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Painful Rehab Follows Addiction to Painkillers

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Chicago Tribune


CHICAGO - Nine years ago, Michael Sowell was an administrator at a rehabilitation care company when he fell from a ladder at work. Back and hip pain and a hip replacement followed.

This 6-foot-4-inch former football and baseball player found his way to a pain clinic, and a doctor who said he could help. Sowell took home OxyContin to help ease his discomfort.

Within a year he had gone from one 10-milligram pill twice a day to three 40-milligrams tablets three times a day, with as many as five or more Percocets in between to help tide him over. The more side effects Sowell experienced, the more pills the doctor prescribed - stimulants to help pick him up in the morning, a sleeping pill to help knock him out at night.

At work, Sowell took to staying in his office, trying not to deal with anybody. Though his company was understanding at first, Sowell eventually lost his job. At home in his affluent Atlanta neighborhood, he often was agitated, and his young children began avoiding their unpredictable father.

Again and again, Christy Sowell insists, the doctor said her husband needed more of the drugs because his body had become tolerant.

Eventually, though, the Sowells realized something was terribly wrong. To this day, Michael Sowell can't call himself a drug addict. In his mind, he was just caught up in something bigger than he ever understood.

Withdrawal was torture, even though Sowell wanted to become drug-free.

"One minute I'd be freezing, the next minute I'd be hot and flailing from side to side," he said. Every minute of the day, he felt a "whole body hunger. You feel it from your little toe all the way up to your brain, like you're restless, you're closed in, you know what you need and you can't have it."

"You want to die - you don't know how you ended up this way. I don't know if I'm ever going to get this hunger out of my body," Sowell said. "Today, I would take any pain other than the pain of withdrawal."

Sowell has been slowly ratcheting down his dosage for the past two years, trying to break his habit. In a few weeks he plans to ask his doctor if he can go cold turkey, but he's worried, he admits, because "I still want to take more (drugs) every day."

People addicted to painkillers face one of two types of treatment. Some undergo medication-assisted therapy combined with behavioral therapy, a program that usually involves methadone treatment with counseling.

Another option is long-term intensive treatment in a hospital or residential facility, followed by extended monitoring and counseling.

No therapy can be successful unless the person confronts the inner demons that feed his addictions, said Robert Holden, vice president of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependency. Loneliness, a sense of inner emptiness and a feeling of being unloved are some common ones.

That can be especially hard with people hooked on prescription painkillers because many, like Sowell, "don't acknowledge they're addicts," Holden said. "They rationalize that they're taking these drugs for their pain. They don't want to see who they are, or what they've become."


(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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