Amy Nicole Graves of Nova Scotia, Canada lost her 21-year-old brother Josh to an accidental overdose of the prescription painkiller Dilaudid (hydromorphone) in March 2011. She has since become an outspoken activist against prescription drug addiction through her website “Get Prescription Drugs Off the Streets.” Oxy Watchdog asked Graves to share about her efforts to bring more education and awareness to the issue of pill abuse.
Watchdog: Tell us about your brother Josh and what happened to him.
Amy Graves: It’s interesting because growing up, Josh wasn’t the addict in my family, it was actually our other brother who struggled with an addiction to prescription drugs. At the time he died, Josh wasn’t having any problems in his life. He had just gotten a new car, he got a great job transfer [back to our home town], he was looking for a mortgage. He had only been home four weeks when he attended a party with dealer who had sold drugs to my other brother. Josh split a Dilaudid pill with him. He was already intoxicated, and because he wasn’t a regular user, he had no tolerance. The combination with alcohol slowed down his heart rate and he never woke up.
W: Before your brother’s death, were you aware of prescription drug abuse? Was it a problem in your area?
AG: It was actually a huge problem in our area, but I still thought this could never happen to me. My brother who became addicted to pills would watch kids shoot up Dilaudid between their toes in the bathroom at school. I had friends who went into comas after overdosing on pills. I hate to say it, but I always thought, “maybe they’re doing something wrong.” I thought there was no way the doctors could go on prescribing pills like this forever; I didn’t say anything because I thought someone else would take care of the problem. It was too big of an issue not to get noticed. I never took responsibility; I just ignored it until Josh passed away.
We didn’t know right away that it was drugs that killed Josh, we didn’t find out until later. Here in Nova Scotia, the government won’t recognize it as a drug-related death until the official toxicology report comes back, and if it’s in combination with something else, it doesn’t count. I know of so many deaths that have happened since Josh’s death, and nobody wants to talk about them. These are all bright-eyed, handsome young people who are so full of life. It bothers me that there is something so senseless that can take them away from us, and it’s so preventable. The government isn’t going to admit it, because it looks bad for them, and unless the family speaks out about it, no one wants to talk about it because there’s a stigma and people are ashamed. That’s one of the reasons I’m being so vocal, so that others aren’t scared to speak out.
W: One of the issues you frequently mention is the lack of adequate treatment for prescription drug addiction. What do you think needs to change in this area?
AG: We have socialized healthcare, but the government has started to pull funding for addiction treatment facilities. For example, they recently took away the funding for the only 28-day program in my area, so it now costs $7,500 for 28 days. It makes no sense, because when someone shows up in the ER after drinking and driving, we pay for their treatment, but when it comes to addiction, our clinics keep closing.
With socialized healthcare, if you complain enough, it’s supposed to change. I’ve received so many letters from parents whose kids are abusing pills and they can’t get them treatment. I keep sending them to the government, hoping sooner or later they’ll dish out the cash.
W: It’s obvious that prescription drug addiction is an epidemic that is out of control. What changes do you believe are necessary in order to fix the problem?
AG: Part of the problem is that there’s no deterrent, no consequences. The authorities don’t want to deal with the over-prescribing doctors, even though it’s obvious who they are. I’ve also asked the police why the dealers aren’t getting caught. The last picture of my brother alive was taken with that drug dealer, but they said unless someone pinned him down and shoved the pill down my brother’s throat, they can’t arrest him. They won’t even charge him with trafficking.
It all comes down to money. Prosecuting costs money, and the Canadian government doesn’t like spending on that. In fact, the attitude toward drug- and alcohol-related crimes in general is kind of lax; my brother was found dead in the basement of an addiction counselor’s house and she wasn’t even questioned. Nor was the dealer. I’ve asked him to please just stop selling drugs, but he says it’s just business. I had a prescription drug awareness hour, and he showed up to sell drugs to an addicted kid who had been brought there by his mom.
W: What has been the reaction in your community to your protests?
AG: My community is very divided. People are very traditional and not very open-minded. There’s the perception that pill addicts are dirty junkies who deserve to just rot and die. I’ve done protests outside of pill mills where some people have come out and spit on me. They said their doctor was helping them and that I should try living in pain. One person who I knew in school told me to take a pill and die already like my brother. But it made me more sad and gave me more drive to do what I’m doing.
W: You have been very straightforward and open about your brother’s death despite the shame that often accompanies addiction. Why are you doing what you are doing?
AG: My siblings and I were always so close, and people make stupid choices all the time. For some reason I lucked out and it didn’t happen to me. I remember seeing kids in school doing pills and it didn’t look fun; they were drooling on themselves and nodding off and puking. Thank God because if I had tried it, I would probably be addicted. If this had happened to me, Josh would be out there in the streets livid. I don’t want to just be the sister of that kid who overdosed at a party; it’s better to tell the whole story. It can’t get any worse than what it already is. He’s gone, the damage is done. All I can do is try to make sure someone else doesn’t go through what we went through. I want his death to create awareness and change.
W: Is there denial in your community about the extent of the pill abuse epidemic?
AG: Yes. Parents are so afraid they’ll be blamed. How you were brought up affects the person that you are, but your parents are only with you so many hours a day. It’s so scary because it’s just a few short years when you’re trying to find yourself, but it’s enough time to destroy your life, and it doesn’t take long with opiate addiction. Even though Josh wasn’t an addict, if he had lived, he might have loved it and right now he could be a full-blown addict. People don’t think there is IV drug use around here. When you drive through the community, there are beautiful bed and breakfasts and wineries, you’d never think this kind of thing was going on. People think of drug addicts as dirty homeless people, and it’s not true. Most of the worst addicts in my high school were those who had the most money, the captain of the hockey team, the popular kids. It’s a suburban, middle-class problem. But the perception is way more glamorous than the reality. If you asked them to smoke crack, they’d say it’s disgusting, but these are the same people who are snorting synthetic heroin. In pill form, it’s not as scary.
A lot of people who legitimately want help don’t seek it because of the stigma. Lots of people overdose on methadone because they are ashamed to go into the public drugstore where they might see their neighbor or their kid’s teacher, so instead they buy it on the street and self-treat. They’re hiding in the shadows.
W: Do you think the pharmaceutical industry has done enough to address the addiction and deaths its products are causing?
AG: Absolutely not. It blows my mind that [OxyContin maker Purdue,] a company that has been criminally charged, can come into Canada and donate $130,000 to the chronic pain portion of a major hospital in Halifax to form a collaborative pain network. It sounds like they’re trying to help, but I think they see a market for their product. They said that one in five Nova Scotians suffers from chronic pain. They’re in that severe of pain that they need a drug like OxyContin? We’re not talking Tylenol here. And who’s policing this network that could involve over-prescribing doctors?
At first I never even questioned Big Pharma, but I had no idea what a can of worms I was opening. I started getting more information, and I couldn’t ignore what I learned. The more I educate myself on the problem, the more I see it all comes back to money and the pharmaceutical industry. People say you should take time to grieve, but I can’t. It’s like knowing the house is on fire and saying the fire department will deal with it. Until I see a change, I won’t stop advocating. Why are we letting something so easily preventable happen?
W: What role do you believe doctors play in this phenomenon?
AG: We put doctors up on a pedestal and pay them all this money; we put all our trust in them. Pills are coming from legal prescriptions. Where’s the investigation? Who’s being held accountable? People need to start questioning their doctors more. They’re supposed to be experts, but people are getting huge doses of powerful medications. More doctors need to be charged with negligence. I have yet to see a doctor in my community be disciplined. You have to do something hugely wrong, something so bad that the authorities can’t turn a blind eye. Otherwise, it’s like ignorance is bliss.
At the first prescription drug awareness hour I held, one of my speakers was a woman who robbed a pharmacy because she was hooked on pills, and she was a student at the community college and had four kids. She was a functioning addict, but she really wasn’t well. When did we lose her? How did she go from driving a minivan and being a soccer mom to robbing a pharmacy with a knife and a mask? How is her family doctor prescribing these massive amounts of pills? It’s so hard for people to believe a doctor would do something to hurt somebody. We put way too much trust in doctors; they are human and make mistakes.
W: Do you have any advice for family members who are dealing with prescription drug addiction?
AG: Definitely reach out; you’re not alone. Big Pharma and the government wants you to be quiet so they won’t have to deal with the problem. You don’t have to go on TV, but write a letter to someone; take some sort of action. I wish I had said something earlier.
A month after Josh’s death, my other brother went to detox and now has been clean for five months. Looking back on my brother’s addiction, I would have tried to be less of an enabler. I was always giving him a ride or lending him money; I didn’t know the severity of what I was helping him to do. I wish we would have informed ourselves more about the dangers of pills. I didn’t even know you weren’t supposed to drink on opiates until after Josh died, and I bet Josh didn’t know that either. It just goes to show you that life can change so quickly.
Every life is as equal as the next. Everyone deserves to live just as much as the next person. The attitude that junkies don’t want help is setting them up for failure. People need to have an open mind and compassion in their hearts for addicts. I think about what horrible things I want to do to the dealer who sold to Josh. But he’s someone’s brother just like mine; his sister is probably going through hell. I can only hope he sees the light before he hurts someone else or himself. When someone is in active addiction, there’s no closure until they get better or die.