The Straight Dope on Prescription Drug Abuse
When Alex Strand was laid to rest, in early 2015, his parents did something that family members rarely do. They acknowledged—publicly—that their son died of a drug overdose.
“Alex was treasured by his family and friends,” his obituary read, “but all of our love cannot bring him back. Please look at his life and understand that it doesn’t matter how much energy you have or how many friends you have made; if you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse—prescription or non-prescription—you run the risk of ending your life.”
Old Saybrook resident Sheila Delaney, a special education teacher at Nathan Hale-Ray High School in East Haddam and a mother of two young adults, remembers reading those words.
“It was so unexpected and so poignant. It opened up a dialogue at home with my own kids and at school with my students. I’ll never forget it.”
“We decided to include this information in our son’s obituary because we don’t think there should be a stigma,” says Alex’s mother, Regina. “Prescription drug abuse is a national crisis, and people should be forthright about it. There were very few resources, and there was very little information out there. Parents have to talk to each other and support each other.” After surgeries on his knee and hand, Alex became addicted to prescription opioid painkillers. He died of an overdose in his parents’ Old Saybrook home. He was 24 years old.
Twenty-nine-year-old Lauren Goodkin, of North Haven—herself a recovering addict who has made it her mission to lift the stigma around addiction—applauds the Strands’ decision to speak openly about their son’s addiction.
“Addicts fight their disease every day, but we cover up their battle,” she says. “When someone dies from their addiction and we’re not honest about it, we downplay their struggle. The only way people’s perceptions change is when they come into contact with someone who alters their reality surrounding addiction. We have to be those people. Obituaries are a way for us to acknowledge the fight and admit how powerful addiction is when we lose that fight. If someone had fought cancer for years and died, their family would acknowledge that. They would use that word: ‘fought.’”
Statistics maintained by the State Department of Public Health find that Connecticut residents are more likely to die from an unintentional drug overdose than as a result of a motor vehicle accident. The majority of fatal overdoses are linked to prescription opioid painkillers.
‘The opiates ... became everything.’
Goodkin’s own battle with addiction began with an innocent mistake.
“I come from a normal, upper-middle-class family,” she says. “I was raised in a big, beautiful house in a wealthy area of a wealthy town.” Like Alex Strand, she was an athlete who grew up in a two-parent household. “Both of my parents are great people who provided me with everything I needed.”
One day, hit with a particularly severe case of strep throat, tonsillitis, and bronchitis, Goodkin went looking for Advil in her parents’ medicine cabinet. “I was very, very sick.”
What she found was a bottle of leftover Percocet.
“I didn’t understand what it really was or what the implications were; I just knew it was a painkiller, and I was in pain. One plus one equals two. So I took it. It was my first week of college. I was 18.”
Days later, she took another pill—OxyContin—to help her sleep.
“Once I started, I never stopped. Within a year, I became a full-blown heroin addict. I would sit alone in my car,” she recalls, “tying off my veins with an auxiliary cable.” Because heroin is cheaper and more readily available than prescription opioids, many addicts eventually make the switch. In fact, a number of Goodkin’s peers had become hooked on prescription opioids, then heroin.
“They were in the top 25 of the class, and every single one was college-bound. These were good kids from good families. Today, some are sober; some are in jail. One of my closest friends is dead.”
Throughout high school, Goodkin says, she experimented with various drugs but never felt a strong pull.
“The opiates were different. They became everything.”
Before long, she was spending hundreds of dollars a day on pills, stealing from family members, and passing bad checks to feed her addiction. (Opiates, which include heroin, opium, morphine, and codeine, are derived from naturally occurring alkaloids in the opium poppy plant. Opioids are synthetic drugs that create opiate-like effects; common examples are oxycodone, fentanyl, and methadone, and combinations of these and other pain relievers, sold under brand names such as OxyContin, Percocet, and Percodan.)
“At first, I was able to hide my problem under the guise of my mental illness [she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 15] and general teenage behavior, so the early signs were lost on my parents. But it happened very fast for me. I was in my first detox within a year, after I came clean to my mom under the stress of withdrawal. During the worst times, I was likely to steal anything that wasn’t nailed down or locked up. After you’ve spent all your own money and sold all of your own possessions, the stealing starts. You start by taking things the family might not notice—old TVs and electronics, power tools, etc. Then maybe taking a few bills out of your parents’ wallets. Then pawning your family members’ possessions. Very few addicts are able to support their addiction without stealing. If they’re not stealing, they may turn to other illegal activities. Men typically get involved in low-level dealing to cover the costs, and women typically prostitute themselves—though some men do sell their bodies, and some women do deal.”
Goodkin compares her relationship to heroin with a failed romance.
“I would never stay in a relationship with someone who harmed me physically, emotionally, and every other way imaginable. But when heroin did it, I found a way to look past it. I accepted the unacceptable. Every love song I hear makes me think of heroin, because I’ve never loved anyone the same way.”
Road to Recovery
Goodkin admits that the road to recovery is full of bumps and detours.
“I have been in treatment many times. When I’m using, my demeanor changes. I become secretive, short, and irritable. I lose interest in the things I care about. I spend a lot of time alone. I am always watching my phone when I’m using so that any questionable calls or texts aren’t noticed by my mom.”
She credits her mother with helping her stay on track.
While established 12-step treatment programs such as Narcotics Anonymous typically call for abstinence and encourage an addict’s family to detach with love, Goodkin says conventional treatment has not worked for her.
“I went to traditional detox, followed by inpatient treatment, followed by outpatient treatment many times. This is the usual treatment track in conjunction with a 12-step program. I personally did not find success in the 12 steps, and many people don’t. Up until recently, that has been considered the only way.
“The problem with using this method to treat opiate addiction, as opposed to other addictions, is the physical component. No other drugs have the physical repercussions that opiate abuse does. Long-term use leads to a long-term withdrawal process. We call the early stage, where someone typically goes through a medically supervised detox in a facility, ‘acute withdrawal.’ After that initial week to 10 days, we are talking about ‘post-acute withdrawal syndrome,’ known as PAWS, which can last for weeks, months, or even years.”
Cravings can be strong during this period, she says.
“And that is not just in your head. Your brain and body have become accustomed to living with opiates, and all the willpower in the world cannot rewire your brain. Only time can do that, and if you can’t stay sober long enough for that to happen, then you never recover. It’s just a long cycle of relapses. So utilizing medical maintenance programs like methadone treatment helps the brain and body deal with the changes they’re going through. It’s a medical treatment for addiction, which is a medical problem. Finally the industry is recognizing this and looking for other medical treatments. Methadone is the most effective treatment for opioid addiction, statistically, but it has the most strings attached. It’s a harm reduction strategy at the end of the day, and it has saved my life.”
Goodkin also credits her mother with saving her life.
“She keeps me in check. She fights for my life when I am not ready, or willing, to fight for myself. She has allowed me to pursue the path that works for me. If something doesn’t work, she lets me decide to double down or switch methodologies. She lets me make the decisions, as long as I’m making a decision. She has saved my life time and again, with her hard-learned way of being tough and loving. She refused to let me die. She has often said, ‘Hope is not a strategy,’ and she encourages parents to get down and dirty in their child’s addiction. She gets down in the trenches with me and stands next to me in battle. She has never written me off or turned her back. I owe her everything.”
In Angel’s Arms
Goodkin is now working to help others fight and survive. She blogs regularly, and the first Tuesday of every month, at 6:30 p.m., she runs a free educational workshop at the Mildred A. Wakeley Recreation Center in North Haven.
“It’s open to anyone,” she says, and it’s part of her recovery coaching work with In Angel’s Arms, which provides education and information to addicts and their families and helps connect them with treatment options and insurance.
“Ideally,” she says, “addicts would get sober and stay sober through abstinence alone. But because addiction is a brain disease that affects the pathways in the limbic system of the brain, in many cases people are just unable to control their cravings and urges to continue using.”
That’s why she supports medical maintenance, where appropriate.
“It’s less dangerous, less risky, and a step in the right direction. It is better than the alternative of actively using opiates to get high, though it may not be the ideal solution. I support anything and everything that helps anyone to stop illicit drug use. If someone just isn’t capable of complete abstinence because their brain and body have just come too far, then what’s the alternative? Recovery is about changes in intent, mindset, and behavior. If someone is using medical maintenance to stay off their drug of choice, and their intent, mindset, and behavior have all changed positively, then they are in recovery. That’s what matters. I support any method that anyone finds helpful to change their life. Everyone should be free to pursue the recovery that works for them. Please remember that addicts cannot get into recovery if they’re dead.”
In It Together
Another way in which her approach to treatment is different is that she does not necessarily subscribe to the notion that families need to let go.
“I help addicts who are willing to get sober, and when they’re not, I help their families push them toward accepting help. I also teach families how to protect themselves and their finances from the addict in their lives. In the future, I hope to organize awareness events and eventually have a facility that provides services to addicts, specifically women.”
In addition to monthly workshops and individual coaching, Goodkin speaks to groups on related topics.
“I talk to students and parents about the science of addiction and my personal story, and I use science and facts rather than morality to help better inform young people’s choices. As a survivor of addiction—and mental illness, which surely has some relevance to my story—I have struggled to walk among the ‘normal’ people of the world. I’ve had to make my own way and learn to love the person that I am rather than the person I wish I could be. I also speak to teachers, administrators, and boards of education about how to spot drug use and how to deal with it. Speaking is my most passionate project, because it is the most real way to impact people.”
Prevention, The Best Medicine
“Kids have experimented with drugs since the beginning of time, and they always will,” Goodkin says. “The right thing to do is provide them with actual facts about the actual risks and repercussions of different substances so that they can make educated choices. Opiates are not recreational drugs. They’re not a party drug that you can do on the weekend and then get back to your life on Monday. Some people can do this for a little while, but eventually it takes over. We take a blanket approach to drug education when we say all drugs are bad, period—and this is wrong, in my opinion.
“On the other side of the equation, a lot of addiction begins in the doctor’s office. Everyone, both kids and adults, should understand the danger of these medications even when they are legitimately prescribed, and they should use caution when accepting these narcotics from their doctors. Parents should hold medicines and dose young people when they require narcotics, and even adults might consider letting a spouse or partner administer their medication to prevent misuse.
“Get educated. Understand the drug and the disease. Learn what is going on in the brain and body when someone is opiate-dependent. Also, be willing to compromise on what recovery looks like. Some people are obsessed with the idea that they are only in recovery if they are not on any medications. But if that isn’t working, and you’ve tried that path multiple times and continue to fail—with your addiction becoming more and more dangerous and damaging each time—consider a different method. Consider Suboxone or methadone. Consider medical marijuana. Consider going to church. Consider hopping on your left foot every morning if that’s what’s going to help you. I don’t care how you do it; just do it.”
Finally, she says, it’s critical to be honest.
“When someone goes away to treatment and the family tells the siblings or cousins that they are on vacation, or whatever, they are missing an opportunity to educate young people. It’s a chance to illustrate that this can happen to you, because it’s happened to someone you know and love, and it is real. It could open up the conversation within the family and possibly deter a young person from experimenting with opiates when they get older.”
For more information, contact Goodkin at 203-584-0366 or visit www.inangelsarms.com.