Our Opioid Crisis – We’re All At Risk

Several decades ago, when I was still a college freshman, my parents arrived at my dorm presenting me with a pack of “mild,” mentholated cigarettes suggesting it would help me concentrate when I studied. Does that surprise and even shock you? Perhaps it should. Because even today I find it hard to believe that my loving, protective parents wouldn’t know the potential perils of that action.

I’m no longer a smoker, but as a citizen, psychotherapist, and parent, I’m quite concerned about the huge and growing opioid crisis America’s now facing. Opioids kill more people in our country than car accidents or guns and the CDC states that opiate addiction now costs America $78.5 billion each year.

These stats are alarming and the prevalence of these pain-killers, often prescribed prophylactically rather than in response to actual pain, poses a huge problem – one that needs to be curtailed before the crisis can be controlled. Most of the physicians involved are probably well intentioned, even protective, as were my parents. But the end result, tragically, is often addiction, and eventually even death.

Personally, I tasted the addictive allure of opioids not long ago, after getting a prescription for 90 pills of Percocet following minor surgery. Questioning the physician about the fact they were addictive, I was emphatically answered with “No, not if you need them for pain.” Doubtful, but feeling physically quite uncomfortable I decided to chuck my concerns for the trade-off of total relief.

Returning home and complying I took the pills as prescribed, discovering not only the pain had disappeared but I felt great! Better than great! Better than ever! Brilliant, beautiful, immortal, invulnerable, and ready to run for The White House the following day! OMG! Who’d ever want that feeling to end?! Not me.

It was disconcerting, however, the next morning, recuperating at home, to hear my husband’s voice call out, “I’d prefer to buy house number one.” As it seemed like a sound track from the HGTV Series, “Househunters”, a show I knew and liked, the incident struck me as humorous but also weird – as I knew my husband was away at work and I was on my own. Laughing it off and taking it for a daydream, I eagerly returned to relaxing and languishing in my euphoria, until that evening, when the symptoms that followed were similar yet more sinister.

Resting in our bedroom, with my husband next door in the den, our Red-bone Hound, (from the pound) named Red, jumped up on my bed, intending to lick me playfully. I was horrified, however, to see that his mouth was streaming blood, pouring so profusely that I feared for his life! I screamed for my husband who ran to our room, looked at the dog and then at me, perplexed. Glancing again at Red, I also was puzzled. The dog was fine. The problem was mine.

“Was that the Percocet? “ I asked my husband. But I didn’t need to ask. We both knew the answer.

And that was the end of Percocet for me.

Bye-bye euphoria. No more feeling omnipotent, omniscient, irresistible and immortal. Was that hard to give up? Hell, yes! After only one day? You’re damn straight! But I never took another opioid and never will again and wouldn’t want them easily available to me or anyone else who might misuse. And who might that be?

Almost anyone.

What’s been helpful in accepting this reality has been the gracious self-disclosure of someone no less well known and well respected than Anderson Cooper. In a feature he did on this very subject he also shared a personal experience.

A physician asked him after surgery if he wanted 60 or 90 Percocet. “Wondering ‘Isn’t he the doctor, not me? Shouldn’t he know?’ I requested 60”, said Anderson. “But after I took one, I thought, ‘Why didn’t I ask for 90?!!!”

Euphoria can be addictive. If we lived in a stress-free society -devoid of daily concerns, occasional crises, and even the ongoing angst of mortality -the allure of opioids might not endure. But that’s not reality and never will be.

Who’s at risk when offered opioids? A high school football player who was recently injured and may need to say good-bye to what was formerly his main source of self-esteem, he’s at risk. A middle-aged executive who’s fearful of losing his job and is worried about how he’ll support his family is at risk. A female “empty-nester”, who feels less self-fulfilled since her children are gone, and hasn’t yet found meaningful, productive activities, is at risk.

My loving parents meant well, but didn’t know better. We now know opioids can kill. This senseless over-prescribing must stop.