Prescription drug addiction activists across the nation are planning a rally to urge federal agencies to take action to prevent new cases of opioid addiction, prevent more overdose deaths and ensure access to effective treatment for millions who have become addicted.
The rally, called “Fed Up! Rally for a Federal Response to the Opioid Epidemic,” will be held Oct. 1 from noon to 2 p.m. at Capitol Hill (Upper Senate Park) in Washington, D.C., according to organizers.
Activists say addiction and overdose deaths due to narcotic painkillers and heroin
are one of the nation’s most urgent public health problems, and that the epidemic has placed a tremendous strain on the nation’s health care system, businesses, and local and state governments. Federal agencies, meanwhile, have been too slow and ineffective in responding to the problem, they say.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, please consider attending a rally being held this Monday, March 11 in Sacramento by the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse and other organizations and individuals throughout California. The rally will aim to educate the public about the dangers of abusing and misusing prescription drugs and to raise awareness about what actions need to be taken in California to manage the state’s prescription drug abuse crisis.
More information about the rally can be found here.
In addition, NCAPDA is sponsoring an event on Sunday, March 10 in Concord, Calif. that includes a showing of “Behind the Orange Curtain” and a panel presentation of experts in the area of prescription drug abuse. More info about that event can be found here.
Abby Beaulieu, 26, has a great life: she lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. with her husband and four-year-old son. But just six years ago, she was hopelessly addicted to OxyContin. Now, she’s on a mission to spread the word about the dangers of prescription drug addiction. Through her blog, My Life. My Story., she aims to break down the stigma surrounding painkiller addiction and show that it really can happen to anyone. Oxy Watchdog caught up with Beaulieu to learn more about her story and what she hopes to accomplish with her blog.
Watchdog: Tell us about the path that led you to OxyContin. When and how did you fall into your addiction?
AB: My father is an alcoholic, and at age 11 my parents got a divorce. At age 13, my father was alone dealing with his addiction, and I felt the need to go be with him. I get serious anxiety when I feel somebody is feeling lonely, or is lonely. I thought that if I was with him and he wasn’t alone, he would not drink. That was not the case. At 13, I became the adult, while he was the child, picking up beer cans and liquor bottles, not going to school for fear what I would come home to, helping him detox when his binges were over. At 16, I met a guy who was abusive in every aspect. He was over 21, so I started enabling my father and buying him alcohol because in return he would write me a check for over $300, not knowing he was fueling my addiction as well: I had started smoking pot at 12.
Prior to meeting my boyfriend, he had been a serious car accident and broke both of his feet. His doctors had him on pain pills for a year and a half and cut him off rather than weaning him off, so he was deeply addicted. A couple days after we met, he introduced me to Roxicodone and I snorted my first pill. The next pill I snorted was OxyContin. When I first started using Oxy I was doing two 40-milligram pills a day, which gradually lead to me shooting about three 80-mg pills a day. After not feeling the effects the way I wanted to, I started shooting them up because the high was better. My using was so much deeper than the addiction: it was the everyday pain that numbed me from feeling, numbed me from worrying about my father and the betrayal I put my mother through. My father (with whom I have no communication today) was clueless to the fact that I was using, even though I weighed 85 pounds soaking wet, until the day I called him to give me a ride to rehab. He did not take me.
W: Florida has long been one of the epicenters of prescription drug abuse. How did you get your pills? Was it easy to find them?
AB: The pills were way too easy to get. I would babysit my friend’s kids because he got them from the doctor and he would hook me up with some pills, which I would hide them from my boyfriend. In a small town in Ohio, where I lived for awhile, they were also everywhere. I could walk down the street and see somebody I knew and they would have pills in their pocket that they were willing to sell.
W: Did you feel ashamed about your addiction or try to hide it?
AB: At the time, yes, I tried to hide it. Of course living in a small town with tons of family around, I think they all knew, but nobody ever tried to step in. I wonder now how they could not notice a 16-year-old girl going from 120 pounds to 85 pounds in just a short time.
W: What did it feel like to go into withdrawals or detox?
AB: It was indescribable. Physically, it was up to seven days of feeling like bugs were crawling on me, I had the chills, I had body aches, I wasn’t able to sleep. But the mental symptoms were far more intense and lasted a lot longer. I have anxiety and depression, so after getting off the drugs, it fueled the mental symptoms more. It was almost like I was going through a grieving process because OxyContin was my life, my love, my everything.
W: When did you hit your rock bottom, and what was it that made you turn things around?
AB: I hit my rock bottom when I was homeless and living from place to place. I remember being at a friend’s house and I looked in the mirror. That was all it took. I was not only shooting OxyContin, but smoking crack as well, staying up for days on end and then coming down. It did not matter if I overdosed or not. I remember turning on the shower and just crying so hard in the corner of the bathroom. My face was sunken in, my eyes were so dark. I had been up for seven days shooting coke, smoking crack, and shooting OxyContin. I did not wake anybody up. I went across the street to a pay phone and called my mom at her work and spilled the beans about everything.
W: Before you did pills, did you ever think you would someday pick up a needle?
AB: Never in a million years. Even when I was using the needle, I still could not believe I was doing it. I will now forever live with hepatitis C because of the choices I made during my addiction. When I would get blood drawn for check-ups, they had to use pediatric needles because I hated needles so much…that is when you realize you will do anything to get high.
W: Do you have friends who have died of opiate overdoses, and if so what impact did their deaths have on you or others around them?
AB: Too many have overdosed and passed away, but when I was using, it never had an impact on me. I would go to their funerals, visit their gravesites and cry like a baby, but I was also high at the funeral, high while visiting. We all think we are so invincible when it comes to using drugs. Even if somebody we know overdoses and dies, we think and say to ourselves and others, “they had no idea what they were doing.” But really we are all thinking, “that would never happen to me.”
W: What are you doing now to make an impact and spread the word about the dangers of painkiller abuse, and what do you hope to accomplish?
AB: I am making an impact and spreading the word by blogging about my addiction and recovery. I am 110% open about my addiction to pain pills, using needles, and my recovery process. I feel it is so important for more individuals to speak out, not only about painkiller abuse, but about addiction. The stigma associated with addiction is terrible in my eyes. Not everybody understands, and most addicts suffer in silence for so long. I felt that starting my blog and Facebook page could get more individuals to open up about their addiction, and help more people to understand addiction. It is not just that we are addicted, the problems are much deeper. We are trying to hide from something, covering up the pain we do not want to feel on a daily basis. I want people to see that addiction could be anybody: not just the homeless, not just the bully at school. There is no particular demographic or “type” of person you who tends to get hooked on pills. It is your brother, mother, sister, niece, nephew, mom, dad, or even your grandparents.
My goal is to break the stigma. I want everybody in the nation to understand addiction and not ridicule us addicts. I want people to see that addiction is everywhere and never say “it won’t happen to my kid” because it could. I want to be the voice of the silent.
W: What level of responsibility do you think the pharmaceutical industry has in the painkiller addiction epidemic? How about doctors? And what do you think needs to happen to fix the problem?
AB: In my opinion, pharmaceutical companies failed to stress how highly addictive these drugs can be. I also blame it on the doctors for not trying other methods to fix the pain, because the pain pills are only a temporary fix. I think it is important for doctors to be more educated on addiction and what these pain pills can do – and that goes for the pharmaceutical companies as well. If a patient says they are in pain, doctors are ready to get the prescription pad out. People are also doctor-shopping and I think something on the government level needs to be done about that. The system needs to change with pharmacies being able to track individuals that doctor shop. I also think treatment should be made more affordable, and it should be easier for addicts to get help. I view addiction as a disease and it should be medically treated as such.
Visit Abby’s blog, My Life. My Story., here.
View her Facebook page here.
Follow her on Twitter at @2011Mystory.
Email Abby at email@example.com.
Earlier this week, pharmacy interest groups defeated an amendment to the Food and Drug Administration Safety Innovation Act that aimed to change the classification of hydrocodone-containing pain relief products from Schedule III to Schedule II, putting hydrocodone painkillers into the same category as OxyContin and Percocet. Hydrocodone is the most-prescribed prescription drug in the U.S., with 131.2 million prescriptions written in 2010 alone. The provision had been accepted as an amendment to the U.S. Senate’s version of the bill, but it was cut from the final bill that reconciled the Senate and House provisions after the Generic Pharmaceutical Association objected to it, claiming it would restrict access and increase prices to the painkillers.
Today, Oxy Watchdog caught up with the amendment’s author, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who said the bipartisan measure was defeated due to the efforts of high-powered and well-funded lobbyists representing groups that have a huge financial stake in keeping these pills as accessible as possible. But he vowed to continue the fight against prescription drug abuse, and said he planned to re-introduce the amendment in the future.
Watchdog: Tell us more about the reasons you decided to introduce this measure. What’s the landscape like in West Virginia regarding prescription drug abuse?
Joe Manchin: My reasons are the same as yours; the same as every person who has been affected by the prescription drug abuse epidemic. The thing that pushed me to this level was visiting a small town in West Virginia that has been ravaged by painkiller abuse. Young, 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls came to me and told me their families are being destroyed; their friends are overdosing and dying. They are asking us for help, and we’re not helping them. Shame on all of us.
Prescription drugs are responsible for 90 percent of drug-related deaths in my state, but this is a nationwide epidemic – I don’t know a person I’ve ever talked to who doesn’t know someone who has been affected by these drugs.
W: Law enforcement and addiction advocacy groups supported this measure. Who was behind its defeat?
JM: Those who supported the amendment were the people on the front lines who have been directly affected by this epidemic. The opponents were those who have financial interests.
W: What about the criticism that the amendment didn’t fit into current business models?
JM: I’m a businessman myself, and I know that when you have a business, you have a model for what it will take to succeed. But I know also that you have a backup plan. I would think that when these drugs were manufactured for the purpose of healing people, the plan wasn’t based around the idea that if patients become addicted, the companies would sell more pills. At the same time, if distributors and doctors are putting more of these drugs on the streets, this affects the original business plan. So they need to go to Plan B. They’ll still be able to survive, they’ll just be saving a few more lives.
Taking hydrocodone from Schedule III to Schedule II would keep it out of the hands of traffickers. Critics say this would be keeping products away from people who really need them, but it just means that patients would need an original prescription to get their pills refilled. Since 2007, doctors can provide patients with a 90-day supply of any Schedule II medication by issuing three prescriptions, one for an immediate supply and two additional prescriptions that can’t be filled until a certain date. If they receive a 90-day supply, patients would only need to visit their doctors four times per year, and if they are dealing with that kind of pain, they probably would want to be evaluated anyway.
W: What are the next steps for the reintroduction of the amendment?
JM: We’ll be asking HHS and the DEA to release their studies in order to find out how addictive these drugs really are. If they refuse, our next alternative will be to call for a Congressional hearing. We’re working with the agencies first, and will be sending a letter to them shortly. I’m not going to give up on this.
W: What would be needed from the public in order to get this passed?
JM: People need to share the devastating effects prescription drug abuse is having on their neighborhoods, friends, and families. Everybody’s got a story, and once we know the true extent of the problem, we can try to prevent or slow down this epidemic. The more of these stories we can get, the quicker this will get passed. But I assure you we will pass this sooner or later. The public can’t remain silent anymore.
Contact information for Sen. Manchin can be found here.
Learn more about his efforts to pass the amendment here.
Read a final summary of the bill here.
Orange County, Calif. may seem like the perfect place to live, but it has a dirty little secret: it’s number two in the country for deaths by prescription drug overdoses. In May 2010, Laguna Niguel resident Natalie Costa was thrust full force into the epidemic when her daughter Brianne called her from her high school, frantic: her good friend, 17-year-old Mark Melkonian, had passed away after overdosing on the painkiller Opana. Costa, who owns a performing arts school, teamed up with director Brent Huff to produce “Behind the Orange Curtain,” a full-length feature documentary that delves into the tragic trend afflicting the affluent area, which has more rehab centers per capita than any other county in the nation. The film premieres at this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival on May 2, and has been chosen by the Film Fund out of 400 films representing 50 countries as one of “five films to see.” Oxy Watchdog caught up with Costa ahead of the premiere for more details on the making of the documentary and the extent of the pill addiction epidemic in Orange County.
Watchdog: Tell us more about why you decided to make this documentary.
NC: When we found out my daughter’s friend had died of a drug overdose, we had no idea he was even using – never mind that he was using prescription drugs, or what Opana even was. I took my daughter and her friend to [Mark’s] funeral; it was her first one. The church was packed – people were lined up out the door and around the corner. The bishop brought Mark’s casket into the lobby and opened it, and my daughter saw her first dead body. It was very traumatic. At that point, I knew something had to be done, but I didn’t know what. It was crazy that someone as bright and enigmatic as Mark could die of a drug overdose.
I was hoping that Mark’s death would have an impact on other kids using, but it really didn’t, and that was the sad part. Six months later, I met Jodi Barber, whose 19-year-old son Jarrod had also passed away of an overdose of Opana, Seroquel and Clonazepam. Jodi and her friend Christine Brant came to my academy and wanted to do an educational video. I thought we could take it to another level. I really believed the message had to get out. The whole thing happened by word of mouth. From there, it just exploded. Every day we were inundated with phone calls from parents who lost kids to overdoses, or whose kids were currently struggling. We had so many people contact us, we actually had to eliminate interviews. It was a real eye opener for me. Here in Orange County, we have gated communities, blue ribbon schools, the finest activities for our kids, famous churches. So why were these kids turning to prescription drugs? We wanted the film to be about awareness, and to be a call to action. We had to shake people up.
W: Describe what you consider to be one of the most powerful scenes in the film.
NC: We went to the Orange County Coroner’s office to film one day. It’s a big, beautiful building, but very cold. There’s one huge room with a window and a metal door. When it slides open, you’re in an ice-cold room that smells of bleach. There are bodies in white plastic bags. They have toe tags, and some of them have bags with their belongings sitting on top of them. Their heads are covered, but you can still see the shape of them. I took my daughter with me. Any mother can take her daughter out to lunch, but when I’m dead, she’ll be able to say that her mom took her to the morgue. The ironic thing was that the very first body was someone she knew who had passed away earlier that week. I took her picture as she became overwhelmed, and that’s one of the pictures that ended up on the film’s poster.
Another powerful thing about the film is the parents [we interviewed], particularly the dads. As a female and a mother, it’s natural to be emotional. But when I’m watching these fathers talk about trying to reach their daughter, and then getting a phone call that she’s dead, or a firefighter being hours away from home and getting a call that the paramedics are at his house doing CPR on his son – that’s powerful. To see the dads break down, that tears me up.
The other remarkable thing is that the whole film is based on parents coming together to tell their stories in the hopes that there will be a great awakening on the part of the community. They had to relive these horrible experiences, and they were willing to do so at the drop of a hat so that others might be saved.
W: What about parents who haven’t been touched by prescription drug addiction – or who think it can’t happen to their family? Do you see a lot of denial in your community?
NC: I tell parents all the time, this is a door I opened, and there’s no going back. A lot of them will look you in the eye, and they’re sympathetic, but it’s not in their reality yet. You have to tell them about the statistics. In the film, these aren’t people living under a bridge. These are people who did everything to give their kid a leg up on life, but their child made a choice, and that choice took them down this road. There’s definitely still a sense of “it’s not going to happen to me.” But more and more, at any social gathering, when you start talking about the problem, everyone knows someone who has been affected. People are really starting to open up.
W: And the kids? Is there a sense of infallibility, even with the deaths of their peers?
NC: For some kids, maybe the ones who haven’t tried pills or heroin yet, the danger seems to have registered. But not for others. I was at a dinner party in my neighborhood recently, and their kid had an Oxy problem and was smoking heroin. He’s not doing those drugs anymore, but he’s still into weed and drinking. I don’t know what would actually shock a child away from it. I think kids really think they’re invincible. It’s like, “it sucks that it happened to that kid, but it’s not going to happen to me.” And alcohol makes them feel infallible, leading them to pop pills, and from pills to heroin.
Heroin was always a dirty word, but now these kids are switching to it because it’s too hard to get pills, or too expensive. The kids tell me it’s about $10 per milligram right now, so if you’re using 500 or 600 milligrams a day, you could be smoking heroin for a lot less money. And then you turn to the needle.
I wish no one ever had to tell this story. The football captain, the president of the student body – why are they turning to heroin? But it doesn’t matter if you live on Park Avenue or on a park bench. Once opiate addiction takes over, there is a very small chance of survival.
For tickets to the film, visit the festival’s website.
Jodi Barber and Christine Brant’s short film, Overtaken, is also showing at the festival.
Like many young adults, Mason and Michaela of Marin County, Calif. saw their lives spin out of control after getting hooked on OxyContin in their teens. Today, Mason (now 24) and Michaela (now 23) are finally free from Oxy’s grip and are speaking out about the devastating effects of the prescription painkiller at high schools and youth leadership camps. Oxy Watchdog asked the pair – who met in recovery and have been dating since Aug. 2010 – to share more about how they got to where they are today, and their efforts to help prevent others from going down a similar path.
Watchdog: Tell us about how you grew up, and how your addiction progressed.
Mason: I played sports growing up, and I aspired to be a professional baseball player. I was picked to play on the varsity team as a freshman in high school, but after two games I got caught smoking weed and was kicked off the team. After that I began failing out of my classes and became lost. Eventually I was sent to a continuation high school, which was like a training ground for drug addicts. I met a girl who had a prescription for Darvocet and Percocet to treat her rheumatoid arthritis, and she was always taking these pills, so I started taking them too. After a few weeks I tried OxyContin, and after a month I couldn’t afford the Oxys anymore, so I started doing heroin. Soon I was shooting up to 4 or 5 grams of heroin a day and also doing cocaine and pills, as well as methadone.
Michaela: My dad drank, and my mom didn’t like it, so my family life was difficult and I took on the role of the hero. I thought that if I was the perfect kid, popular and pretty, maybe he would stop drinking and my mom would be happy. The summer going into high school, I had my first drink while sleeping over at my friend’s house. It was tequila and orange juice, and she hated it, but I loved it. I was obsessive in everything I did, so I started drinking more even though I maintained a 3.4 GPA, I was volunteering, I was singing the anthem at sports events. But the way I drank was embarrassing and shameful. I never had a “that’s enough” button. I was waking up in the ER and being told that I had almost died. It didn’t faze me. I had ruined so many relationships that I transferred schools, and promised myself it would be different this time. By that time my mom had split up with my dad and had joined Al-Anon. I went to meetings, but I kind of felt like my life was over. How do you be sober when you’re that young?
Then I met a guy in AA who talked about Oxy and was shocked that I had never done drugs. His dad had Oxy around the apartment, and one day he was doing a line, and I was curious. I thought I would just do it once, I thought “my problem is drinking.” But it was instant love. It was so much better than alcohol. I felt numb, nothing could touch me. I wanted to feel that way all the time.
W: When did you know that you had a problem, and did you seek treatment?
Mason: I went to my first treatment center when I was 20 years old, but I didn’t get sober. I was still beating the system and getting high. I flew back home, and started living on the streets, sleeping on couches, and using. I kept thinking that a geographical change would help, so I moved around a lot. I would stop using for periods of time, but my relapses always started with Oxy. I was so battered. I had a breakthrough on March 17, 2008 when I started opening my ears more to Alcoholics Anonymous. I realized that the key to sobriety is honesty. Then I moved to New York City to go to acting school, and I brought four 80s with me. I thought to myself, “this is the end.” I was running and eating healthy, but doing Oxys at night. They were gone in three days, and I was up in Spanish Harlem looking for heroin. Seven months in, I’d caught pneumonia, I was failing my classes, I was selling all my possessions for drugs. I was close to death.
Michaela: Within seven months of using Oxy, I wanted to die. I was going to dangerous places to get pills, and I wasn’t even scared because I was so high. I had no fear, no happiness, all of my feelings were gone. I felt untouchable. But I also felt angry, irritable, and bitter. And I felt myself drifting away. One night I felt my soul was leaving, like it was above my body. I felt like death was around the corner.
W: Did you have a “rock bottom” moment?
Mason: My dad was in a motorcycle accident and was in a coma. I flew home and sat with him, it was 50/50 whether he would live or die. And despite that, I stole his credit cards and flew back to New York as if nothing had ever happened. That brought me to my knees. I realized I couldn’t live like that. I called my mom begging for help and she agreed to get me into another treatment program. On March 17, 2010, exactly two years after my first sobriety date, I went into treatment and the same guy checked me in.
Michaela: On Sept. 13, 2008, it hit me. I thought, “we’re not going up from here.” I was a little girl with all these dreams, and they were all gone. I thought of myself playing soccer as an 8-year-old girl, with such freedom. I had a “God moment.” I turned on the TV and the 700 Club was on, and they were saying, “if you are addicted to drugs, you don’t have to live like that anymore.” The darkness seeped away, and I felt like I just had to walk out the door. I was so broken down that I was willing to do whatever it took to get sober.
W: Why do you think some people succeed at staying clean – was there a particular turning point for you, or did it just sink in over the course of time?
Mason: For me, I think it was a combination of being so desperate, my willingness to be honest, and being open-minded. I can name multiple times that I overdosed; you would think that kind of rock bottom would do the trick, but it didn’t. I was terrified of death; I would nod out, and hear myself stop breathing, feel myself turning blue. Not everyone makes it back, but I did. It takes a complete surrender. The people that came before you hold you up and support you, it’s like being born all over again.
W: What do you think parents and kids need to know about the dangers of prescription drugs?
Mason: These drugs are so prevalent, and kids are dying. People need to educate themselves about it. But for addicts, they need to find their own road. Unfortunately, Oxy is synthetic heroin, and it’s more expensive, so heroin is the next logical step.
My desperation was a gift. My life is amazing today; I have a beautiful relationship with Michaela, I work at a treatment center, and I’m trying to become an addiction counselor. I have the life I used to lie about.
Michaela: My parents were totally in shock about the extent of my addiction. As for myself, I used to think that I would never do drugs. But it was like slipping into a wormhole. Oxy became a fad, and everyone is doing it. These aren’t bad kids, but if you stay on it long enough, you’ll go to heroin. Whether you’re an addict or not, you’ll get hooked. And there’s such a bigger world out there. If you get addicted, you’re not going to be able to be a part of that world.
Get in touch with Mason and Michaela by emailing them at MacMic11@aol.com.
The Rubins were once a typical suburban family in San Diego, Calif., but that existence was shattered when Sherrie and Mike’s then-23-year-old son Aaron overdosed on OxyContin on Oct. 5, 2005. Many Oxy overdose victims either die, or recover and continue to battle their addiction. But Aaron was thrust into a different kind of living hell. A loss of oxygen to his brain had brought him to the brink of death, and after suffering a series of heart attacks and strokes, doctors had nearly given up hope. Miraculously, Aaron survived. Now confined to a wheelchair, Aaron is 29 and can no longer walk or speak. He can only communicate using his fingers, using one for yes, and two for no. The Rubins are committed to spreading the word about the dangers of prescription drug abuse. They founded an organization, H.O.P.E Drug Awareness, Education and Treatment Inc., that provides support for families needing early intervention in overcoming addictions to prescription drugs and/or heroin. They also travel the country giving presentations to students and parents, using Aaron’s story as an example. Oxy Watchdog spoke with Mike (far right in picture) and Sherrie (third from left, next to Aaron, in wheelchair) about their journey.
Watchdog: Tell us about Aaron’s overdose.
Sherrie Rubin: Aaron had been at a party and went to spend the night at a friend’s house who he had known his whole life. Unfortunately, the family didn’t immediately call 911 when he was found blue and unresponsive, and every second you don’t have oxygen results in another level of debilitation in the body. In Aaron’s case, there were about 24 minutes of wasted time. When we got to the ER, the doctors told us we were going to lose our son that day. They told us to get a funeral plot, we called our rabbi, we did prayers. We had no hope that he was going to live at all.
He was put on life support, and we were pretty much just crying on the floor of the ER. His lungs collapsed, but then they got him breathing a tiny bit. He was off and on, living, dying, living, dying. We signed a DNR [do not resuscitate order] and started making funeral arrangements, and they said it was time to let him go. But I noticed that every time I spoke in his ear, he moved his head back and forth, and I felt he could hear me. We ordered another round of tests, and the next day, they pulled us aside and said he was improving.
W: When was it clear that even though Aaron was incapacitated physically, he could hear and understand you?
SR: Aaron was the leader of the gang, he was “the man.” He had a softball team, and they won the championship when he was in the ICU and brought him a t-shirt they had all signed, it was hanging in the room. One day I decided to read him the things the guys had written, things like “you always shot it out of the park, this one’s for you.” Aaron started crying, and I knew then for sure that he was in there and could understand. It was joyous, but at the same time, this was another type of death. Aaron was unable to speak, he was trapped in his body and unable to use his hands or express his needs or thoughts. So the devastation was also tremendous.
W: What was Aaron like before the overdose?
Mike Rubin: Aaron was a great athlete, he went to good schools, and had good friends from good families. There is no rhyme or reason as to why he got addicted, or why anyone gets addicted. These kids are popular and fun, they’re great to have at parties because they’re the life of the party. Well, Aaron doesn’t get invited to parties anymore. Sometimes you don’t get a chance at tomorrow.
W: Why did you decide to go public with your family’s story?
SR: Aaron’s high school asked me to speak regarding prescription drugs, and he heard me rehearsing my speech and started crying. He wasn’t quite ready for me to go out with it publicly at that point. But later, life came back into his face when the DEA asked him to work with them. I constantly ask him if he wants me to share his story, and he says yes. This comes from him. As long as Aaron is willing to share his story, I’m willing to help be his voice to educate about the dangers of pills that most people probably don’t even think about.
I also asked him at one point if it was okay for me to read from his rehab journals, and he said yes. That was how I learned it was OxyContin [that caused his overdose]. I remembered being in the ICU and two of Aaron’s friends were visiting. A nurse came in and asked how long Aaron had been Oxy-dependent, and his friends looked down at the floor and didn’t answer. I didn’t know what the heck she meant. Later when I was reading Aaron’s journals, he wrote that he had been at the gym with friends, who were addicts, cooking Oxy to shoot. The bell went off in my head.
W: Were you aware of the extent of Aaron’s addiction before the overdose?
SR: In high school, there were rough times, but I just didn’t have the knowledge about prescription drug abuse. I thought all of his mood swings, the agitation, the not showing up for family events were all just typical, but they were warning signs that now I wouldn’t dismiss so easily. The complaints about his legs and muscles hurting, I thought maybe he was developing an autoimmune disorder because that runs in my family. I looked at the problems by what I knew. I would let my grandkids dig around in the dirt with spoons, and later when I wondered where all the spoons were, I thought it must have been them, not Aaron. I wish six years ago someone would have talked about pills more openly, because the one thing every parent thinks is that it will never happen to them.
MR: We couldn’t have done anything more. If we could have, we would have. We tried very hard to get him into counseling, and he wasn’t ready to embrace it. The disease of addiction is so strong, but for those of us who aren’t addicted, we can’t understand the strength and the power of the addiction. You can’t stop a train from wrecking. Aaron’s story is like that of most addicts: he didn’t want to use, he was ashamed, he wanted to stop.
W: Do you see a lot of denial on the part of parents who are in the dark about the widespread extent of the prescription drug epidemic?
SR: Yes, many parents really think their families are untouchable. But no one is untouchable. We all go to the doctor, we all have prescription drugs in our houses. There has been a lot of resistance from parents, but now the tide is turning a bit because there have been so many recent deaths. Unfortunately, many parents are ashamed and don’t want to come forward. But I volunteered at my son’s school, we were involved in every aspect of his life, and it still happened. I gave up my career, I wanted to make sure I did everything I could to provide a good future for my children. Aaron was just a regular kid, people loved him. But this takes over your brain. Yes, the first few times you use, it’s a choice, but at some point it will become a disease. That’s what more people need to understand.
And the kids now – Generation RX – they have been inundated since birth to take a pill for everything. When I was growing up, we had Vicks and Pepto Bismol. The medicine today is different. People think that because it comes from a doctor, it can’t be dangerous. This perception has to be changed. It can be good medicine when you need it, but if you abuse it, you will end up an addict, dead, or with the challenges Aaron now has every single day.
W: It is such a difficult question, what’s more terrible – living in the purgatory of an ongoing addiction or experiencing the death of a loved one. But Aaron’s situation is something a lot of people probably don’t consider.
SR: Exactly. Aaron’s death was my worst fear, but never in a million years did I think his life would be what it is today. Our family dynamics will never be the same. He survived, but he’s not the son I knew. Emotionally, I wake up every day and I grieve for him. I see him struggle, and I see the wasted potential every day. There is no putting it to rest. Every day is hopeful, but every day is also sad. All we can do is try to have a good day. We’re happy and grateful that he’s here, but we’re not happy about the challenges he now has.
I have asked Aaron whether the quality of life he has to today is anyone else’s fault but his own, and he says no. And we can accept that, because we know we did everything possible for him. You always wish you could have done more, but in all honesty, if the overdose hadn’t happened that night, it would have happened another night. I know that there is nothing more I could have done other than chain him up in a cell, which I was not empowered to do.
W: How did Aaron’s overdose affect your family, besides the obvious changes in your day-to-day lives?
MR: Aaron’s younger brother also became addicted to pills, and later heroin. And two years to the day of Aaron’s overdose, we relived another overdose [with his brother]. He recovered, only to resume using, went into rehab and therapy, was ten months sober, and came out and relapsed. It’s a disease that haunts these kids, and we will be haunted forever by it. You worry every day that you’ll get a call. What’s the call, are they alive or are they dead? It’s terrible.
W: What advice do you have for parents with kids addicted to pills?
SR: If you see the warning signs, get help now, before they’re 18 and you can’t help them. Aaron wanted help, but we didn’t understand the disease of addiction. Addicts can manipulate you into believing any story. They really do believe they’re okay. But it’s so hard with opiates, because they’re so strong. At some point, if it doesn’t kill them, it becomes a habit. That’s why so many youths are dying. They think it’s okay because it’s not a dirty street drug, but it’s just as powerful as heroin, if not more powerful. Oxy is synthetic heroin. And it gets expensive trying to feed a pill habit, while $40 in black tar heroin can get you through two days.
Our goal is to try to make schools and parents understand that it’s necessary to have this kind of education in middle school, prior to these kids making the choice to have some “fun.” Not one pill, one person or one party is worth your future and your independence.
W: What level of responsibility do you place on doctors or the pharmaceutical industry for playing a role in the prescription drug abuse epidemic?
MR: Sherrie and I are unified that it won’t help to blame anybody. It’s an unfortunate thing that anyone can become addicted to pills, and that it’s an easy segueway to heroin, and those who don’t use can’t understand it. I used to think “just stop, what’s wrong with you?” I didn’t understand that it was physically, emotionally and psychologically powerful, this addiction. We have to do a better job of educating our kids. The federal government has enough problems, and we’re losing way too many of our loved ones to this war. The only way to have a better shot at the next bunch of kids is through education. We have to be unified. It doesn’t matter what your persuasion or race is, we are one people, and we are the biggest consumers of drugs here in the U.S.
W: Did you ever personally struggle with feelings of shame as a parent because of what happened to Aaron?
MR: I have never felt ashamed. Like most families, we were good parents and loved our children. We raised them to be good people. The way I look at it is that Aaron got injured in a war, just like a soldier. Our youth is fighting a war against the accepted tolerance of drugs in our society, and he didn’t have a good outcome.
W: What does Aaron’s future look like?
MR: His prognosis medically is not good. He’s unique in that he survived a serious drug overdose, and 90% of people who overdose die. So he’s one of the unlucky to OD, but has been “lucky” enough to survive with life-changing disabilities, the loss of his speech, his mobility, his whole future. He’s there, he’s happy, but he’s stuck in a prison inside his own body. I always say I wish he went to prison, then I would have more of him. That said, we are always hopeful there will be a day when he will have more independence.
Aaron always loved attention, and he gets a great deal of pleasure out of sharing his story. He likes shaking everybody’s hand afterward and embracing people, and they really seem to enjoy hearing his story and opening up about their own family’s issues with drug and alcohol abuse.
Watch a video about Aaron below, or visit H.O.P.E.’s Facebook page for more information. You can also contact Sherrie directly at At Rollin’ With Rubin – Prescription Pill Education, (858) 943-1697.
Jodi Barber and Christine Brant (far right and far left in the picture) of Laguna Niguel, Calif. are the brains behind “Overtaken,” a short documentary educating young adults on the truth about prescription drug addiction and the often deadly consequences pills have. Oxy Watchdog caught up with the two moms just ahead of the film’s release on Sept. 22.
Watchdog: How did you get involved in the issue of prescription drug addiction?
JB: This mission started 20 months ago when my 19-year-old son Jarrod died on Jan. 8, 2010 after overdosing on prescription pills. He had a quarter of an Opana pill he had bought from a kid he knew, and he crushed it, melted it, and inhaled the fumes. He also had drugs in his system from his own doctor – Seroquel, Cymbalta, and Klonopin.
CB: The most deadly of those was the Opana, and many kids don’t understand that when you break them in half or crush them or split them between friends, it removes the time-release coating and it’s all dumped into your system at one time.
W: How common is prescription drug abuse in your community? How many deaths have there been, and who is dying?
JB: Maybe I just wasn’t aware of the problem before Jarrod passed away, but after his death, it became a huge problem. His friend came home from the Army on a two-week leave to attend Jarrod’s funeral, relapsed while he was here, and died of a heroin overdose. The kid who sold Jarrod the Opana died about five months later, and 10 months later another close friend of Jarrod’s passed away. It’s to the point where these types of deaths are occurring on a monthly basis. It’s become an epidemic.
CB: Jodi was living every parent’s worst nightmare. I have four kids who by the grace of God have stayed away from using pills, but I was hearing about one after another after another passing away of these really strong opiate prescription drugs. My kids have gone to more funerals than I have. I knew immediately that there was something very wrong happening.
JB: It got to the point that I was speaking at the funerals of these kids, and kids were overdosing at the funerals. They just can’t stop. Jarrod had a friend who spoke at his service, and even with Jarrod dying he couldn’t stop using. He went into a rehab, came out for two weeks and overdosed and died.
W: With prescription painkillers being such a problem in your community, have you started to notice an increase in heroin addiction?
JB: Yes. These pills lead to heroin. The pills cost about $60-$70 per pill right now in this area, and so many kids have turned to black tar heroin, which is about $4 a balloon.
CB: When you think about people addicted to heroin, it used to be an inner-city type of thing. We live in an affluent beach community, and generally speaking, you didn’t see heroin addiction as a major problem. But it all starts with the pills. These kids end up needing more to get the same high as they did in the beginning, and it’s too expensive.
JB: It’s not so much that they need the high anymore, as they have these horrible cravings. I need my coffee every morning, and this is a hundred thousand times worse for these poor kids who crave pills, it’s so sad. And the doctors know how addicting these pills are.
W: Speaking of doctors, what role do you think they are playing in the rising rates of pill addiction?
JB: For a lot of these kids, it all starts with an injury in high school. The doctor starts them out on Vicodin and muscle relaxers, which is totally unnecessary. Jarrod went to his doctor for help; this doctor knew Jarrod had an addiction problem, and yet he gives him handfuls of Seroquel, which is a drug for psychotic people. Another father whose son went to this doctor pleaded with the doctor not to give any more pills to his son because his son was now an addict. The doctor said that because the son was over 18, there was nothing he could do. There are so many dirty doctors who are handing out pills, including Dr. Lisa Tseng, who I believe contributed to my son’s death because the boy Jarrod bought the Opana from went to her. She is directly responsible for the deaths of kids who have overdosed, and those who are addicts. I went right into her office and confronted her. She had written six scripts in one week’s time for one kid. I told her, “you’re the professional; these kids don’t have cancer.” The first thing in a doctor’s oath is do no harm. She was prescribing deadly combinations, and she knew that these kids coming to her weren’t terminally ill.
The other issue is the pharmacies here. I went to one after Jarrod passed away, and asked the pharmacist if he was filling Opana prescriptions for kids. He said yes, all the time, but don’t yell at me – yell at the doctor. But he has a choice to say no and not fill them; he knows what these pills are doing to these kids. It made me sick. It’s all about the money.
CB: That’s why awareness is so critical. If these doctors don’t care out of the goodness of ethics, maybe they will care that the press is getting wind of it, and that they might be exposed for their unethical behavior.
W: Tell us about the making of “Overtaken” and what your goals were in producing it.
CB: Jodi had made posters on the dangers of prescription drugs and put them up in the windows of places where kids hang out. When I saw them, I immediately felt like somebody was doing something, finally. Together we sat down and decided to spread awareness. Kids are dying, and we can’t just sit around and do nothing. We hired a media company and pulled together a group of kids whose lives have been destroyed by addiction. We shot all of the interviews in one day and edited it down to a 28-minute movie, which is the right timing for high school assemblies. The kids in the video talk about what they would do if they could go back, and how their choices dictated where their lives ended up. We hope that maybe some kid sitting in the audience will think twice after seeing the movie; maybe his or her life can be different.
W: What have been some of the effects of prescription drug abuse on parents and families? Are they in denial? Is there shame associated with it?
JB: Unfortunately, there is a lot of shame surrounding prescription drug addiction, and it’s been really hard to get moms to come out and talk about it. There’s one section in our city where there have been four overdose deaths in just a few blocks, and every one of those mothers is saying it was a health problem. But everyone knows these kids were all friends, and that these were overdoses. It is shameful, but you have to get beyond that and try to save a life. These are beautiful kids who don’t deserve to have their lives taken away. If the component of shame doesn’t change, this totally startling increase in drug overdose deaths will continue to rise.
CB: We need to stop and be honest and be real. Don’t say your kid died because he had an allergy to peanuts; everyone knows, and you’re not fooling anyone. Your daughter didn’t spend the semester with grandma; she was at rehab. Jodi opened up the discussion and put it on a poster. She gave out her phone number for people to call if they needed help, and her phone hasn’t stopped ringing since. Maybe she can save one mother from living the pain that she now lives every moment of every hour of every day. We need to stand together as a community. If not me, then who? If not now, then when? We need to stop worrying about what everybody’s thinking and support each other mother to mother, neighbor to neighbor, to stop this wildfire that is racing through our community.
The school board originally didn’t want to put up our posters for the film because they were too “distracting.” I think it’s a little more distracting for kids to have to attend the funerals of their peers. They just want everything to look good, but the fact is that of the 2008 graduating class from this school, eleven kids have died of overdoses. We’re not talking they got mixed up in drugs, or went to rehab, we’re talking dead. If those eleven kids died any other way, like they all got cancer, or got in a school bus accident, or contracted the swine flu, it would be on every news channel and in every paper. But nobody, not one person, has reported that they all overdosed and died. Overdose deaths have increased 147% since 2007, and Orange County is now number two in the nation for the highest number of unintentional fatal overdoses. Yet nobody’s really talking about it. This is an epidemic, and that’s not an over-estimation.
JB: It’s the dirty little secret that no one wants to talk about until it happens to them. They think it’s the kid’s choice, but everyone makes wrong choices in life. These parents need to wake up and get help for their kids.
“Overtaken” premieres Thursday, Sept. 22 at 7pm in the Rancho Niguel Regency Theater. Learn more by visiting the movie’s Facebook page.
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.
Brad DeHaven of Granite Bay, Calif. considered himself a typical suburban father: he coached his two boys’ soccer, baseball and football teams, helped with their homework, and did everything he could to instill a good work ethic and be a positive influence in their lives. But all that came crashing down when his older son, Brandon, became addicted to OxyContin in high school. DeHaven’s first book, “Defining Moments: A Suburban Father’s Journey Into His Son’s Oxy Addiction,” tells of the great lengths DeHaven went to in an attempt to help his son – including going undercover in a dangerous drug bust – and of how Brandon’s addiction affected the whole family. Oxy Watchdog spoke to DeHaven about how OxyContin led his family down an unimaginable path, and the book that lays it all bare.
Watchdog: Why did you decide to write a book and go public with your story?
Brad DeHaven: It started out as cathartic writing. I was doing a lot of traveling and had a lot of downtime in airports. It felt like when you’re writing a letter to someone but not really intending to send it out; I was just getting it off my chest. Before I knew it I had 10,000 words, then 20,000, then 30,000. It was like I kept scratching off these scabs I didn’t know were there, and the more I reached inward, the more I discovered about myself and learned what defined me as a person and a father.
W: You had witnessed addiction in your life, notably through your brother Thomas, before your son became an addict. Why do you think addiction happens to some and not to others – i.e., why Brandon, and not your other son, Bryce?
BD: Addiction is an illness, not a voluntary action. No addict picks up a pill thinking they want to die at 22. My father-in-law smoked his whole life and now he has an illness, lung cancer, and he’ll die because he couldn’t stop. The same goes for obesity, no one sets out wanting to be 500 pounds and ending up dying of diabetes. So many people have attached this stigma to addiction. For Brandon, it started when he was prescribed Vicodin for a broken arm as a teenager, and it flared up that addictive trait, leading him to a $1,000-a-day Oxy habit.
W: You describe your family as leading a very typical suburban life. Do you consider OxyContin a suburban problem, and do you think people are in denial about how pervasive it is?
BD: [Prescription drug addiction] is a lot more pervasive in suburbia than you think. In fact, the working title of my book was “Beyond the Picket Fence.” I’m getting calls from people all over the U.S. who’ve had the same experience as my family. It’s their dirty little secret, but once they come forward with it, they’re dying to know they’re not alone. We act like it’s not there; we’re afraid to tell anyone. And then all of a sudden it leads to heroin, which is where Brandon went when he relapsed, just as we were getting ready to go to print.
Part of the problem with prescription drugs is that in higher income neighborhoods, pills are just sitting around because they’re given at will to anyone who wants them. But these legal drugs are heroin; opiates are heroin. I don’t care what you’ve been through as a parent, I was ill-prepared to handle prescription drug abuse. I didn’t know the signs of it, how serious it was, or how to treat it. I knew that when I was a kid, I was sitting at the dinner table giggling because I was stoned. Now our kids are sitting next to us with a belly full of Vicodin or an armful of Oxy. The medicine cabinet is a place that we as kids would never have thought to look for drugs.
W: Did you struggle with feelings of failure as a parent because one of your sons became a drug addict?
BD: Absolutely. I always thank my younger son for helping me realize I wasn’t a complete failure as a father. If I had one son, either one or the other, I would have thought I was the worst or the best father in the world. But in truth I was neither; I was just a father. I got two different results. At some point, Brandon went down this road and couldn’t turn back, no matter what it did to his family.
W: You took some pretty extreme measures to help your son. What were you thinking?
BD: Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but at the time, it was like jumping in front of a bus for someone. You don’t really think about it when you’re doing it. I had a lot of time to think in the parking lot [waiting for the drug bust to go down], and that’s when my life flashed before my eyes. You don’t think of the jagged cliffs when you dive off into the water. I grew up rough and tough, but I was 50 years old, and when you find out some guy who has thumped a few people is coming to your car to buy drugs, you think of your past, your future, all the what-ifs of your family relationships.
W: What was Brandon’s reaction to the book?
BD: At first, he wanted it all behind him. He didn’t want to be known as Brandon the Drug Addict. But after he read the book, he realized it wasn’t just about him; it’s about addiction and what happens to families because of addiction.
W: The video of your son withdrawing from OxyContin is heart-wrenching. What was going through your mind as you were filming it?
BD: It was like watching a sick animal. I have had to play that video for high school audiences, and for a lot of people, it’s like they’re looking at a car wreck. I still can’t look at it. I tear up thinking about it right now. It was a horrible moment; I filmed it in an ignorant attempt to document something that I thought would be a deterrent for him later. It’s not that simple, but to me, it was. But it’s been pretty powerful in helping people realize that kicking pills is no joke. I call it the end of the rainbow. Sure, drugs will make you feel great all night, you’ll party like a rock star, but let me show you what your body does when you don’t have any more pills to feed it.
W: Brandon relapsed on black tar heroin after the book was published. How is he doing now?
BD: I was crushed when I found out he had relapsed; it was a very helpless feeling. But he’s much better now. But it’s one day at a time. I consider him to be in remission. He looks fantastic, he’s 6’2” and has gone from 130 pounds to 185 pounds, but I know addiction is still lurking. He’s 26 and I still drug test him, but now he doesn’t have a thousand excuses. He knows the program, and he’s proud to pee clean.
Brandon tells me being active keeps him sober. We call him Chippendale now; he looks like a model. It’s a remarkable transformation, because before he looked like a skeleton. His hip bones protruded, his knees were like softballs on top of pencils, every rib and backbone showed, his shoulders were sunken. Now he’s the total opposite.
W: How has addiction changed your attitude as a parent?
DH: It’s such a pleasure to walk into a room and hear Brandon talking to his friends about being sober and never wanting to go back to the life of using. And it’s good to see him checking himself out in the mirror, to see that he loves himself. But I’ve lowered the bar for my expectations of him. I’m just happy that he’s alive. He works as a waiter, and sometimes I’ll go and have a drink and an appetizer just to watch him be back. When you have a child who’s an addict, you lower the bar you set a long time ago that your child will become a doctor or the president of the United States. So when you’ve lowered your expectations down to, “I just want him to be alive for tomorrow,” that’s a pretty drastic movement. All of those old dreams are gone, you just want to know your child will put one foot in front of the other.
Brandon still has a long way to go to rebuild his life, but he grows up more every day. Because of his addiction, we never really knew who he was. I felt like I was meeting him for the first time when he came out of rehab. He’d been addicted for so long, we thought that’s who he was, and it isn’t.
W: What were some of the effects of Brandon’s addiction on his sibling Bryce? You describe a very touching moment near the end of the book in which the two brothers seem to reconcile all the hurt Brandon’s addiction has caused. That must have felt very redemptive.
BD: It was incredible to watch as a parent. One of the hardest things about Brandon’s addiction was that I felt like history was repeating itself, and I had gone into fatherhood thinking no way would this happen on my watch. I was going to be the father I never had to my boys. Brandon’s addiction forced Bryce to not let him in as much, he built a wall. Their relationship was toast, and rightfully so, because Bryce didn’t want to be hurt again. So when they held each other it was amazing. At the same time, when Brandon later relapsed, the things that spewed out of Bryce’s mouth were absolute hatred. Now, Brandon’s been clean again for a year, and their relationship is good. You can see that relationship rebuilding, and you can only pray that Brandon won’t give Bryce another reason to step back.
W: What are your thoughts on the role of the pharmaceutical industry and the rising rates of prescription drug addiction?
BD: The makers of OxyContin have to know that well over 50 percent of their drug is hitting the streets. The pill is selling great, and they want to act like everything’s fine. Purdue’s pamphlet on OxyContin is four pages long and actually says that the proper way to dispose of unused Oxy is to flush it down the toilet. If they write it down that way, they don’t have to come up with a plan to recapture the unused drugs. They’ve literally flushed their problem down the toilet. It’s really comical that they would have the guts to do this. They’ll just change the formula, introduce a drug with a different name, and continue making money.
W: What advice do you have for parents whose children are currently struggling with OxyContin addiction?
BD: From the time our kids are born and we slap them on the butt and cut the umbilical cord, we think what we’re doing is parenting. So it’s very difficult to convince parents that they are enabling their children when they’re paying the rent or buying the groceries for their addicted children. They see it as helping. Enabling is a big part of this, and I can throw no stones. What I was doing in that parking lot [during the drug bust] was enabling my son to do what he wanted to do, because the next morning, I found out he had used Oxy in my absence. I just couldn’t believe it, but that’s how ignorant I was.
Once you can admit that addiction is an illness, then you need to get professional help for your child. If your child had a baseball-sized tumor on his neck, would you lock him in the bedroom to fix it? That’s exactly what I tried to do, and it was stupid to try to fix it on my own. You are ill-prepared for Oxy addiction, because it’s heroin.
With rehab, it can be a turnoff for parents because when you call, it kind of feels like you’re buying a used car. “Give us 20 grand, and we’ll pick up your kid tomorrow.” And no addict ever really wants to go to rehab, so you have to get someone who is bullshit proof. The hardest kid to coach is your own, and the same goes for drugs. They know all your buttons, they know how to work you, how to pit mom against dad, they know every angle. So you have to get them in an environment with bullshi proof people. Give your addict to these professionals and allow them to do what they do.
But don’t stop reaching for your child. Your child has the hard shell of a drug addict around him, and that shell will bite you and deceive you. All you can do is hope that they will start loving themselves, start checking themselves out in the mirror.
DeHaven is currently working on a follow-up book to “Defining Moments.” Visit his website here.
Matt Ganem is no stranger to opiate addiction. By the time he was 21, an addiction to heroin that started with OxyContin had all but destroyed his life. Miraculously, Ganem made it out alive, and at 26, he has now been clean for more than five years. Ganem has taken a creative approach to the horrors of opiate addiction through his hard-hitting poetry and writing, which can be viewed on YouTube and Facebook. His first book of poetry, “Carried By Wings Of Protection,” is due out this fall. Watchdog asked Ganem to fill in fans about his personal story, and share how Oxy and heroin changed his life forever.
Watchdog: How did opiate addiction happen to you?
Matt Ganem: I started taking Percocets in high school after I hurt my arm playing baseball. One day someone offered me something stronger. It was an OxyContin pill. He split it with me and we crushed it up and snorted it, and it was an unbelievable feeling to say the least. The ball started rolling right there.
W: How common was OxyContin abuse?
MG: OxyContin was everywhere; everyone I knew did it. When all your friends are doing it, you feel like it’s socially acceptable. Nobody knew that splitting an 80-mg OxyContin would lead you to shooting up dope, or dying, or committing suicide.
W: How quickly did your Oxy addiction progress?
MG: My best friend committed suicide and I took him down from where he was hanging from the shower pole. When you see something like that, it haunts you. He was already cold when I took him down. From that point on, I didn’t want to live anymore. I wanted to kill myself, but I didn’t have the balls to do it. So I started doing an insane amount of OxyContin. Soon I was holding up corner stores to get ten 80s a day. I had to do it, or I’d be curled up in a ball. Once you can’t afford the Oxys, it’s $40 for a bag of heroin for the same high, versus $250 for the pills. At first, people would offer me dope, and I thought I was too good for it. But I progressively went from snorting Oxys to smoking and shooting them, and then from sniffing dope to shooting it, smoking crack, mixing dope and crack. I was asking for death, but it never came for me.
W: What were the Oxy withdrawals like? Is it worse than heroin?
MG: Coming down off Oxy is way worse than heroin. It’s the worst feeling in the entire world. Your bones ache, you can’t hold your bowels, your skin is cold, your mind races, you’re anxious, you want to die. You can’t physically move for 5-7 days, you’re curled up like a little baby sucking its thumb. I’d rather break my arm than go through Oxy withdrawals. With dope, it’s also physically painful but only for 1-3 days, then it’s more mental. Oxy seeps into your bones.
W: When did everything change for you?
MG: I had lost my relationship with my family, I had no friends, I was just getting high by myself. One day I was sitting in my friend’s mother’s house, I was dope sick, and she was shooting up in front of me and she told me I had a problem. I looked at her, she had just finished a five-year prison sentence, and I couldn’t believe she said that to me. I went over to the mirror and I saw a straight skeleton. Death was in my eyes. I could not tell you who it was in the reflection. I got myself to a detox, and after that I went to a halfway house and sat there for 8 hours to prove to the director how bad I wanted to get clean. I knew if it didn’t work, I’d end up in jail or dead. It was predetermined that I was going to get high. Finally, the director brought over a pillow and a blanket.
When you’re an addict, there’s nothing that will stop you. It’s a sad thing to say, but it’s reality. It’s a nice thought to have that your child or your family will stop you, but plenty of people will leave their children and families to get high. The only thing that can stop an addict from getting high is the addict themselves.
W: Why do you think you made it out of opiate addiction, while so many others do not?
MG: If I could tell you, I would tell everyone I know. I don’t know what worked for me. It’s something that just clicks. During my drug addiction I was stabbed, I was almost murdered for selling drugs, I shared needles. I’m one of the luckiest people alive, for all my drug use, I’m healthy. I was at an open mic a few weeks ago and a 30-year-old guy came up to me, he was a recovering Oxy addict who stopped when he was 23. He has full-blown AIDS. It’s stuff like that that makes you think about what a different situation you could be in. You play Russian roulette with your life when you’re an addict because you want to get high above all else. You’re in a relationship with dope. Now I’m 26, and the worst thing I can say is that my sports skills have deteriorated. I can say that today’s the day I can choose whether I get high. I’m very lucky.
W: In “Don’t Bring Me Back To That”, you recreate the temptations you faced when you first got clean and how hard it is to escape the grip of addiction. Do you still struggle with the temptation to get high?
MG: If I see a needle getting injected into somebody, I flash back to the process of getting high, but I don’t feel the actual urge to get high anymore. In the beginning, we had weekends off in the halfway house, and I’d be thinking the whole time about what my friends were doing, whether they were getting high. I learned that even if a bad thought comes over my head, I can write it out. I was honest and spoke out loud to friends, “I want to get high right now.” But then I would start writing and see where it led. That’s the greatest thing about writing, there’s no boundaries, you have the freedom to release whatever emotion you have.
W: Do you feel that your writing has a redemption quality for you?
MG: If you go back 7 years, I was a horrible person. I’ve done my share of wrong. I held up stores. You don’t realize the effect of a masked bandit on someone who’s just there getting orange juice for her husband, she’s scarred for life. I affected completely innocent people. And not that I’ll ever make that up, but to have people come up to me and say they identify with my stuff, it’s the most unbelievable feeling. It’s a long way from the places I’ve been to have both friends and strangers support me.
W: What would you say to the kid who’s about to pick up an Oxy at a party?
MG: I would try to show him my life story. You’re going to end up dead, whether by Oxy or by heroin.
Watch Matt’s latest video, “Fading Faces,” about lives lost due to drug addiction.
Dedication by Matt Ganem: Rest in peace Danny Nunes, James Slattery, Stephen Pacheco and Michael Sparks. I’ll see you guys on the other side of eternity.