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Prescription Drug Abuse Growing, Doctors and Addicts Agree



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\ The truth hit her one day while she was with her grandsons. She was shaky. She couldn't lift them, couldn't play with them. She kept thinking about her next medication dosage.

She was a drug addict.

The 57-year-old Albuquerque woman-- a child psychologist-- said she would have denied any addiction only a day or two earlier. Even though she lied and stole to get her drugs, even though she lost her home and career, she blamed the disintegration of her life on depression, not on the pain-killers and anti-anxiety drugs she was taking.

She doesn't want her name used for fear publicity will affect her attempts to rebuild her career.

But she does want people to be aware of the growing problem of prescription drug abuse, as well as a 12-step program that is helping her recover.

She isn't necessarily the typical prescription drug abuser, said Dr. Michael Bogenschutz, associate professor and vice chairman for addiction psychiatry at the University of New Mexico.

"Those who abuse the drugs, by and large, are not those with legitimate prescriptions," he said. Most people who have prescribed drugs use them properly, while abusers are looking for a high, he said.

Yet, occasionally, legitimate exposure to prescription drugs can cause an addiction, as recent publicity over radio commentator Rush Limbaugh's problems with prescription pain-killers attests. Limbaugh returned to the air last week after five weeks in rehabilitation.

"What I do know is that (prescription drug abuse) rates have been increasing," Bogenschutz added.

From 1990-98, the number of first-time abusers of prescription pain relievers increased 181 percent; tranquilizers, 132 percent; sedatives, 90 percent; and stimulants, 165 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Some commonly abused drugs include depressants such as Valium and Xanax; painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin; and stimulants such as Dexedrine and Ritalin.

By 2001, 11.1 million people in this country-- almost half in the 12-25 age group-- had used prescription drugs nonmedically within the past year. "It's also a significant problem for elderly people, who are not likely to be using street drugs," Bogenschutz said.

New Mexico, which tracks overdose deaths, has seen a slow rise in death rates from prescription drugs: 2.7 per 100,000 in 1998 to 3.8 per 100,000 in 2002. That rate was lower among Hispanics (2.3 per 100,000) than non-Hispanics (3.5 per 100,000).

"It's not increasing to the extent we see in other states," said Dr. Michael Landen, medical epidemiologist with the state Department of Health.

While there has been an increase in the problem, help for addicts has not expanded to go with it, according to an Albuquerque man who has led Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and recently started a Prescription Drug Abusers Anonymous group. Because of the pledge of anonymity with 12-step programs, he asked that his name not be used.

"I've found over the last three years particularly a dreadful need for the prescription drug issue to be addressed," he said. "The person with a prescription drug problem has been neglected-- sorely neglected."

He had his own experience with prescription drug addiction. When he lived in his native Ireland, he said, he had friends and relatives in the medical profession who supplied him with uppers. He felt he needed them to stay on top of the demands of a business he ran. "I needed momentum to keep going, a perk-up when things got tough," he said. "Eventually, I couldn't do without them."

When he moved to this country, he lost his suppliers and quit the drugs, he said, but then turned to alcohol. The recovery that he found through Alcoholics Anonymous is something he now is tailoring to prescription drug abusers.

His final push to start the program came a year ago. "I had a friend in November of last year who overdosed on prescription drugs. He committed suicide, because he felt he had no way out. He had fallen so hard in addiction ... that he decided to take his life," the organizer said.

The Albuquerque woman, who had been participating in the group's meetings for about six weeks when she talked to the Journal, said she started attending right after spending six days in hospital detox. "I needed the meetings to give me strength and courage that I can start over," she said.

Her path to drug abuse started when she developed severe arthritis and was prescribed Percocet for the pain. Depressed by the way her body was changing from the disease, she then got prescriptions for Xanax and Halcion, sedatives and anti-anxiety drugs.

She tried to continue working, but upped her usage of the drugs in an effort to cope. If the prescription called for Xanax three times a day, she would take it nine times, she said. She became preoccupied with how many pills she had left and would do whatever she could to get more.

She was being treated by a family doctor, rheumatologist and psychiatrist, she said, without any one of them knowing what the other was prescribing.

Eventually, she couldn't function at work, lost her job, home and car, and moved in with her brother. "My life became staying in my bedroom and my life became looking for prescription drugs," she said.

Honesty is essential to the 12-step program, its organizer said. People lie to doctors to get the drugs and lie to themselves about their addiction, he said. "Honesty to themselves, their doctors and their family-- there's the key," he said.

"I personally had to see I had a problem with drugs," the woman said. Once she came to that realization, she checked into the hospital. "Detox was really hard. I was sick for four days. It was like someone had pulled the plug on my body."

When she returned home, she destroyed all the unfilled prescriptions and stashes of drugs she had on hand. "I don't ever want to go through that again," she said.

If you need help

Prescription Drug Abusers Anonymous meets at 7 p.m. Wednesdays in conference room B of Presbyterian Kaseman Hospital, 8300 Constitution NE.

Warning signs

Possible signs of prescription drug abuse:

  • You sometimes feel you should cut down on your use of prescription drugs.

  • You are annoyed by comments your friends or family make about your use of prescription drugs.

  • You feel guilty about or regret your use of prescription drugs.

  • You use prescription drugs to "get going" or "calm down."

    Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse

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    Copyright 2003 Albuquerque Journal

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