While theories vary about everything related to opioids, one thing everyone seems to agree on is that it’s changing the face of addiction.
“If you look at the demographics of people affected by this, you have some young people using, but you also have middle-aged and older people who abuse prescription pills,” said Quentin McGee, assistant district attorney for Bladen County. “We’re not talking about your average junkie — we’re talking everyday, run-of-the-mill citizens prescribed meds who become addicted. They’re across the board, including well educated, well-to-do members of the community.”
The opioid epidemic is so unlike previous drug eras in the U.S. that leaders have grappled with defining exactly what the problem is. One school of thought, used primarily by those in the substance abuse treatment field, seeks to define it by differentiating between abuse and addiction. According to this thought, addiction, or dependence, is the result of repeated use and occurs when the body expects the drug in order to function. Dependence can arise from legal, prescribed use of a painkiller.
Sue Repick falls into that category. Over the last 15 years, the 76-year-old has undergone multiple joint replacement surgeries and a laundry list of other procedures. She describes herself as “totally disabled” and reliant on opioids to get her through the day.
“Without pain support I wouldn’t be able to get up every day,” she commented. “I’m not a drug addict on the street — I’m a person with serious issues that need medication. You cannot live with severe chronic pain.”
While Repick may be dependent, or addicted, to opioids, she doesn’t abuse them, she says. Abuse, according to the school of thought, occurs when people either cease to achieve the results they desired — because tolerance develops — or they are chasing a high. Such users may begin crushing pills, taking more than were prescribed, taking pills at shorter intervals than they should, or chewing pills to enhance the rush of drugs into their system.
A 2015 study published in the Harvard Review of Psychology grouped opioid users into three categories: users of heroin with painkillers, heroin alone, and painkillers alone, and it profiled each set.
Of the three groups, the study found those using heroin alone tend to be more socioeconomically disadvantaged than the other groups, older, and have involvement with the criminal justice system. Users of prescription pills with heroin tend to be young white males misusing other prescriptions since adolescence, in poor mental and physical health, more likely to be heavy polysubstance users, and most likely to be IV drug users.
The study found those using painkillers alone tend to be the most economically stable, the most connected to social institutions, the least able to access heroin, and the least likely to have criminal justice involvement.
Gavin Kersey fell into the latter category. At the age of 17, his appendix ruptured, and he was placed on pain medication after an appendectomy. For the next four years, he kept using and trying new things, until 2009, when he mixed meth and Xanax.
“I didn’t go to work one day and stayed home,” he recalled. “I was living beside my dad at the time, and he said for some reason, he went toward my house before he left for work. It was 6 a.m., and my front door was open, so he came in, and found me unconscious on the floor. I died on the way to the hospital.”
Kersey survived after being revived by medical staff, but the experience was enough to keep him off meth and Xanax. The same wasn’t true, however, of opioids, which kept calling him.
“I’ve literally been holding pills in my hand and crying because I knew it wouldn’t make it better, but I knew I would feel better for a while,” he said, staring at his hand. “I’ve been able to walk away from everything I’ve ever done, except pain pills.
“That’s why I came (to Crossroads), because I knew I would have ended up shooting a needle in my arm before it was over, or snorting.”
Off of drugs now “for good,” Kersey is using his experiences to help other men at Crossroads battle their addictions.
Kersey’s experience mirrors what society is seeing as it fights opioid abuse. A 2015 study by the National Institute for drug Abuse revealed that while 829,000 young adults aged 18-25 are abusing opioids, the larger group is comprised of older adults. When the age is increased to those over the age of 26, it includes 2.7 million people misusing prescription pills. While the larger pool accounts for some of the difference, the study also revealed opioid abuse is on the rise in the older population, and especially among women.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, Crossroads offers help, which can be obtained by calling 910-549-8487.
Additionally, the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office offers an anonymous tip line if you suspect someone of misusing or selling prescription pills or drugs. It can be reached by calling 910-874-8124.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.