Painkiller-Addiction is a Crisis Around the Country, but Treatment is Available
No one is disputing that the opioid crisis is an epidemic in communities all over America. What starts for many as an addiction to legally prescribed painkillers can become an overwhelming craving that makes the introduction of heroin an economical and logical choice for many.
In fact, the number of deaths due to heroin overdose have recently surpassed the number of deaths due to motor vehicle accidents, says Dr. Mary Bouldin, director of addiction medicine at LifeSpring Health Systems in Jeffersonville.
“It’s very rare that somebody starts off shooting heroin,” she says. “Nobody wakes up saying ‘I think I want to be an injection-drug user today,’ but what happens is that because of the development of tolerance, people keep crossing lines that they thought they would never cross.”
Bouldin is a psychiatrist who sees people of every age, race, and socio-economic class.
“It’s really an insidious sort of drug that can really creep up on people,” she says. “They think they have it under control, decide to quit and find themselves in withdrawal and feeling pretty desperate. The craving can persist for months and it’s just an obsession.”
For those caught up in the addiction cycle, it can be challenging to get treatment.
The Healing Place in Louisville turns away an average of 300 men per month who need treatment, according to spokeswoman Laci Comer. That’s one reason why it is spending $29 million to upgrade and expand its facilities, eventually increasing its bed count from 250 to 426.
The heroin epidemic has changed the demographics at The Healing Place as well, Comer says. Those coming for treatment are younger and from more affluent sections of the city, and about 95 percent of those coming for treatment use heroin.
And if you don’t think addiction can affect anyone, just consider the case of Rex Chapman, the former University of Kentucky basketball star who spent a dozen seasons in the NBA. As a result of surgeries during the tail end of his playing career, he needed pain medication constantly.
“I was sidetracked with prescription painkillers for about 17 years, from the time I finished playing until a couple of years ago,” he said in an interview in March. “It’s a hurting time, it’s a humbling time, and no matter whether you’re in the public eye or not, it’s a humiliating time. You have to focus on what you’re doing, take care of yourself, and try to get better.”
While the numbers of those seeking treatment continue to rise, and headlines detail the death count, those working to help people are doing their best.
“Treatment works,” Dr. Bouldin says. “Medication-assisted treatment does work and most of the time is necessary. You get substantially better outcomes with medication than without. It’s important … to understand that and not be judgmental.”
She said family members, and the public in general, are often critical when they may not know the details of the problems addicts face.
“We have a long way to go in terms of stigma, and I understand people get frustrated with the behaviors and criminality associated with it, but I find it pretty hard that people can be so harsh and judgmental,” she says. “A lot of my patients have come from unbelievable trauma, or they just have so much stress even when they’re sober.”
While she realizes that treatment isn’t always successful, she knows that a lot of people are hurting and in need and it can help many of them.
“The whole idea is to reset the system where people feel normal and functional and aren’t thinking 100 percent of the time about doing whatever it takes to get more heroin,” she says. “The opiates have damaged the brain so that the person is not functional.”