Why do people become addicted to opioids?

It all started innocently enough. Jill was a nurse, married with a daughter. She hadn’t even had so much as a parking ticket.

And so began Jill’s testimony to the Northern Sierra Opioid Safety Coalition meeting March 17 describing how she became addicted to opioids and the consequences.

In 2014, Jill was driving her car and was rear-ended by a school bus. Her back was badly injured.

The subsequent back surgery had complications, including a serious infection. Later Jill’s ulcer exploded.

The pain was excruciating.

Jill was given a large prescription for Percocet, a semi-synthetic opioid pain reliever used for acute pain, along with other painkillers. Jill said, “I hadn’t asked for opioids, I was prescribed it.”

At first, the opioids helped ease the pain. However, as with all addicting substances, she needed more and more of her painkillers just to get the same degree of relief. Eventually, she needed more just to feel OK.

Jill had unknowingly slipped into addiction. She became frightened of running out of Percocet and going through the pain of withdrawal, in addition to the pain she still felt in her back.

She lost her job as a nurse with the county and so Jill began working as a home care nurse. One day she took some of the Percocet from an elderly client’s supply. However, there was a security camera present that Jill didn’t know about.

Jill cried when she described how she was taken into custody in her own home in front of her husband and her 16-year-old daughter. A scanner broadcast went out to agencies all over the county describing her arrest.

By the time she was arrested, Jill had become a different person than she had been before all this happened. All she could think about was getting more pain relievers.

Since she had been a nurse, she knew about overdosing. Jill said, “I had trouble breathing and other symptoms. I’m really surprised I didn’t overdose.”

And Jill’s personality had changed. “I was completely out of control. I knew what pharmacy to go to, to get more opioids. I don’t even remember all the things I did or said.”

However, her husband had recorded some of her conversations. Jill was in tears again, “I called my daughter the “B” word.” Jill had brought her daughter in to her marriage, “She was my everything.”

Since Jill had no prior record, she was given house arrest. However, when her own mother died, she wasn’t able to go to the funeral.

“I was so upset with myself and what I had done, that I poured all my medications down the toilet.” Which wasn’t a good idea, because she would need them to taper off her use of opioids.

A happy ending

This story has a happy ending. In October 2016, Jill became the first person in northeastern California to be administered buprenorphine, a semi-synthetic opioid medication used to wean addicts off of other opioids.

Jill said she started to feel better immediately. She testified that without buprenorphine and the people from the coalition who were there for her, “I wouldn’t be here today. I would be dead.” Jill added, “Buprenorphine helped me much more than Percocet ever did.”

She still has her husband and daughter, who she almost lost. “My life is back where I want it to be. It’s not perfect, but it’s good.”

Jill still worries that when her daughter looks at her she might be waiting to see if the old, sick mother is coming back. “My daughter has been in counseling. We talk every day about it and we’re working on it.”

Because of the hardware in her back, Jill still feels pain when she lies down. She said, “I crave sugar and I’ve gained weight, but I’ll take that. I have my husband and my daughter.”

Jill is not her real name. Jill is a courageous woman who has worked hard to get her life back.

Why do people get hooked on opioids?

Aly Davis, drug and alcohol therapist, was the second person to address the coalition. Davis was the person who worked closely with Jill to help her get off opioids.

The first question Davis asked the audience was simple, “Why do people get on opioids in the first place?”

She gave two reasons: to reduce pain or because it feels good. Some people have dental or medical surgery or have chronic pain and get prescribed opioids.

Others take opioids for fun. Davis reported that some people on opioids describe the feeling as. “I felt like I had come home. Like I was OK for the first time in my life.”

For a certain percentage of people, once they get on opioids they get hooked. Perhaps it is genetics, perhaps it is because there is something painful in their life that they haven’t dealt with or perhaps because they are socially isolated.

Whatever the cause, those individuals get captured by opioids and the drugs slowly destroy their lives. There is no way to predict who will succumb to this disease.

Physician Dr. Ross Morgan of Quincy shared his experience with the group: “Opioids are bad for some people,” adding, “these are not recreational drugs.”

The brain wants to keep an individuals mood at some set point. As a person takes an addicting substance to make them feel better, the body pulls back on the amount of chemicals, such as dopamine,  that it puts into the brain that makes a person feel good.

Over time, the addict has to increase the amount of chemicals he or she takes just to feel how they felt before they started taking the substance. Life becomes a rollercoaster of brief highs followed by long periods of hurt and looking for relief.

With painkillers, the addict has to take more and more painkillers with less and less effect. Ironically, for chronic opioid users, the pain is usually worse after they have habituated to opioids than it was to begin with.

A separate article will describe the severe opioid crisis in Plumas and surrounding counties and what has been done to improve the situation for chronic opioid users, their families and the counties as a whole.

Aly Davis and her fiancé, Ben Kinne, grew up in Quincy. Kinne owns Kinnie Design Studio in Quincy.

Davis was an opioid counselor in Sacramento, where she had 300 clients. She recently moved her marriage, family, and drug and alcohol therapy practice to Quincy.

What are opioids?

Opioids are substances that act on opioid receptors in the brain to relieve pain. Opioids also stimulate dopamine, the main pleasure hormone.

Opioids include “opiates,” an older term that refers to drugs derived from opium poppies. This includes morphine and its derivative, heroin. Other opioids are semi-synthetic or synthetic drugs.

Illegal opioids are sometimes referred to as narcotics.

Buprenorphine is a semi-synthetic opioid that delivers less euphoria, less physical addiction and relatively mild withdrawal symptoms. It is used to wean people off of other opioids.

See related story:  Coalition has worked miracles stopping opioid epidemic