Prescription Drug Abuse: How I Got Addicted to Painkillers
Why Painkiller Abuse Is Worse for Women
Of course, it's not just gym-goers who get hooked. A lax approach to prescribing painkillers has affected the lives of everyday Americans as well. The meds are bought and sold over the Internet, borrowed from friends to stave off hangovers, even swapped at parties for other recreational drugs. "I'd been a productive member of society before I tried pain pills on a whim with an ex-boyfriend," says Jean B., 42, of Seattle. She wasn't actually in pain, she admits, but felt run-down and in need of an energy kick. "I tried it again -- and again. Then I couldn't stop. I finally went into treatment when I realized I was heading toward total meltdown."
Still, recreational use accounts for only a small percentage of addiction cases. Some studies suggest that a majority of women seeking treatment -- up to 70 percent -- become addicted following a legitimate prescription from a doctor.
Despite a growing body of knowledge about addiction, researchers still aren't certain why some people become addicts and others don't. Scientists now consider genetics and family history to be among the biggest factors. So Lisa, whose two brothers are both addicts -- one to alcohol, and the other to drugs -- was probably at risk from the start. Equally important are the differences in the way men and women process pain and its treatment, which researchers are in the early stages of recognizing. A study at the University of California at San Francisco found that certain opiate-based painkillers work better in women than in men, while an Australian study indicated that some nonopiates -- like over-the-counter ibuprofen -- are actually less effective in women. "What we're asking now is, how are women's bodies reacting differently than men's?" says Jon Levine, MD, PhD, a neuroscientist and author of the UCSF study. "Those answers will help us work toward gender-specific medications." At the same time, progesterone in women may make them more prone to addiction, because the hormone stimulates the production of dopamine, which chemically interacts with drugs in ways that can be described as a craving for more. "It's a bad combination," says Susan Foster, director of policy research at the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. "Women metabolize drugs of abuse differently than men. The drugs seem to be harsher for them, and addictions develop sooner."
For Lisa, it happened so quickly that she went from being legitimately medicated to completely hooked in a matter of months. Her goal, she says, was simply to keep her life on a healthy track. Since ballooning to 185 pounds after she was pregnant with her eldest daughter 11 years earlier, Lisa had worked her 5'2" frame into the best physical condition of her life. For years, she had taught Jazzercise to local clients; she took daily exercise classes and was an avid runner. Suddenly, all that felt secondary to getting her painkiller fix. Every morning, she scrambled to quell the queasiness and sweat of early withdrawal with 30 milligrams of Vicodin. She kept a running clock in her head, instinctively knowing when she needed her next dose -- usually two to three hours later. A few hours after that, another 30 milligrams, always with the hope it would get her high. No longer energized by the pills, Lisa dropped everything that wasn't essential -- teaching exercise classes, then running, then working out altogether. "I've always been a person who could do it all -- clean the house, take care of my kids, take care of myself," she says. "But at that point I just took the medication and forced myself through the day."
By spreading out purchases over various Web sites during the 26 days her online pharmacies required between orders, Lisa was able to dodge detection as an abuser. By summer 2005, she'd gone from popping 7.5 milligram Vicodin pills to 10 milligram Norcos, a painkiller more readily available on the Internet. Since she managed the family's finances from her home computer, her husband never noticed the transactions (the pills cost about $100 a bottle). Nor did he realize the depth of her problem, Lisa says, because she was vigilant about not letting him see her when she was coming down from a high. The psychological impact, though, was frightening. Lisa felt a rift growing between them, but every time she mustered the courage to confess, she'd panic. "I didn't want to shatter my husband's image of me," she says. "I was supposed to be one thing, and I was turning into something else. I didn't know how he'd take that, and I was terrified. It seemed safer to pretend everything was fine."
Late that summer, while packing for a family vacation to California, Lisa found herself consumed with how to transport her large stash of drugs. She stuffed several bottles of Norcos into her purse, sweating at the thought of her husband's discovering them, perhaps during an airport security check, but unwilling to put them in a suitcase that might get lost in transit. During the trip, she had a terrifying vision of her future. "I knew I couldn't keep at this for years," she says. "I seriously thought my addiction could kill me."
A few days after returning home, Lisa sat in front of her computer, fingers poised to change her life. She entered a new term, "Vicodin detox." As a list of substance-abuse sites popped up on-screen, she realized she couldn't do it alone. Overwhelmed, she called her husband at work. "I broke down," she says. "I told him everything, and that I couldn't take it anymore -- that I was completely addicted to these pills, and I felt sick all the time. He was stunned; he really had no idea what I'd been doing, and I think that scared him even more." Her husband hung up and rushed home. The next day, he drove Lisa to a rehab center at the local hospital.
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