By Nicole Hennessy
The term “opiate-based pain relievers” triggers a reaction similar to the now closely related phrase “heroin epidemic,” an increasing problem not only in Cuyahoga County but the entire country.
It’s easy to discuss how harmful a physically addictive drug is to communities that have previously managed to avoid issues associated with it, but the conversation gets more difficult when it becomes about medication.
After medical professionals overprescribed addictive pain medications throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, users abusing the pills realized they could get the same effect for much cheaper with the illegal version, heroin.
Previously abused primarily by men in urban areas, it now also affects all demographics in communities otherwise pleasant and well-maintained.
And while legislators, leaders, educators and law enforcement officials are working to publicize the dramatic increase in heroin-related deaths Cuyahoga County has experienced in the last couple of years to help decrease its prevalence, there is another side of the story that often goes untold: responsible pain-pill users who have an immediate need for the medications.
Though necessary, profitable and legal, so often, the subject prompts silence and a desire to disassociate one’s self from the topic altogether.
A Rocky River resident, who wished to remain anonymous based on the perceive stigma, believes dependency and addiction are the same thing as far as pain pills are concerned. But in order to avoid a destructive addiction, she takes them less often that she’s allowed and limits her dosage. Nevertheless, she explains, she needs the pain pills to get through day-to-day activities.
Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 23, without medication, she said, she’d suffer from debilitating pain, unable to live her life normally, or sometimes, not at all.
“It’s something I have to deal with on a daily basis,” she said. “So, yes, I take …
Pausing, she looks around the slightly crowded coffee shop she’s sitting in, and then whispers, “… Percocet.”
While she realizes she shouldn’t feel paranoid or ashamed, there is a stigma attached to pain medications that she’s fully aware of.
Plus, she worries about people stealing her medication and other safety issues, such as pharmacies getting robbed.
She complains that because of these things, it is often difficult for her to get her prescriptions, as she is unable to call them in on the phone.
Across town a pharmacist, who also thought it best not to be identified, said this inconvenience can be solved by working regularly with one pharmacy. He explained the policy of not discussing opiate-based pain pills on the phone is in response to the increase in robberies and encouraged patients to set up a time schedule to pick up prescriptions regularly.
But, as the Rocky River resident explained, most days she takes fewer doses than she is supposed to, so it is hard for her to gauge when she will run out.
“You have to understand,” the pharmacist said, regarding inconvenient restrictions on pain medications, “there are illegitimate people out there trying to get them.”
Comparing pills with guns, he pointed out that it is the misuse of them that is the problem.
And while considering legitimate pain sufferers further complicates the already complex opiate issue, it is integral to fully understanding it.
Though many are hesitant to discuss the use of addictive medications, there are resources within the Westshore that pain sufferers can take advantage of.
One is St. John Medical Center’s Pain Management Center, which offers both consultation and physical therapy.
A representative for the center could not be reached, but its website offers some insight into the services it provides.
It reads, “We offer a multidisciplinary, team approach to the treatment of chronic pain, while working with other hospital services such as physical therapy, behavioral health and new addiction medicine program.”
The Rocky River pain sufferer says she does not have an addictive personality, that some in her extended family do, but she just doesn’t. She believes this is a strong contributing factor in her ability to responsibly manage her medications, careful not to become dependent in a destructive manner. She also believes there are other pain sufferers who are not so lucky.
Those with addictive personalities and mental illness, she says, both increase a person’s risk of becoming negatively addicted to medications they do have to take in order to combat pain. This is not to mention users who take the pills for no other reason than the high it provides them. But she mentions the group because she feels they are underrepresented in general.
Through community discussions and education, more than just the most obvious aspect of the heroin problem, which is the drug itself, can be addressed and possibly avoided in the first place.
Often, it is the lesser-discussed topics that have the most potential to truly solve an issue.
“I can’t just lie in bed,” says the Rocky River resident, finishing her coffee.
With her medication, stigma or no stigma, she is able to enjoy life.
And “that’s what life is all about, is enjoying it, not escaping from it.” she explains. “I think those who are addicted are trying to escape from it. Those who are not addicted are trying to embrace it.”
SIDE BAR: For more information about treating or recognizing addiction call 1-888-GET-HOPE to find a Narcotics Anonymous meeting or representative in your area. Or contact a medical professional.