Drug overdose deaths have more than tripled in the US since 1990, and a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributes more than half of those deaths to prescription painkillers.
According to KVAL.com, Dr. Ronald Schwerzler, an addiction specialist at Serenity Lane, who oversees around 60 in-patients at any one time, said, "Half my patients here at Serenity Lane have opiate addiction. People are dying from this, in record numbers." According to a CDC study, 100 people die from drug overdose every day. In 2008, there were 14,800 overdose deaths. Some studies believe people between the ages of 15 and 24 are in a higher risk group for this addiction.
The problem often starts with easy access to prescription drugs, many being opiate-based pain relievers. Dr. Schwerzler said, "Somewhere around 20% of our high school students have tried a Vicodin, a Percocet, or an Oxycontin. Where do they get those? They're raiding their parent's cabinets, their grandparents' cabinets and getting it on the street. It's very available out there on the street."
Many times, the addict will graduate from prescription painkillers to heroin, which is cheaper and easily obtainable. Omer, a 24-year-old recovering addict said, "I never thought in five years, I would be injecting heroin in a bathroom somewhere, in a stall, finding dirty needles off the ground and using them because I couldn't find any clean needles." Omer began using Percocet after a back injury.
One problem with these prescription painkillers is that the user quickly develops a tolerance to them and they need to take more to have the same effect. Omer said, "I started out with 30 pills, and then I got them to give me 60, and by three months I was actually starting to manipulate him into getting more because I realized that I needed to get more because my tolerance built up really, really quickly."
Dr. Schwerzler believes that this tolerance also leads to more overdoses. he said, "A couple of tablets a day and not get relief, so you go to four tablets, 20 tablets, 40 tablets and so on. So, you build up a tolerance, and there's a threshold. And you get to a certain level, and people stop breathing."
Omer was eventually cut off from his prescription medication, so he began buying his pills on the street. He overdosed on methadone. His life was falling apart, and he did 45 days at Serenity Lane. Later, his best friend died of a heroin overdose, and Omer began using again. He used heroin because it was cheaper. Dr. Schwerzler said, "People are also switching, when they can't get the prescription drugs, switching over to heroin. The human brain doesn't know the difference between a Vicodin tablet and heroin."
Omer's life continued to fall apart, and his parents had taken him back in after an overdose. Omer said, "I was in bed, sick, vomiting. I was looking at my mom, and my mom was crying, and she pulls out this bucket out of my garbage can. It was full of dirty, bloody needles. I had probably 25 of them in there." He finally hit rock bottom, and his parents took ohm back to Serenity Lane the next day.
Omer said his second stay in treatment was more difficult than the first. The physical withdrawals were much worse, but he made it through them. Now, he is beginning to work on his sobriety one day at a time. He said, "Life on life's terms." Omer has been clean for 90 days, but he still fears what lies ahead. He said, "I pray to God that I don't use again because I don't know if I'd be able to make it back a third chance. If you just take it day at a time, those days build up over time. It's been working."
If you know someone struggling with an opiate addiction, click here for more information.