“I got up to 20 to 30 Percocets a day,” the former Air Force doctor said. “I was eating them like M&Ms.”
Kathy Thomas took opioids for two years until a doctor told her she was being unnecessarily medicated. She still lives with the psychological consequences.
“I still don’t think that I have cognitive functioning back where it needs to be,” the former Army program manager said.
Ted Flores, who suffered from a pinched nerve and a couple of degenerative discs from a car crash, knows how ordinary people can get hooked on pain pills. As a pharmacy technician, he saw customers who looked like him.
In 2018, 47,590 people died of an opioid overdose, and more than 2 million suffer from opioid addiction disorder, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. The rising death and addiction toll has followed a decade-long surge in the distribution of prescription opioids — according to federal data, more than 76 billion pills flooded the country from 2006 to 2012.
Medical experts say genetics account for about half of the risk of addiction, but mental health issues, violence in the home and access to drugs also contribute. Law enforcement officials blame illegal drug diversion by corrupt doctors and an overabundance of supply sent out by drug companies that fail to properly monitor suspicious orders. The companies blame bad doctors and individuals who abuse their products.
Earlier this year, The Washington Post asked readers to share their stories about how opioids have affected their communities. More than 700 people responded. Hundreds wrote about the devastation to their hometowns, their families and themselves. Scores of chronic-pain patients said they needed opioids to live full lives and were concerned about efforts to restrict the supply during what they believed to be a period of hysteria about opioids.
Many readers said it was easy to get hooked on the pills, whether they were taken to treat an injury or at a party. Once addiction took hold, the consequences were life-altering.
Five people described turning points in their lives — the moments that led them down a trail of dependency and addiction.
It started with a car crash
Late at night in November 2011, Ted Flores was coming home from running errands in Highland, Ind., when a car T-boned his at an intersection. He was lucky. He was diagnosed with only a pinched nerve and a couple of degenerative discs.
He tried physical therapy, but it didn’t take the pain away. Then a doctor gave him a prescription for hydrocodone. The drugs took away his pain and made him feel more energetic and sociable. Even though he was no longer in pain, he went to another doctor to get more opioids, this time oxycodone.
“I didn’t want it to stop,” said Flores, now 30. “Eventually, I started taking a little more than what I was supposed to and would tell myself, ‘I’ll take less next time.’ ”
He ran out of pills two weeks into a month-long refill. He would develop flulike symptoms whenever he finished his prescription early.
“I had to call sick into work,” he said. “I couldn’t even leave my room.”
During this time, Flores got a job as a pharmacy technician at CVS. He said he constantly saw other people like him, coming in to fill prescriptions they didn’t need. Some would wait in their cars in the parking lot before the store opened.
Six years after the crash, finally fed up with the cycle of withdrawals, Flores booked an appointment at a Suboxone clinic and got clean.
“I bear guilt or the sense I was part of the problem, giving other addicts their medication,” he said. “Seeing recent statistics about how many pills flooded my area, I’m not surprised: I was one of the many.”
It started with picking up a prescription for a friend
When Mary Young had to take pain pills after foot surgery, it felt like a chore.
A real estate agent in San Diego, she usually spent 10 hours a day on her feet. One day in 2005, a bone in the ball of her left foot split in half. She was on crutches for three months, reaching four times a day for bottles of oxycodone and Vicodin, which contains hydrocodone.
“When I took the last pill of my prescription, I didn’t think anything of it,” said Young, now 45. “If anything, I was happy to be done with it.”
Four months later, a friend asked her for a ride to the pharmacy so she could get her Vicodin prescription.
“Hearing the word ‘Vicodin,’ I don’t know why but I felt like fireworks erupted in my brain,” Young said.
“Yes, but can I have one?” she asked her friend. The friend handed her a small white tablet that Young took home. Sitting in her living room, she swallowed it and soon felt euphoria.
“It was a feeling I wanted to chase,” she said. “It only took one pill.” The friend, who wasn’t feeling any relief from her medication, willingly handed over as many as Young asked for. At the height of Young’s addiction, she was siphoning 20 a day from her friend, who suffered from stomach pain.
For six years, Young kept getting Vicodin from her friend. She says she could not have functioned without it. When she traveled, she worried about running out. When out with friends, she wouldn’t drink, fearing she could “lose the high.” At night, she would count how many she had, and if it didn’t add up to 20 for the next day, she drove to her friend’s and picked up more.
Finally, visiting family in West Des Moines, Iowa, she decided to move home and go to a recovery center. She has been in recovery for nearly a decade.
“Sometimes I look back and feel so much shame for lying to my friends and family, keeping my addiction under wraps,” she said. “I used to be so confident, but my self-esteem is now at zero. I’m still working toward building back the trust of my family — as well as my own.”
It started with a headache
Paul Little’s job as an Air Force physician at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas was a stressful one. It was his first job after completing his residency. He felt he had more patients and paperwork than his experience qualified him for. He was a captain, but he felt his job was one for a major.
In 1979, Little was sitting in his office on the base and plagued by a migraine. He knew that he had leftover pain pills from a hernia repair in his desk. He took one. “It was an especially difficult day,” he said.
That one day led to a year-long habit. To get more, Little would tell patients that they needed pain-pill prescriptions and then would skim some, he said, taking up to 30 five-milligram Percocets a day. He successfully hid his addiction, continued to treat patients and even won a base-wide award for his work.
He eventually realized “this insanity couldn’t go on,” and he confessed to his commanding officer. He was given an other-than-honorable discharge, his medical license was suspended and he went to prison for a year.
It took years of sobriety to earn his way back. Once he had, he wanted to do the opposite of prescribing opioids: Little, now 60, he works at a detox center in San Diego and runs a telemedicine Suboxone clinic in West Virginia to help other addicts.
It started with a chronic pain
Kathy Thomas had a senior civilian position with the Army, managing a group of nine people who reviewed complex contracts. Shortly before she retired, she was prescribed an array of pain pills in 2012 for a rare, incurable form of neuropathy.
After Thomas’s pain from her neuropathy dissipated, doctors left her on the pain pills, furthering her dependency on the drugs. When she went to the Mayo Clinic for a sleep study, a doctor noticed the drugs on her chart.
“He said: ‘Oh my God, you have been on all these drugs for two years. What is your pain management doctor’s plan to taper you?’ ” said Thomas, who is now 68 and lives in San Antonio. She said she was not given a plan.
Thomas went through group therapy to be weaned off the pills. She said everyone in the room was just like her — their addiction and dependency had crept up on them without them noticing.
Even in recovery, Thomas retains symptoms of dependency: She’s developed an eating disorder, gaining 45 pounds. Today she has difficulty remembering what day it is or showing up for doctor appointments.
Thomas also compulsively shops. At the peak of it, six boxes a week would appear at her front door. She said she had no recollection of ordering anything.
“My husband would hold up a box and ask me what it was, and I had no idea,” she said. “I wasn’t like this. I used to be unstoppable, not just mentally but physically.”
Now Thomas spend her days repeating tasks she’s already done because she forgot what she did earlier. “There’s a lot of side effects that go along with using these drugs long term that I don’t see being addressed,” Thomas said. “I don’t think a lot of people think of that.”
It started with a soccer injury
In 2001, when Kayla Leinenweber was 13, after she had wisdom-teeth surgery, her mother doled out her pain medication as prescribed. The pills did not create a problem for her.
“I was in a public high school, where most kids — including myself — were experimenting with marijuana and mushrooms, not pills,” she said.
However, after transferring to a private school in Alpharetta, Ga., Leinenweber saw her peers snorting cocaine and taking opioids. She went into her parents’ medicine cabinet to steal oxycodone pills after she tore a ligament in her leg playing soccer. The injury prevented her from playing the sport.
“I thought my life was over,” she said. “I wasn’t going to college without soccer because I was dumb.”
At 15, her school tested her for drugs and she failed. She was sent to an inpatient clinic in Washington state, but sobriety didn’t last.
“I was struggling with depression and feelings about my sexual identity,” said Leinenweber, who is now 31 and out as a lesbian. “I was my own harshest critic.”
At 22, she got a DUI, her first of two. She lost her driver’s license. She abused heroin. She went to nine treatment facilities. She overdosed three times, twice on heroin and once on Ambien. At the peak of her addiction, she would score up to $200 heroin a day.
“For the last few years, I was sick all of the time,” she said.
By 2013, Leinenweber was exhausted. She had overdosed again. With her clothes in two trash bags, she couch-surfed until she opened a sober-living home she could live in. Now she lives in Sneads Ferry, N.C., and mentors people on their treatment options.