Late at night in November 2011, Ted Flores was coming home from running errands in Highland, Ind., when a car T-boned his at an intersection. He was lucky. He was diagnosed with only a pinched nerve and a couple of degenerative discs.
He tried physical therapy, but it didn’t take the pain away. Then a doctor gave him a prescription for opioids. The drugs took away his pain and made him feel more energetic and sociable. Even though he was no longer in pain, he went to another doctor to get more opioids, this time oxycodone.
“I didn’t want it to stop,” said Flores, now 30. “Eventually, I started taking a little more than what I was supposed to and would tell myself, ‘I’ll take less next time.’ ”
He ran out of pills two weeks into a month-long refill. He would develop flulike symptoms whenever he finished his prescription early.
“I had to call sick into work,” he said. “I couldn’t even leave my room.”
During this time, Flores got a job as a pharmacy technician at CVS. He said he constantly saw other people like him, coming in to fill prescriptions they didn’t need. Some would wait in their cars in the parking lot before the store opened.
Six years after the crash, finally fed up with the cycle of withdrawals, Flores booked an appointment at a Suboxone clinic and got clean.
“I bear guilt or the sense I was part of the problem, giving other addicts their medication,” he said. “Seeing recent statistics about how many pills flooded my area, I’m not surprised: I was one of the many.”
When Mary Young had to take pain pills after foot surgery, it felt like a chore.
A real estate agent in San Diego, she usually spent 10 hours a day on her feet. One day in 2005, a bone in the ball of her left foot split in half. She was on crutches for three months, reaching four times a day for bottles of oxycodone and Vicodin, which contains hydrocodone.
“When I took the last pill of my prescription, I didn’t think anything of it,” said Young, now 45. “If anything, I was happy to be done with it.”
Four months later, a friend asked her for a ride to the pharmacy so she could get her Vicodin prescription.
“Hearing the word ‘Vicodin,’ I don’t know why but I felt like fireworks erupted in my brain,” Young said.
“Yes, but can I have one?” she asked her friend. The friend handed her a small white tablet that Young took home. Sitting in her living room, she swallowed it and soon felt euphoria.
“It was a feeling I wanted to chase,” she said. “It only took one pill.”
The friend, who wasn’t feeling any relief from her medication, willingly handed over as many as Young asked for. At the height of Young’s addiction, she was siphoning 20 a day from her friend, who suffered from stomach pain.
For six years, Young kept getting Vicodin from her friend. She says she could not have functioned without it. When she traveled, she worried about running out. When out with friends, she wouldn’t drink, fearing she could “lose the high.” At night, she would count how many she had, and if it didn’t add up to 20 for the next day, she drove to her friend’s and picked up more.
Finally, visiting family in West Des Moines, Iowa, she decided to move home and go to a recovery center. She has been in recovery for nearly a decade.
“Sometimes I look back and feel so much shame for lying to my friends and family, keeping my addiction under wraps,” she said. “I used to be so confident, but my self-esteem is now at zero. I’m still working toward building back the trust of my family — as well as my own.”
Paul Little’s job as an Air Force physician at Good fellow Air Force Base in Texas was a stressful one. It was his first job after completing his residency. He felt he had more patients and paperwork than his experience qualified him for. He was a captain, but he felt his job was one for a major.
In 1979, Little was sitting in his office on the base and plagued by a migraine. He knew that he had leftover pain pills from a hernia repair in his desk. He took one. “It was an especially difficult day,” he said.
That one day led to a year-long habit. To get more, Little would tell patients that they needed pain-pill prescriptions and then would skim some, he said, taking up to 30 five-milligram Percocet’s a day. He successfully hid his addiction, continued to treat patients and even won a base-wide award for his work.
He eventually realized “this insanity couldn’t go on,” and he confessed to his commanding officer. He was given an other-than-honorable discharge, his medical license was suspended and he went to prison for a year.
It took years of sobriety to earn his way back. Once he had, he wanted to do the opposite of prescribing opioids: Little, now 60, he works at a detox center in San Diego and runs a telemedicine Suboxone clinic in West Virginia to help other addicts.
Kathy Thomas had a senior civilian position with the Army, managing a group of nine people who reviewed complex contracts. Shortly before she retired, she was prescribed an array of pain pills in 2012 for a rare, incurable form of neuropathy.
After Thomas’s pain from her neuropathy dissipated, doctors left her on the pain pills, furthering her dependency on the drugs. When she went to the Mayo Clinic for a sleep study, a doctor noticed the drugs on her chart.
“He said: ‘Oh my God, you have been on all these drugs for two years. What is your pain management doctor’s plan to taper you?’ ” said Thomas, who is now 68 and lives in San Antonio. She said she was not given a plan.
Thomas went through group therapy to be weaned off the pills. She said everyone in the room was just like her — their addiction and dependency had crept up on them without them noticing.
Even in recovery, Thomas retains symptoms of dependency: She’s developed an eating disorder, gaining 45 pounds. Today she has difficulty remembering what day it is or showing up for doctor appointments.
Thomas also compulsively shops. At the peak of it, six boxes a week would appear at her front door. She said she had no recollection of ordering anything.
“My husband would hold up a box and ask me what it was, and I had no idea,” she said. “I wasn’t like this. I used to be unstoppable, not just mentally but physically.”
Now Thomas spend her days repeating tasks she’s already done because she forgot what she did earlier. “There’s a lot of side effects that go along with using these drugs long term that I don’t see being addressed,” Thomas said. “I don’t think a lot of people think of that.”
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This story was originally published by the Investigative Reporting Workshop, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom at the American University School of Communication.
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