You or a loved one may be suffering from drug abuse and, if so, you’re looking for answers to a very difficult problem. Or perhaps you are concerned about becoming addicted to a prescription drug your doctor has prescribed. Or maybe you secretly admit to yourself that you have been “doctor shopping” (making appointments with multiple doctors to get prescriptions and then filling them at different pharmacies so you won’t be caught) in order to get more of a certain drug than your primary care physician would prescribe. All of these situations are serious. This article will help you understand the problems of drug addiction, steps you can take to avoid or treat addiction, and how to find reputable, effective treatment and rehabilitation. We’re here to help you with our professional experience after having helped thousands of people like you beat the tragedy of addiction.
Prescription Drug Dangers
People in the United States are big prescription drug users. We consume 99 percent of the world supply of hydrocodone and 71 percent of the world’s oxycodone. Both are painkillers that act on the brain and are dangerously addictive. Fifty-six percent of U.S. prescription drug abusers are age 18 or older, which means nearly half are children and teens. One in three seniors take drugs prescribed by their doctors that have a high potential for addiction. The most frequently abused prescription drug in the U.S. is Vicodin®, an opioid pain reliever, also known by its generic name hydrocodone.
Drugs like Vicodin® are powerful painkillers with a lot of medical value. However, they can lead you into four different stages of drug misuse that often lead to total dependency.
Misuse, Abuse, Addiction, and Dependency
You may have heard some of these four terms and wondered what they mean and how they differ.
- Misuse- is simply the improper use of a drug that’s been prescribed. For example, you might occasionally take an extra painkiller. If the doctor told you to take one tablet every four hours, but you double up on the afternoon dose because you’re feeling more pain than usual, that’s misuse. For some people, it can be the beginning of a slippery slope into abuse as that occasional extra dose is repeated over and over again.
- Abuse- actually takes place in three different ways. Each of them usually has harmful effects on your health or the well-being of others. For example, your children can no longer rely on you to parent them if you are “high” or “zapped out.”
- You’re using the drug for a purpose it was not intended. For example, a painkiller may make you feel “high” or give you a feeling of euphoria, so you use it to get that feeling rather than to control pain.
- You use a prescription drug that was prescribed for another person or that was given to you by a non-medical person. Teenagers, for example, have reported that the family medicine cabinet and friends at school are both common suppliers for drugs intended for someone else.
- You use the drug in dosages not prescribed by your doctor. Painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs are often taken in excessive amounts by people who suffer with a lot of pain or anxiety and, sometimes, by people who only want to feel the “high” they produce.
- Addiction- the next step in the process, is a neurobiological disease and not a character defect to be disparaged, despised, or scorned. Untreated, it gets worse over time and can lead the person to relapse after relapse even though they are earnestly trying with all their might to break the addiction. It can cause permanent changes and damage to the brain. It causes many to make extraordinary full-time efforts to buy more drugs, no matter what they cost or how risky buying them might become. These afflicted people become compulsive, desperate and willing to take great risks with their school, job, financial and family lives to get more drugs.
- Dependency- is the extreme outcome of addiction. It’s a condition where the addict’s body has become so accustomed to the drug it can no longer function properly without it. More and more of the drug is needed to get the same effect because the body desensitizes itself to the daily onslaught of drugs. At this stage, you’ll find that people lose their jobs, their homes, their families, and sometimes their lives.
Symptoms of Addiction
The symptoms that you’ll see in a person abusing drugs covers many different behaviors and emotional attitudes. Some of the most common…
- They may pay less attention to personal grooming and dress.
- They may go through periods of moodiness, depression, and no longer caring about their future.
- Their sex drive may diminish or disappear.
- Drug afflicted people often become angry and treat others poorly, without kindness or consideration.
- Relationships with family and friends may take a back seat to the constant quest for drugs.
- Problems may surface at school or work.
- They may become secretive, sneaky, and begin lying and stealing to finance their habit.
- Law enforcement may intervene in their lives as they engage in risky and illegal behaviors.
- You may notice red eyes, contracted “pinpoint” pupils, and that the person suffers from frightening and disturbing hallucinations.
- If they are injecting drugs, you may find needle marks on their arms or legs, between fingers and toes or other parts of the body.
- You’ll also find drug users often lose weight and stop eating normally.
- Addicted people often have trouble sleeping, resulting in excessive fatigue.
Drug abuse among seniors may not be so easily recognized because some of the symptoms of abuse are similar to natural aging processes. For example, changes in sleep and eating patterns, depression, and other mood-related changes are a common part of the aging process.
Symptoms of Withdrawal
Withdrawal occurs when you stop using a drug. Addicted people usually want with all their heart to quit using drugs. Some try to go cold turkey (an extremely dangerous process that can lead to seizures and death). Others try to wean themselves off the drug by reducing the amount they take each day, although almost super-human effort is needed to be successful (and should only be done with professional supervision). Withdrawal symptoms vary depending upon the drug involved, but often include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, sweats, panic attacks, extreme nervousness, involuntary shaking, and seizures that can lead to permanent brain damage and even death. NOTE: Treating an addiction or dependence requires professional help! Don’t try to do it on your own.
Drugs Are Classified According to Their Danger
All drugs except over-the-counter drugs are classified by Federal law into five schedules:
- Schedule I: These drugs, such as cocaine and LSD, are illegal because they have no medical value and are easily abused. Their potential for abuse is very high and comes with many safety concerns. There are no prescription drugs in Schedule I.
- Schedule II: These do have significant medical value, but also come with a high risk for abuse and severe addiction. These drugs include opiates such as pure hydrocodone, oxycodone, and morphine. Depressants such as phenobarbital and secobarbital (Seconal) are included in Schedule II along with stimulants like amphetamine and methamphetamine.
- Schedule III: These drugs are medically useful and are not as likely to be abused as drugs in Schedule II. When addiction occurs, it is usually milder than the case for Schedule II. This class contains various steroids, codeine in low doses, and a number of hydrocodone compounds.
- Schedule IV: This class contains depressants like alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam, various sleeping aids, anti-anxiety medications, and sedatives, as well as various stimulants. These have an even lower potential for abuse and less potential for addiction.
- Schedule V: These are mild stimulants, depressants, and mild narcotics used to treat cough, pain, and other routine medical conditions. They have the lowest potential for abuse and quite limited potential for addiction.
Another way to classify drugs is by their classes. Doctors prescribe opioids for pain, depressants for anxiety and sleep problems, and stimulants for ADHD and narcolepsy. The National Institute for Drug Abuse provides a helpful list of drugs according to these classes.
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin®)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin®)
- Oxymorphone (Opana®)
- Propoxyphene (Darvon®)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid®)
- Meperidine (Demerol®)
- Diphenoxylate (Lomotil®)
- Pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal®)
- Diazepam (Valium®)
- Alprazolam (Xanax®)
- Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine®)
- Methylphenidate (Ritalin® and Concerta®)
- Amphetamines (Adderall®)
Because Vicodin® is the most abused prescription drug in America, we’ll focus on it for a moment. While each of the opioid, depressant, and stimulant drugs will affect you differently, each of them can cause you to become addicted, so let’s take a look at this drug that’s favored by so many.
Vicodin® – An Abuser’s Favorite Pill
Vicodin® is an opioid. An opioid is a natural or man-made chemical that affects the nerves in the brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal track. Opioids bind to special receptors on those nerves to block the feeling of pain, and they do a great job for moderate to severe pain. Hydrocodone is the opioid used in Vicodin®. The makers of the drug (Abbott Labs) add acetaminophen, another painkiller which increases the effect of the hydrocodone even further. In the years since Vicodin® was released, it has largely been replaced by its generic, commonly known as hydrocodone which contains acetaminophen just as the original Vicodin®. If you were to ask for Vicodin from your doctor, he or she would probably prescribe the generic.
Vicodin® is a Schedule III controlled drug. According to the official package insert provided by Abbott Labs, “Hydrocodone is a…narcotic…with multiple actions…similar to those of codeine [and] may produce drowsiness, changes in mood, and emotional clouding.” Addiction brings on “impaired control over drug use, compulsive use, continued use despite harm and craving.” Users may find themselves dependent upon the drug in just a few days, but usually it takes several weeks of regular use to move into full dependency. The body builds a tolerance to hydrocodone so that increasing amounts are needed to get the same effect.
This leads to “drug-seeking” behaviors among abusers and addicts. “Drug seeking” takes many forms (and most doctors recognize it right away). An addict might call the doctor’s office for an “emergency” office visit just before the doctor’s closing hour demanding a refill right now! Some might refuse to have an examination for their pain, again demanding the doctor simply write a prescription. Others claim they “lost” their prescription. Others may tamper with them or try to counterfeit them. Yet, other abusers shop from one doctor to another to get as many pills as they possibly can without getting caught for “doctor shopping.”
Vicodin’s active narcotic ingredient, hydrocodone, was created by a German company and released in the 1920s as a painkiller. By the mid-1930s the U.S. government found that it is addictive. By the early 1970s, the Food and Drug Administration listed pure hydrocodone as a Schedule II drug with extremely high risk for addiction and many limitations on how it could be prescribed. However, they left hydrocodone formulations and compounds in the less restricted Schedule III. In the late 1970s, the German company (Knoll) began selling the Vicodin® brand with 5 mg of hydrocodone and 500 mg of acetaminophen. Generics appeared in the 1980s followed by the FDA’s recommendation to put strict warnings on the drug due to its addictive nature and possible liver damage that excessive use of acetaminophen could cause. In July 2009, the U.S. government called for removing Vicodin® from the market due to some 400 deaths in a year’s time from overdosing. However, the drug still remains available through wholesalers who sell to pharmacies nationwide. As noted, doctors usually prescribe the generic hydrocodone rather than the more costly branded drug from Abbott Labs.
Symptoms, Effects, and Dangers
Using the drug as prescribed may cause minor side effects that include drowsiness, lightheadedness, confusion, constipation, and occasionally, nausea.
When the drug is abused the symptoms are much more dangerous. They can include extreme sleepiness even to the point of remaining asleep while family members shake your body vigorously. Your breathing can become shallow, leading to stupor, coma, or death. Hydrocodone can affect the part of your brain that controls breathing, causing it to become more and more shallow, and then possibly stopping altogether. The abuser’s pupils dilate to a “pinpoint,” which is why emergency room doctors look at the patient’s eyes when they are admitted in an unconscious state.
Recovery Process: Withdrawal, Detox, Recovery, and Aftercare
Now that you’ve learned about some of the effects of drug abuse and dependency, let’s look at the recovery process. No matter what your condition, or that of your loved one, every sign points to recovery. Drug addiction and dependency can be overcome.
People you know have survived severe addiction and gone on to live successful lives. Chevy Chase, the TV and movie celebrity, was admitted for addiction to painkillers in 1986. If you recall Saturday Night Live in its earliest years, Chevy was constantly taking pratfalls and getting huge laughs. He injured himself with some of those silly acrobatics. He began taking prescription painkillers and became addicted. Treatment at the Betty Ford Center in California saved his life and allowed him to go on to make many great movies and TV shows.
Courtney Love abused prescription drugs and stood trial for illegal possession of hydrocodone and oxycontin. She lost custody of her child in 2003. Speaking in USA Today she said, “Who isn’t doing them [drugs]? Everyone who makes it [in Hollywood] starts popping them. I did it. I loved it. I also ended up in rehab.” A court-ordered rehabilitation session restored Courtney to her child and her singer-songwriter professional life without drugs.
Friends star, Matthew Perry, signed into rehab in 1997 and again in 2003 for Vicodin® abuse. Other celebrities who have been treated for drug addiction make a long list: Johnny Cash, Tony Curtis, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Robert Mitchum, Mary Tyler Moore, and Eileen Brennan, to name a few. Sadly, the Hollywood set does seem to set a poor standard for the nation on the proper use of prescription drugs.
For you, your loved ones, and all of these celebrities, the first step in the recovery process is confronting withdrawal. When you flood your body with a drug over a period of time, your body stops making some of the chemicals essential for life. For example, your brain normally produces neurotransmitters and other chemicals that let you live with a general feeling of satisfaction. Narcotics “feed” your brain very similar chemicals, which over time, causes your brain to stop making essential neurotransmitters. Withdrawal happens when the drug is withdrawn and the brain needs time to begin producing its natural chemicals once again. During the withdrawal period, an addict can experience severe emotional and physical symptoms that vary according to the drug that has been withdrawn.
A professional rehabilitation program can reduce and effectively treat the discomfort during the withdrawal period using various methods of detoxification. Depending upon the drug involved, detox may include the use of special supplements to counteract withdrawal symptoms, counseling, and other forms of support. The detox phase continues until the brain and body restart their normal functioning. At that point, you’re no longer dependent upon the drug you were abusing. Your body is now working as it should once again.
The recovery process is where the rubber meets the road. Detox does not cure addiction. It only restores the body to its natural non-dependent state. Recovery usually takes place at an inpatient rehabilitation center. The recovery process includes many forms of support and helps to give the addict the psychological and social skills they need to remain drug-free. These can include nutritional counseling, individual and group counseling, physical activities, and stress reduction training.
Finally, having worked hard and achieved a great deal, rehab moves to its final stage, aftercare. It can include weekly follow-ups, periodic outpatient visits, joining a 12-step or self-help group, and even half-way house residency. The goal of aftercare is to keep the person drug free, sober, and able to function in society.
You are fortunate to live in a time when medical science has access to so many powerful and effective drugs to relieve pain and promote health. Yet, when they are abused and a person becomes addicted and dependent, professional help is the only solution. Drug addicted people sign in to rehab programs across the country every day. Some of them complete the rehab program and remain drug-free for life. Some relapse and re-enter a program. Make no mistake, if you or a loved one have a drug problem, getting well is just a phone call away. [or your call to action]. If you or a loved one have relapsed, that does not mean rehab has failed. It means there’s a bit more work to be done.