“It was May. I was leaving a party. I opened this text: “Hey, just wanted to make sure you heard, [he] relapsed this morning, and overdosed. They’re probably going to take him off life support tonight. I’ll text you when I hear more.”
There are some things you don’t expect in a sleepy small town – a “nice boy” you grew up with overdosing is one of them.
In what’s becoming the stereotypical suburban addiction story, it gradually progressed from experimenting with prescription drugs in his late teens and early 20’s to a full-blown opiate addiction. In the years that followed, he cycled through rehab and relapse, the last of which, at 24, was fatal.
As the New York Times pointed out in a recent article, now that drug addiction has become a “suburban problem,” people are paying attention. Police departments and town governments are starting to rethink how they deal with drug use, beginning to push for rehab and treatment over jail time for non-violent offenders. US lawmakers are beginning to view drug use as a disease, rather than a moral failing or weakness. Some states, including New Jersey, are starting to consider medication-assisted therapies as valid, even vital, to helping people reach recovery.
Currently, the treatment situation in the U.S. is pretty grim. Evidence-based medical treatment is not the standard across rehabilitation centers. Those struggling with addiction not only don’t always receive the medical care they need at these centers, but also, in some states, taking prescription drugs, like craving inhibitors, can be a barrier to release from court-mandated rehab. Compounding the situation, many drug users find themselves in jail for non-violent offenses repeatedly, or because of things like three strikes laws, for life.
As the public begins to view addiction as a legitimate and treatable health issue, it opens doors for advances in using medication to do things like curb cravings, reduce detox side effects, prevent relapses and treat overdoses.
CDC estimates drug overdose deaths at nearly 44,000 in 2013 – about 23,000 of those were the result of prescription opiates. While it’s entirely possible to accidentally kill yourself with a myriad of substances, opiates make it easy – they lull their users into a numbness that can lead to respiratory depression. In essence, their body relaxes too much, and they suffocate.
There is, however, a small window of time, in which, given the right tools, first responders can reverse the overdose. The FDA just approved a nasal spray version of a drug called Naloxone, which sends opiate users into immediate withdrawal, negating the effects of an overdose. It was previously only available in injected form, limiting the number of people willing or able to administer it. Concerns ranged from incorrect administration to accidental needle sticks by the responder, to legal issues surrounding administering medication. An easy-to-use, safe way to administer Naloxone means that police officers, firemen, EMTs, paramedics, even family members of people at risk for an overdose now have access to a potentially life-saving medication. Increased access will hopefully lead to not only increased use, but also a decrease in deaths.
Recovery from substance use disorder is a life-long endeavor, one that requires a patient, loving support network, continued medical care, and monumental perseverance. For some people, getting to that place simply means being given a chance.
I don’t know the answer to the “what if” for the boy I knew, but I do know that no one should ever have to get that news. In a perfect world, no one would have to contend with preventable deaths. We don’t live in a perfect world, but we can fight for one.”
Originally posted on The Hill’s Congress Blog