There's hope for freedom from opioid addiction

Dan Mark struggled with opioid and then heroin addictions, but has been clean and sober for 10 years. (KATU Photo)

Dan Mark’s life changed dramatically when he was mugged outside a Portland bar 20 years ago.

But the drugs he took to ease the pain from the injuries he suffered from that attack led him to an addiction to heroin.

The mugging caused permanent nerve damage and massive headaches. A neurologist prescribed him Percocet – 180 pills two times a month.

It’s not uncommon for a doctor to prescribe Percocet or Vicodin for pain, but now all across the nation the number of people addicted to those painkillers has skyrocketed. Many turn to heroin when they can no longer get their pills.

For Dan, he thought the pain pills were the only way to manage his day.

“My story is a common story,” he said. “You have some kind of trauma, you get prescribed this medication and get addicted to it. It’s a strange medicine. Some people can take it and they don’t like it. Others – and it’s like the missing link.”

Another doctor recognized Dan had an addiction and stopped his medication.

“My life spiraled out of control,” Dan said. “I did what most people do, I transitioned from the painkiller pills to heroin.”

Dan spent 10 years of his life in out-patient treatment facilities and on the streets without a job.

Dr. Melissa Weimer at Oregon Health & Science University specializes in the interface between general medicine and addiction. She has seen many people with stories like Dan’s.

“Unfortunately, extremely widespread – we’ve seen it increase in the last 20 years, and it doesn’t appear to be leveling off, unfortunately,” she said.

According to the National Institute of Health, more than two million people in the United States suffer from substance abuse disorder because of opioid pain relievers.

Weimer said there’s a reason why some states have higher addiction problems.

“Any state that has low access to addiction treatment, you’re seeing very high rates of opioid overdose and addiction,” she said.

Before the 1990s, most painkillers were given for cancer pain. But according to Weimer, that changed when pharmaceutical companies directly targeted advertising to physicians claiming that opioids were safe for most pain.

“There are very clear associations between the idea that opioids are safe and increase in prescribing,” Weimer said.

Now her mission is to educate medical providers about alternative pain relief measures.

“We’re learning now that many of those alternative therapies are probably more likely to be much more effective and absolutely more safe,” Weimer said. “It really kind of depends on the reason for the pain issue, as far as which ones are most effective. There are many types of treatments for pain.”

Dan turned his life around and recently celebrated 10 years clean and sober.

“The people who are addicted to them, it’s not their fault,” he said. “It’s a victim of circumstance, and there’s a way out. You don’t have to live your life that way. It doesn’t have to be that hard.”

Here are some physical signs of opioid abuse:

  • Noticeable euphoria, marked sedation and confusion.
  • Pay attention. If you notice someone doctor-shopping – getting prescriptions from different doctors.
  • Withdrawing from social environments and extra pill bottles show up in the trash.
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