The Lived Experience: Stories of Hope from the Opioid Epidemic

by Amy Phariss

As we continue our exploration into the opioid crisis, one of the most surprising aspects of the epidemic is the silence surrounding it. Though we’ve all seen it on the news, read the headlines and heard it mentioned in social circles, we often fail to actually talk about the effects of addiction in our families, in our communities and in our own circles of friends. We know a fellow churchgoer’s son struggles with addiction. We realize Aunt Linda is in treatment. We even know our own sibling is using again, but somehow we don’t talk about it at Thanksgiving or during our weekly calls with our parents, and it’s the bowling ball under the rug we all step over and pretend doesn’t exist. How does this happen? Why does this happen? What can we do to stop the silence and begin the conversations so desperately needed in order to share our stories so that we might acknowledge what is happening, reach out to each other and ultimately understand how opioid use starts, how addiction takes hold and what we can do to support each other in recovery? 

This month we hear the stories of three people whose lives have been directly affected by opioid addiction. We are grateful and humbled by their willingness to share. 

These articles have been edited for length. 

Nancy – 75

Nancy is a pharmacist. It’s ironic, though perhaps unsurprising, that she became addicted to prescription pain medication. Her first foray into misusing pills began in college. “We found out that diet pills could make you fly. You could stay up all night on diet pills.” When her husband became a pharmacist, he brought some of the pills home. Nancy remembers, “I realized I could do anything. I can clean the house. I can dig ditches. I can do anything.” When her husband returned that evening and found the pill bottle empty, he said, “What have you done?”

That kept Nancy away from prescription pills for the next ten years, and she never had what she calls a ‘party stage.’ Married at 18 and with three kids to tend, Nancy didn’t use pills to party but to get her through the day. She used Valium or whatever she could find to get her through a day, keep her energy up, calm her down, whatever she needed to take care of herself and her kids. Then, at the age of 42, she had back surgery. Following that, she began having other back pain, and her doctor prescribed pain medication. Because Nancy was a pharmacist, she was given the prescription easily, with access to refills, and her doctor told her, “Stay ahead of the pain.” So she did. 

“Whooo…I knew what that meant. Before I went to the grocery store, which I know causes back pain, I take some codeine.” 

It wasn’t long before Nancy was taking medication regularly to get through the day. The drug use continued for four or five years, until she and her second husband moved to North Carolina from West Virginia.

“I lost everything. My social network. My friends. My job. My co-workers. My beautiful mountains. We came here and suddenly I had to be superwoman. I had to start working again, had to get the house ready, and I just got so isolated. I had a suicide kit I’d kept for years. I always believed that if I was no longer useful, that if I could no longer work and be productive, I felt suicide would be a better option. Well, I was doing some remedial work they were making me do when I got a job down here in North Carolina. I hated it. One night I grabbed my kit and told my husband I was going to do it. I was going to kill myself. I got to work, and he had called, so my co-worker knew. I thought: I have to do it now. Everyone knows.

“My husband called the police. I knew they’d be looking for my car. I went and hid out behind a church and waited until they wouldn’t be looking for me anymore. Then I drove up to West Virginia, to my mountains. I realized I couldn’t do it to my husband…..I always said: 

I went in with depression and came out with addiction.” 

Amy Phariss: What happened then? When you got back? 

Nancy: Well, because I’m a pharmacist, they said I had to do recovery and treatment and get a sponsor and do all these things. I had to pee in cups. I went one day to pee in a cup, and the woman said, “You don’t look like one of those.” I thought: come to a meeting with me one day. A lot of us don’t look like one of those.” 

AP: Was it hard to go back when you did return to work after your treatment? 

N: Nope. I was three years clean before I ever went back into a pharmacy again. I went back to work in public health rather than a retail pharmacy. It was a safe place. The stress wasn’t there. A retail pharmacy is so stressful. 

I’ve never quit going to meetings. I’ve never not done what I’m supposed to do. I’m a meetings girl. 

The 12 steps is actually a way of processing information – things that used to stress me out (which was everything), they don’t anymore. One thing I had to learn was that anytime I was frustrated or something…that it was about me. It was how I was perceiving it. It was how I was allowing it to affect me. It’s not that things are not stressful now. They are. But I go through it now with no problem. I’ve been taught. 

AP: If you could sum that up in one sentence what you’ve learned, what would it be?

N: (pauses, laughs) I’m not as important as I think I am. 

AP: What would you say to someone who is in your shoes when you were at your worst? 

N: Just try it, AA. If you don’t like it, you can walk out. If you don’t like what you see or hear, you can leave. But those who stay, stay sober. It’s hard to watch people not be able to get there. 

We call it the gift of desperation. You’ve got to be desperate enough. 

I wouldn’t change one thing about my life. I take every pain. I take every regret. It took all of that to get me where I am today. 

AP: Where are you today? 

N: When I got here, sober, I knew I could never work in a pharmacy again. I thought I’d lose my house and never travel and lose everything. In two weeks, I’m going to Norway on a working ship and meeting my kids. I took my grand daughter to Paris. I’m doing all the things I wanted to do with my life. My grandkids know me. They know me. My grandkids, all of them were born after I was in the Program, so they never saw me screwed up. But that’s the blessing. I get to be with them. They will know me. 

AP: What is the biggest misconception people have about drug users? 

N: That it’s a weakness in them; that it’s for weak people. That they have no willpower. 

Brittney, 30

Brittney’s story, which she told me over coffee as sunlight filtered through the windows on a bright summer morning, is what you might think of as a classic story of drug use, addiction and its aftermath. It’s also about recovery and redemption. Starting with marijuana in high school, Brittney eventually “tried everything” and ended up addicted to Opana (oxymorphone), a highly-addictive opioid pain killer. 

Amy Phariss: How were you introduced to Opana?

Brittney: A guy I was seeing at the time. That’s how he did it. It’s like shooting morphine. 

AP: Did you hesitate? 

B: Yeah. But I did it anyway. That’s right when my son’s dad left me. 

I just didn’t want to feel anything. At that point, I didn’t really care if I died or not. 

AP: What about your son?

B: I called my parents to come get him. I couldn’t even look at him. He looked just like his daddy. 

AP: Did your parents know you were using drugs?

B: Yeah. I got arrested in 2008. They busted a coke house I’d just left. They raided it and stopped me. I had one Percocet on me, so I got charged with possession of a controlled substance. It was a misdemeanor. I did probation and community service. 

AP: Did that scare you?

B: Not really. It didn’t change anything. I still kept getting high. 

AP: Your parents were taking care of your son then. What were you doing?

B: Working at my parents’ restaurant. Getting high. Then I started stealing from them. They had to close the restaurant doors. They sold their house and bought an older house and tried to fix it up. They had money in the bank to do that. I found an old checkbook for that account and drained it, every penny of it. I stole a bunch of my Daddy’s guns that his dad left him and traded them. I stole my sister’s income tax check and cashed it. 

They could have gotten their money back, all of it, through their bank. All they had to do was take charges out on me, but they didn’t. 

AP: How did your parents react?

B: They screamed at me, begged me, kicked me out. I slept in the woods. They’d take me back. I’d go to jail and come back and get high within a couple of days. 

AP: What finally changed? 

B: In March of 2017, the guy I was seeing….he told me he had a baby on the way with someone else, which turned out to be a lie. He just wanted to end things and thought that was the way to do it. When he did that, I called the dope man, and that’s who came and got me. My son got ready to go to school, and he leaned over and kissed my cheek and said, “Don’t go anywhere today, Mommy.” 

I woke up days later in a bathroom, covered in bruises and marks. I was so messed up. I don’t remember a whole lot of it. My mom had called my probation officer. All I wanted was my mom to come and brush my hair. I didn’t realize I’d been gone for days. She came and brushed my hair, and my probation officer came and drug tested me. My probation officer put a $50,000 bond on me so that nobody could get me out. I sat in jail until my court date. The judge asked me if I wanted 90 days in jail or a 2-year rehab. I told her, I said, “Jail, we’ve been down that route, so I think I need treatment.” She let me out of jail that day on house arrest until a bed opened up in rehab. 

AP: You were in rehab before this. What made it work this time?

B: I got kicked out, actually. Not for drugs but for not following some of the rules. But I made my mind up while I was in rehab and when I got kicked out that I wasn’t going back to that life, to the drugs. I wouldn’t leave the house unless I was with a family member. I got a job. I found an outpatient program from 10-12. This program, if you had Medicaid, they’d come pick you up and take you home. They’d pick me up in the mornings, and they’d drop me off at work. That’s all I did. I went to my classes and went to work. 

I paid off my probation. I got my license back. I got a car. When I went to court, I had all my ducks in a row. I passed every drug test. So the court terminated my probation. Now I have my own home. I take care of my son and daughter fully. 

AP: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about drug users?

B: That they want to ruin their life. 

Nobody uses the first time wanting to destroy their life and to become a hopeless drug addict. 

AP: What have you learned or gleaned through
this process?

B: I was a very codependent person. All my life I had to have a boyfriend, but by overcoming drug addiction, I’ve learned just how strong I can be. I’ve always believed in God, but I was not a real believer. But knowing from where I was to now, it has definitely strengthened my faith, and I know there is a God. I would not be here if there wasn’t. 

AP: What is the hardest part of sobriety?

B: Dealing with the emotions and feelings you don’t want to feel, not being able to numb the pain. 

AP: How do you do that? 

B: It’s hard. I have a support network. Family. My cousins. My sister-in-law. Travis (my husband). But a lot of times, I’ll grab my babies. And that will reel me in real quick. I’ll grab them and look at what I can lose and ask: is it really worth it? A lot of times I just cry. And I share. I don’t hold back if I’m feeling the urge. I let someone know that I’m feeling the urge, and they talk me down. That’s the one thing, you relapse in your mind way before you actually relapse. It’s a struggle every day. It’s a struggle. 

AP: If you could describe your life in three words before sobriety, what would they be?

B: Living pure hell.

AP: Now?

B: The opposite. 

Now I’m free. I’m happy. I love life. My eyes are clear. My mind’s clear.
I never thought I’d be where I am now. 

I was driving to pick my son up yesterday, and it hit me: I’m in my own vehicle going to pick up my son, with a license, no worries; it’s just the most natural thing. I’m not trying to pick up dope and get my mom’s car home before she notices. 

In recovery, you have to feel the pain before you feel the happiness. 

Clint – 28

Clint, like so many who struggle with addiction, has addiction in his family. Both of his parents struggled with addiction, and he grew up with the uncertainty of where his next meal or bed might be, living out of cars, hotels and homeless shelters. When a ‘perfect storm’ of life events hit, and without a skillset, discipline or coping skills, Clint himself started on his own path of drug use, addiction and ultimately recovery. Clint answers hard questions about this time in his life and where he’s at now, questions a mother, father, sibling or friend might want to ask but might be afraid to voice.

Amy Phariss: When you were using drugs, did you think about the long term? 

Clint: Never. Never. Well, the only thing I would think about was that some day…one day…I would turn my life around. 

AP: Did anyone enable you?

C: Oh, everyone. Everyone wants to believe you’re trying. I think it’s a natural tendency of addiction to manipulate and exploit that. It’s not because I don’t care about you…it just means that my addiction is more important. 

I always judged myself on my intentions. My intentions to do better. But I could never pull it off when the time came. 

AP: What was your catalyst for change? 

C: Everyone found out I was a screw up. People found out that I wasn’t some fit guy who loves to travel. Transparency is a key component to sobriety. We all wear masks and compartmentalize our lives. My biggest fear when I first got sober was everyone knowing how screwed up I was. For drug addicts, we put on a huge facade that everything is okay, but we’re dying inside.

AP: How do you go from social drinking to harder drugs? To addiction? 

C: I think you get there by little compromises along the way. You become willing to part ways with your moral codes. Then the consequences come faster than you can lower your standards. 

AP: What would you say to a parent/grandparent whose child is struggling with addiction?

C: That there is help out there, but I don’t think there is anything you can offer but love and support. You can’t fix the problem. 

For me, I became really desperate to get help. I was an atheist, but I became desperate enough to pray. I was desperate enough to try. And when I did, this huge catalyst of events that ended up saving me happened. So, I don’t know how everyone can get the help they need…but for me, prayer was key. 

AP: Is there anything anyone could have done to help you? 

C: Let me suffer the consequences of my poor decisions. Once I went for help, once I got treatment, my family supported me emotionally. But they didn’t give me money.

AP: What is the biggest misconception about addiction?

C: It’s that I’m like you….just making poor choices. There is something different about me, mentally and physically within the brain. It’s not an accident that addiction runs throughout my dad’s side of the family. If I could have stopped, I would have a long time ago. You think I don’t want to stop hurting everyone in
my life? 

AP: What do you regret the most?

C: How selfishly I behaved with no clue that I was being self-centered or neglectful. It’s not even the consequences about losing jobs, cars, money or girlfriends. It’s not that. It’s just how could I have hurt people? And it wasn’t out of spite. I just cared about myself and my addictions more. 

AP: What are you most proud of? 

C: I don’t feel proud of much. I guess when I first got sober, getting a year seemed easy or small, but having lived sober now for 1.5 years, it’s hard. And I did it. I’m also proud of the relationships I put effort into mending. If I truly believe that life is about my relationships with other people, I want to do everything I can to square that away. I’m here solely because of people who helped me.  

AP: What are three adjectives to describe your life during addiction?

C: Tragic, comical and pitiful

AP: And now?

C: Purposeful, difficult and rewarding

During my addiction, I couldn’t imagine I would be going to college or thinking about planning my life about trying to be an advocate for recovery or helping people. I didn’t see that I could give back to the world instead of taking from it.