the LTR program, I finally realized the futility in a life filled with drugs and alcohol. For the first time, I fully accepted that I could no longer expect to live a meaningful life and abuse drugs. My mind and body were afforded time to heal. With the fog lifted, I resolved to do whatever the staff advised. For a guy who spent his whole life doing things his way, this was a miracle in and of itself.
It took time and effort, but today my body and mind are no longer bound by the chains of addiction. I enjoy a fulfilling life, free from the bondage of heroin and opiate addiction. I work for the facility I credit with saving my life. I decided not to return to my hometown of Nashville, TN, until people I trust tell me I’m ready. For now, I live just outside Nashville in the small town of Dickson. I own my house and live with two great roommates. I have a group of friends from my “homegroup” (home recovery meeting) that mean the world to me. We get together almost every week and live life to its fullest. Today, my life means something because I followed the direction of staff and committed to a program of recovery. I am still sober over one year later, and I would like to tell anyone who is struggling with heroin addiction and/or opiate addiction that it can be done. The days of despair, frustration and loneliness can vanish if you have the willingness to change and stick with it. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. Your life will mean something at last.
I wonder, given the disturbing statistics cited in Harvard and Columbia University’s academic research, how many others are out there who are desperately trying to find freedom from heroin and opiate addiction.