“I had myself convinced that I was just medicating myself,” explained a recovering addict we’re identifying as ‘Tony.’ “I had myself convinced but it was just always 'I'll convince myself to stop.'”
But Tony eventually learned stopping on his own wasn’t that easy.
He started smoking pot when he was just 14. His freshman year at St. Joseph’s High School in South Bend, he started taking pills.
“I quickly found out that was a good escape from life's problems,” he said.
First, it was higher doses of his own Adderall prescribed by a doctor for his attention deficit disorder. Adderall made him more alert, helped him focus. After that he dabbled in combinations of other meds – seeing what would get him the best high.
“That was the first one I really found that was the thing I was looking for that I wanted to keep doing. And then it got to the point where it got too expensive,” he told WSBT.
The pills were easy to get. His biggest problem? Finding money to pay for them. That caused him to steal from his parents’ wallets to pay for his habit.
Like many prescription drug abusers he eventually turned to heroin because it’s cheaper and the high lasts longer. It’s also very easy to get.
“I could have died many times,” he said.
Instead, Tony lived in a constant, hazy high on pills or heroin, sometimes a combination of both. He graduated high school, even got into college at Southwestern Michigan College then went to Western Michigan in Kalamazoo to study engineering. But he couldn't stay away from the drugs. Tony dropped out and moved back to South Bend where his parents forced him to get his own apartment and a job.
“I was actually stealing money out of the register at Wal-Mart to help pay for my addiction and I got away with that for a while,” he said. “Then one day it just, it caught up with me.”
He got caught. His manager called the cops. Tony was so high at the time that he’d forgotten about pills in his pocket.
Those three pills became three felonies and officers hauled him off to jail.
He now calls his week in jail, where he went through withdrawal, the worst experience of his life.
“The withdrawals are really terrible,” said John Horsley, an addictions Counselor at Oaklawn in South Bend, where Tony eventually ended up after a judge ordered him to get counseling for his addiction.
Tony says Horsley and others Oaklawn saved his life.
“What you have are people who learn to live under the influence of these medications. They learn how to do their job, they learn how to drive, they learn how to parent, they learn how to do everything in that state,” Horsley said. “So when they're in early recovery what happens is they have a difficult time coping with everything around them because it's almost all new, they're not as good at it, they're not as sharp and they're feeling terrible because they're withdrawing from the medication.”
At least half the patients at Oaklawn are, like Tony, hooked on prescription drugs, Horsley said.
“It’s a huge issue in our community which kind of reflects what the national and state surveys are saying,” he added.
Those numbers are surprising.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one in five Hoosiers reported they’d misused prescription drugs at least once in their life during a survey conducted between 2002 and 2004.
One in four said they’d used a pain reliever for non medical use in the last year, in a 2009 National Survey on Drug use and Health.
Of people in the United States – ages 12 and older – who admit they used pain relievers non medically in the past year, 55 percent said they got the pills from a friend or relative for free. Another 17 percent got them from a prescription through a doctor and 11 percent bought the pills from a friend or relative.
But who’s to blame for a problem he and others say is already an epidemic?
“It’s easy to blame physicians but I’m not into that game. I think physicians are doing what they know to do and it’s not their intention for people to misuse the substances,” Horsley told WSBT.
In fact, prescription drug abuse is something family doctor David Amrhein says he and others in his group watch for and do everything they can to prevent.
“I would say that ever physician is different and certainly there are some physicians that may be a little more lenient in the amount of controlled substances they’re prescribing,” Dr. Amrhein said.
He has access to INSPECT – Indiana’s online prescription drug monitoring system that allows him to log in and see all the controlled substance prescriptions a patient has filled within a certain period of time in Indiana and some other states.
“Discussion is in progress as to what do we do,” Dr. Amrhein continued. “Do we make physicians take courses to be able to prescribe medicines, or have specialized training to be able to prescribe these medicines? There are things in the works that are being done to try and curtail this abuse.”
He doesn’t think extra training is necessary and says more doctors need to be willing to tell patients “no.”
Horsley also feels there are other steps that can be taken to curb the problem.
“Same old story – prevention, enforcement and treatment all working together is the solution here. We really have to decrease the demand. We really have to raise awareness. People need to dispose of their unused medications properly,” he continued.
“I don’t know if there is a solution,” said Tony, now 20 years old.
He’s been clean just over a year, has a part-time job and is back in school, on the path to engineering.
“I can’t believe I didn’t lose everything,” he said.
But the grip prescription drugs had on him is something he knows he'll battle forever.
“It never goes away, it’s always there. Your addiction is always there, waiting to take you back out,” he said.
Awareness about prescription drug abuse in St. Joseph County and across the country is growing. Indiana’s Attorney General recently put up billboards in 10 counties to fight the problem.
A local task force involving police, prevention experts, addiction counselors, recovering addicts and many others has been formed to specifically target prescription drug abuse and heroin.
After meeting with the county health officer, St. Joseph County’s Coroner and Deputy Coroners are now documenting prescription drug deaths more in-depth than they ever have before to try and get a more accurate count on the number of death caused by those overdoses.
So if you're a parent or grandparent, you might be wondering how you would know if my kids are addicted? -- How would I know if my kids are addicted?
Horsley provided these symptoms to watch for:
Withdrawal Symptoms : flu-like symptoms, joint pain, stomach cramps, sweats, anxious behavior
You might also notice missing money or missing medication. If you’re worried you can always ask your child’s doctor to do a urine drug screen.
For Help Battling an Addiction: