The Opiate Crisis: You Aren’t Getting All the Facts


When you hear someone talking about the opiate crisis, you almost never hear anything about the logistics of getting thousands and thousands of people off a highly addictive drug. That is because, after six months of research and 15 years of watching a family member struggle with pain pill addiction, I can assure you: It. Can’t. Be. Done.

I was hired for a six-month writing project about the opiate crisis, detoxing from opiate addiction, and rehab. And even if someone who was prescribed an opiate by a doctor for real pain wants to get off opiates and manage their pain in a different way goes to one of those sunny pricey rehab resorts, the relapse statistics are dismal.

“Relapse rates for heroin and opiate addiction hover around 90%, according to some research. One study found that of 109 subjects who had achieved sobriety in heroin rehab, 99 relapsed. Of the 99 people who relapsed, 64 did so within one week.”*

When a treatment center admits that, people need to listen.

I have heard a lot of dangerous nonsense recently like:

  • People are just wimps about pain/withdrawal
  • Just ban the drugs
  • Yoga and a vegan lifestyle can control your pain

These statements are irresponsible and can lead to people being hospitalized or dying due to withdrawal. Withdrawal from an opiate is no joke. Anyone who denies that is ignorant of the realities of opiate addiction.

Someone who has been taking opiates daily for months or years must detox under medical supervision. Staying off opiates requires intensive rehabilitation. It doesn’t matter how strong you think you are. You are still vulnerable to severe vomiting, diarrhea, insomnia, seizures, delusions, and death if you just stop taking the pills.

I am not saying that you should not attempt to move from opiates to a different pain management method. I am saying that you will need help.

I watched a beautiful 22-year-old girl become a physically and mentally devastated nearly toothless addict because her husband was chewing pain pills to get high and convinced her to try it. I watched everyone around her suffer mentally–and financially–trying to help her. An addict will devastate your finances in a very short time unless you are strong enough to say NO when they beg for money. Most parents aren’t that strong.

Jail detox is ineffective. There’s no follow-up. There’s no rehab. When people get out of jail, they go straight to the streets looking for drugs.

Professional detox requires insurance and lots of cash on top of the insurance. And it usually requires more than one stint in rehab to stay clean.

Are people in real pain who have prescriptions from doctors addicted to opiates? Yes. They’re also terrified at the thought of losing the ability to walk/sleep without pain/bathe themselves/go places/do housework and yard work . . . all the things the people screaming BAN THE PILLS take for granted.

I had a conversation with a friend about these issues. She said long-term opiate use leads to needing more and more to get the same pain relief, and often the pain relief goes away and the person is just addicted. This is how “regular” people end up buying pills on the street, and that leads to a lot of overdoses. If a patient has been taking more medication than they’re supposed to, they’re often afraid to tell their doctor because of the intentionally created hysteria surrounding “the opiate crisis.” Mandatory minimum sentencing isn’t going to encourage people to get help. It’s treating addiction as a crime instead of what it is, a disease.

Everyone wanted to talk about Prince after his sudden death, but no one wanted to talk about the cause of his death. People said it was disrespectful, to let him rest in peace. We missed THE opportunity to have a conversation about opiate addiction and overdoses.

Prince was in real, severe pain. He wrecked his body with his years of high-energy performances while wearing high-heeled boots. He was using Fentanyl patches to treat his pain. Fentanyl patches are often prescribed to back surgery patients; in fact, many patients are sent home from the hospital wearing Fentanyl patches. You cannot just take off one patch and slap on another. You have to wait before you can put on another patch. You have to wait a long time, depending on your prescription, because even though the patch has been on the specified amount of time, and you still have pain, your system is still full of Fentanyl. You have to wait to use another patch, just like you have to wait to take another Advil. Prince didn’t wait. He accidentally overdosed. That is the conversation we should have had instead of people screaming opiate crisis because it’s politically expedient.

A politician wants to get elected. They will say anything to get elected. They will say that they are going to “do something” about the opiate crisis. That reaches a lot of people. But I have never heard one politician lay out a realistic plan to detox the tens of thousands of people addicted to opiates.

Solving the opiate crisis is not like putting a cast on a broken arm. It’s more like reattaching a severed limb. Even that sounds simplistic. It’s something that can’t be solved. We do not have the money or resources to safely detox everyone who wants to get off opiates, let alone the people who want to keep taking them.

I disagreed with something someone said about opiate withdrawal. They asked if I was in recovery or “just” a researcher. So if you say there is no simple solution to opiate addiction, you must be “in recovery” or an addict. Or “just” a researcher.

I took that six month writing project in part because I have seen the results of long-term opiate addiction. I spent five to six days a week researching and writing. I wanted my work to help people get off pills and get their real lives back. But no one will listen to me because no one wants to hear the truth: getting one person off opiates permanently is damn near impossible. Getting thousand, tens of thousands off permanently is not possible. Not when people don’t want to listen to people who are “just researchers.”




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