I recently spoke with a young man who was “having a problem with opiates.” In actuality, he was trying hard to convince both himself and me that his prescription medication abuse wasn’t serious. Certainly he felt it would be wrong to call himself an “addict.”
The hard facts make it impossible to offer comfort or minimize the severity of opiate addiction, whether to painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin, or street drugs like heroin. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), more than 2 million Americans are addicted to opiates that can be found in your medicine cabinet and almost 2 million more to illegal opiates. They are now the #1 cause of accidental death in this country (and rising!).
The severity of an opiate addiction cannot be stressed enough; they hijack the brain and can quickly lead to behaviors that destroy relationships, careers, financial success and character. Prescription drug use is also fueling a heroin epidemic because the high cost of an addiction to Percocet, Oxycodone or other painkillers often forces a switch to heroin, which is less expensive but much more dangerous.
Here are 7 hard truths about opiate addictions:
- Addiction to opiates occurs very rapidly and withdrawal symptoms can occur after only a week. One study suggests that addiction will inevitably occur within 12 weeks of continuous use… but the struggle will last a lifetime.
- The “physical” pull of addiction is short-term and is not the major trigger that creates cravings. The more powerful pull is “psychological” because the brain remembers the change in feelings produced by the drug. The addict must learn to manage this pull to avoiding using again.
- Detox from opiates – without a proven, effective recovery program – is usually a waste of time and money. Until an addict has learned how to manage his or her thoughts, and the “psychological pull” of the disease, the cravings will most likely return and cause relapse.
- Using medications to manage opiate use has a very poor success rates. 70% to 90% of methadone users relapse soon after treatment ends. The success rate for Suboxone, even after years of use, is not much better. The only lasting road to recovery is a lifestyle change in which stress and emotions are managed, and a solid support network is established.
- Tolerance toward opiates (and all other drugs for that matter) increases with use. A progressively larger amount is needed, which increases the likelihood of overdose. One study recently calculated that the average life of an opiate abuser is 10 years after the first use if they do not enter into recovery.
- The physical pull of withdrawal is hardest in the first week, as opiates leave the body fairly quickly. The rebalancing and repair of the brain takes months, and while the psychological pull of addiction may be strongest for the first 90 days, many different things can trigger it at any time.
- Opiate addicts who try to manage their addiction with “willpower” rarely have more than 60-90 days of sobriety. The majority of those people relapse in less than 30 days. The people who truly succeed in overcoming their addiction are those who work hard to stay in recovery every day for the rest of their lives.
There were no easy or comforting words that can be offered to an opiate addict without minimizing the dangers of their addiction or the importance of committing to recovery. Too many people underestimate the severity of an addiction to painkillers because they are legal drugs. We must all realize that opiate addiction is truly a national crisis. We must help people break free of this addiction that is destroying so many families, so many futures and so many lives.