Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Leader staff writer

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series.

John walks in and sits down at the table. His shirt is tucked in. His hair is cut short. He is on his lunch break from a job he’s had for years where he makes a decent living. He has a wife and kids, a home. He’s not what you would expect an opiate addict of 17 years to look like.

John is one of the lucky people in Arkansas. He was able to get help with his addiction. Others are often not so lucky. In 2015, 52,404 people died from drug overdoses in the U.S. Of those deaths, 38,597 were associated with opiates. To break it down even further, 12,989 of those deaths were associated with heroin use, while the rest were associated with prescription drugs – obtained through both legal and illegal means.

The statistics, which can be found at www.cdc.gov, show that overdose death rates more than doubled between 1999 – at 16,849 deaths, and 2009 – at 37,004 deaths. The numbers have continued to rise and strike all across the board, affecting men and women, adolescents, elderly, blacks, whites, Hispanics.

Arkansas saw 392 drug overdose deaths in 2015.

Opiate addiction has become an epidemic.

“Contemplating suicide. I never planned it, but I just didn’t want to do this anymore, I didn’t want to be alive,” said John of his lowest point of addiction. “I didn’t think there was another way out. That’s definitely something that happened to me in that last year more days than not.”

At age 30, John suffered a back injury in 2000 that required pain management. He was prescribed an opioid painkiller and continued taking them until Aug. 10, 2016. He is now 47 and has been in recovery for 11 months.

“I took opiates mainly for that reason (pain), but it changed over the years. It took a while before I started seeking it,” he said. “At first it’s more like you get your prescription and it lasts as long as it’s supposed to. Or maybe you don’t get a lot, you get 30 days worth and it’s supposed to last you three months. I was fine with that, for two or three years.”

Over time, John says his thinking changed from managing pain to “this makes you feel good, why don’t you do this all the time.”

John’s back troubles worsened, keeping him in need of pain management. “I did have a physical reason to need it,” he said. “There were times I may have exaggerated that to get a refill. When you have a back injury, it doesn’t hurt nine out of 10 every day. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.”

After five years of taking prescription pain medicine for his back, John says he began to have a desire for more and started having a craving for it. He started obtaining pills through illegal channels.

“I knew I was sort of living in an addiction that was unsustainable. Probably at that six or seven year mark after I hurt my back, I knew that my seeking behavior didn’t have a happy ending, going the direction I was going,” he said. “I knew that I had a mental obsession with it and I was seeking it. I didn’t feel like I was in control of that. I didn’t feel like it was something I could beat. And I lived with that for probably 10 years.”

John planned his days around how many pills he had and how long they would last, when would he run out, would he have money for more. “That is in your head 24/7. The first thing you think about when you get up in the morning is how many pills to I have. How many can I take now?” John said. “And it is the last thing I thought about before bed. Not my children. Not my wife or my job. Not my family. Not myself in a healthy way, but pills.”

While John was able to function as an addict, other aspects of his life were being affected.

“My job performance was not up to the standard I held myself up to, not how I was raised,” he said. “My performance was eh, at one time top, but somewhere in the middle now, but I still had money to spend on it. That’s what kind of kept me going. It kept me in that false reality that things were not so bad. I could always buy more.”

His relationships with his wife and kids suffered also. “I lied to my wife,” he said. “I’ve lived a lie to my wife and kids and my extended family. Those are kind of the things on the outside. But inside it’s just a feeling of failure, shame.”

John says that while he may have take pills so he didn’t have to feel bad, for him it was more about avoiding withdraw. “Underneath that I know it was more. It’s easier to deny your problems than to face them, for sure.”

During the year leading up to starting treatment John told his wife that he needed help. “I told her I was addicted. That I couldn’t do it on my own,” he said. “I was kind of trapped. I wanted to be able to get help. But that cost money too. I had to find a point where I said no to buying the pills and used that money for help.”

John’s wife knew when he went into withdraw and where he was going when he left the house. “That helped I think. She didn’t judge me,” he said.

John sought out help last year at UAMS. “I found the program by a radio advertisement. It was for the research program. I called and got into the research program. That’s how I started in treatment,” he said.

“I was ready when I sought help,” John says of his treatment. “For me, it needed to be my idea and on my terms.”

John says he doesn’t know if other addicts feel the same. “I don’t know if it is always (a personal choice), but it doesn’t have to be,” he said. “You hear talk about someone has to reach their own bottom and they have to be ready when they come in. I think that’s true to a degree. It doesn’t matter how you got there. If you’re there and you stay there, that is good enough.”

John says his relationships with his wife and kids have gotten stronger since he’s been in recovery. “I’m back to some of the standards that I hold myself. I’m a better father and husband for sure,” he said.

Now that his days are not spent planning out when to take pills, John now has time for work on himself and to “figure out what I’m interested in as an adult. I have space to make myself a better person.”

John attends monthly group sessions and meets with a therapist.

“People struggle,” John said. “Sobriety has to be kind of a selfish thing. I worry about myself and my sobriety first.”