Adam Singer recalls being 13 years old when he took OxyContin for the first time. He just witnessed a suicide and needed something to numb the pain.
On the Fourth of July 2002, Singer and his friend walked over to a neighbor’s house across the street. Moments after letting themselves in, a horrifying sound exploded throughout the house.
The neighbor shot himself the head.
Traumatized, the young boys ran to the friend’s mother where they were given alcohol and OxyContin to ease their nerves.
This was the beginning of Singer’s downward spiral.
“All I understood was that a small pill took my pain away, and I loved that,” Singer said.
Growing up, abusing opioids was a part of Singer’s life. It was the only thing that made him feel normal.
In high school Singer took a daily dosage of OxyContin each morning before class. Regularly, he and his friends prowled down their school’s hallway looking for a classmate willing to sell. The most common deal offered to them was a 80 milligram pill for $35. Today, pills are much cheaper, Singer said.
The addictive drug was equally, if not more accessible than a case of beer, Singer said.
By senior his year, Singer was class president, but admits he does not even remember graduating because of his unstable condition.
“I wasn’t a functional member of society,” Singer said. “I was wasting away.” His body became completely depended on opioids without him even realizing it.
After his first week of college, he sold his textbooks to buy drugs. To support his addiction, Singer often stole prescriptions and money from family members, he said.
Once his parents caught him stealing, he was kicked out of their house and forced to live with his uncle in Virginia. There, his uncle just had surgery on his pancreas and was prescribed OxyContin. Without thinking, Singer stole his prescription and replaced it with Tylenol.
“I didn’t even feel bad about it,” Singer said. “I had turned into a monster.”
Once Singer ran out of ideas to support his pill habit, he turned to heroin. With heroin being much cheaper and more available, addicts frequently abuse it after becoming addicted to prescription drugs, he said.
Soon after using the drug, Singer started dealing it. During this time he overdosed four times, lived in an abandoned house, and nearly amputated his arm because his veins were critically damaged from needles.
After shooting up bad heroin in a gas station bathroom, Singer called his brother in a panic begging for help. After that phone call, he never abused another substance again.
“That was my rock bottom,” Singer said. “I thought I was going to die in that bathroom.”
Illegal opioids are far more dangerous than a doctor’s prescription, said Anthony Foto, an FBI Agent on the New Orleans Drug and Gang Squad.
Addicts know this, but do not care, as long as they get their high. A dealer’s main objectives are to create the perfect high and increase their profit. These motives lead to deadly concoctions and the possibility of a user overdosing, Foto said.
“Dealers will mix their drugs with anything from baking powder to fentanyl,” Foto said.
In an attempt to track down a notorious drug dealer and leader of the “Byrd Gang,” Timothy Jackson, Foto and his co-case agent James Ollinger, followed a buyer of Timothy’s and stopped him in Metairie. The man was coming from a heroin pick-up.
After the man was pulled over, he explained that he was a “good man” with a master’s degree, a well-paying career and a loving family. He never imagined becoming a heroin addict.
“It is truly devastating seeing a well-grounded person completely throw their life away,” Ollinger said.
The man became a victim of the opioid epidemic after a minor car wreck left him with back pain. To eliminate the pain his doctor prescribed him OxyContin, a small pill that would forever wreck his life.
Cases frequently begin this way. Patients become addicted to their prescription and turn to illegal drugs once they are no longer given the drugs from their doctor, Ollinger said.
Before the opioid epidemic, addicts who abused prescribed opioids never died from them, but once they became more accessible, people mixed them with illicit drugs, causing a dramatic increase in opioid-related deaths, Ollinger said.
The accessibility to illegally sold opioids is steadily increasing and creating a huge burden on both law enforcement and the medical field, Foto said.
Pill mills are constantly popping up. These mills are created when a medical personnel forges copies of prescriptions to obtain a massive number of opioids. With these drugs, dealers either sell the pills as they are, or mix them into heroin to create a stronger high, Foto said.
“It’s like whack-a-mole, the second we take a mill down, another one pops up,” Foto said.
Drug abuse is an infectious disease that affects all aspects of the city. Though law enforcement agencies are pulling their resources together to effectively arrest dealers, this nation-wide epidemic can not be solved until physicians and pharmacies drastically limit opioid prescriptions, Foto said.
Until recently, doctors prescribed opioids as only a last resort to cancer patients, according to the article, “How to Train Your Opioid Consumer: Branding Painkillers in the Opioid Epidemic.” Physicians during the early 1990s strongly feared the highly addictive and dangerous drugs, describing the medical field as “opiophobia,” the article stated.
Physicians quickly faced their fears.
By the mid-1990s, two ideas gained popularity: patients deserve more treatment for their pain and opioids are not as addictive as previously thought. This caused opioid use to nearly skyrocket overnight, stated the article.
In 2010, enough opioids were prescribed to keep every single adult medicated 24 hours for an entire month in that year alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This dramatic shift in pain treatment caused opioid-related overdoses and deaths to quadruple over the past decade, the document stated.
To ensure a patient’s pain is not under treated, it is mandatory for nurses to asses each patients’ pain by having them rate it on scale one to 10, with 10 being extreme pain, said Christine Ragusa, a cardiac nurse for Baton Rouge General.
The most common number patients give her is eleven. They frequently lie about their pain in an attempt to receive a prescription because they are addicted or hope to sell them to addicts, Ragusa said.
It only takes one complaint about chronic pain for a prescription to be made. As long as pain is considered “the fifth vital sign,” the demand for instant relief will remain fueling the opioid epidemic, she said.
“We think we are entitled to never feel pain,” Ragusa said.
Physicians and pharmacies now computerize prescriptions and limit patient refills in response to the opioid epidemic. By doing this, prescription drugs become less accessible and lowers the possibility of a patient selling leftover pills, Ragusa said.
The Drug Enforcement Agency also lowered the amount of opioid production in the United States by 25 percent last year, but the drugs’ popularity already made an irrevocable impact on society. Addicts are capable of finding other methods to get them high, Singer said.
“Prescription drugs are the gateway to heroin,” he said. “So it makes since that a rise in prescription drugs created a rise in heroin addiction.”
Ten years ago rarely anyone abused heroin, but now it is the most common substance addicts use, said Catrina Bonomolo, a substance abuse nurse at St. Christopher’s Addiction Wellness Center.
There Bonomolo works with addicts by helping them through a 30 day detox and residential treatment followed by a 90-day extended care program. During these 90 days addicts learn how to become adults and mange their pain without drug use, said Bonomolo.
Today’s society expects instant gratification. Anytime a person experiences any physical, or even emotional pain, a doctor offers a pill to “cure” it, and before the patient knows it, they are victim to drug abuse, said Bonomolo.
“I believe some doctors get patients addicted because they know it will keep them coming back, giving the doctors more and more money,” Bonomolo said.
Opioids provide doctors with an easy, quick solution for their patients, but they also finically benefit the doctor, she said.
The sale of prescription drugs to pharmacies and health care providers increased more than 300 percent over the past 20 years, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Opioid marketing and branding allows manufactures to normalize their harmful drugs. By “selling sickness,” pharmaceutical branding promotes the idea that being medicated is the solution necessary to help a patient feel like “them self,” the article stated.
This this exact reason is why Singer abused opioids for most of his life.
Growing up with depression and anxiety, Singer never felt like a normal member of society. Drugs to offer him a since of comfort and normalcy. Before his sobriety, being high was the only time he ever felt like himself, Singer said.
Addicts commonly abuse drugs because of a mental illness, Bonomolo said.
Their brains’ chemical imbalances increase their vulnerability to addiction and drug dependency. Though addiction is treatable, there is only a 35 percent chance they will remain sober if after at least 90 days of treatment, she said.
“This is a disease, but it’s hardly ever treated properly,” Bonomolo said.
Though media is increasing its focus on the opioid epidemic, society needs to create a conversation on how to fix this, Bonomolo said.
There is currently little access to affordable treatment, making recovery nearly impossible. This causes addicts to continue abusing drugs until they are either incarcerated or killed, she said.
“Other than death, incarceration is the worst thing for an addict,” Bonomolo said.
When Singer first attempted detox, he struggled greatly finding an affordable rehab in Louisiana.
“I was truly an uphill battle,” he said. Ever place he knew of either shut down or was too expensive.
Now sober for three and a half years, Singer works with Bonomolo at St. Christopher’s Addiction Wellness Center. There he assists addicts in regaining back their lives and practice sobriety.
“Helping others recover is the most gratifying feeling,” Singer said.