Prescription drug addiction is the fastest growing sector of addiction in the U.S. From 1998 to 2008 there has been a fourfold increase in the number of Americans admitted to treatment for painkiller abuse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called for “urgent action” due to a sharp increase in emergency-department visits—in other words, overdoses—due to illicit prescription opiate use: oxycodone ER visits alone jumped by more than 150 percent in just five years. And according to a statement by the International Narcotics Control Board last year, 6.2 million Americans are abusing prescription drugs.
If these drug names catch your attention—if you’ve been taking these or other painkillers “not as prescribed” (chewing, snorting, or shooting them), or if you’ve been buying them on the street or from a shady internet pharmacy; if you call your pills by pet names such as “Vikes,” “Oxys,” “Percs,” or “Ds”—then you may well have a problem with addiction.
But if it’s your spouse you’re worried about, how do you tell whether he or she has a problem with drugs?
Doctors will tell you to look for the following signs:
• Repetitive filling: your spouse refills painkiller prescriptions even though the physical pain is gone
• Running out too soon: a patient becoming addicted usually uses the prescribed amount faster than directed by the doctor
• Drinking: taking the meds while drinking alcohol—or smoking pot—could also be an indicator the person has lost control of their drug-use
• Lethargy: if the person seems over-sedated, it’s a sign of taking too much. When you take a drug “as prescribed,” initial signs of sedation usually go away.
These signs are all from a doctor’s perspective, though. How are you supposed to know their physical pain is gone, or they’re refilling their scripts too soon?—If you ask, dollars to donuts they’ll just lie about it, or skirt the question.
If I were asked to add a few clues from my own experience, I’d tell you to look for these:
• Does she talk too fast? The classic image of the addict is an unkempt person nodding off in a dirty corner. But prescription opiate drugs in particular, in high doses—and in their purity—can speed up the speech and make a normally shy person more gregarious and energetic. This is the Superwoman aspect of opiate addiction, well-known among women who use painkillers to get through boring tasks such as cooking and housework—or to get through situations where we have to be social and outgoing when we normally feel shy.
• Does she have trouble sitting still through meals? Opiates destroy the appetites—all of them, not just for food, but also for music/art, fellowship, and sex. In addition, addicts who chew painkillers to maximize the effects often feel compelled to use on an empty stomach. You wouldn’t believe the numbers of people who arrive at my blog by Googling “chewing Vicodin”—these folks may scoot away from the table to use again right before a meal. If she can’t sit still and eat, and keeps leaving the table, and picks at food once he gets back, she may be sneaking off to use.
• Has your sex life tanked since the drugs entered the scene? Painkillers in particular interfere with the libido—both the ability to feel desire and to have (or even want) orgasms. Benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax can also have this effect. Drugs also mess up the sleep-cycles. If you’re no longer getting it on, and/or if you’re sleeping in separate beds more often, it might be because of addiction.
• Does he have strange bruises? Opiates and benzos skew a person’s sense of balance, and opiates dull pain. I used to bang into furniture all the time without even knowing it—until my husband noticed the bruise later. And of course I never knew where it had come from.
• Does she have secret hiding places? Is she overly protective of her purse? Does she have spots in the house where she won’t let you go?—that may be where she hides her stuff.
It’s worth noting that some prescription drug addicts simply don’t understand they’re addicts. Especially those who are seeking relief from physical pain or anxiety—they may just think of themselves as treating a health concern and trying to “function” better. For years I sought treatment for two neurological conditions, constantly increasing my dose in search of relief, and trying to “function” as a wife and working mother. I didn’t understand that my desire to “function” at such a high level was itself a compulsion that was part of my addiction.
Guinevere covers news, reviews, and stories about addiction and recovery at her top-rated addiction blog, Guinevere Gets Sober. She is a 46-year-old wife and mother who detoxed from years of using a high level of prescription painkillers in November 2008, and she has been sober since then. A professional writer, she has published two books of nonfiction, as well as essays and journalism, and she has written about health issues for 15 years.