When you’re sick or have suffered from a serious injury, the first few days after a visit to the doctor you rely heavily on the prescribed drug to ease the pain and get you through the day. However, you may reach a point where you feel compelled to continue taking the prescription long after you need it. The pain is gone, but the pill still has a hold on you that’s hard to shake.
Candace Plattor, a registered clinical counselor and addictions therapist, told The Cheat Sheet that she had become hooked on several prescription drugs many years ago. She said she trusted her doctors so she didn’t think to question the prescriptions she was getting or the effects they might have on her.
Plattor is the author of the book Loving an Addict, Loving Yourself: The Top 10 Survival Tips for Loving Someone with an Addiction, as well as a contributor for Pro Corner on Recovery.org. In regards to her own struggles with addiction, Plattor states:
I became addicted to prescription drugs (valium, codeine, and opioids) that were given to me by my doctors week after week, month after month, for several years. Even though that occurred a long time ago, the practice of prescribing potentially addictive medications is still happening and relatively common. Doctors are often not given much education about addiction, which, in my opinion, is a travesty considering how rampant addiction is in our society today.
An addiction to prescription drugs can happen to anyone and is more common than you may think. Prescription drugs are the third most commonly abused drug category, coming after alcohol and marijuana. Roughly one in 20 people in the United States have admitted to abusing prescription painkillers in the last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If you think you or a loved one might have a problem with prescription drugs, there are some red flags you should watch out for. The Cheat Sheet spoke with some of the country’s top addiction experts to learn more about prescription drug abuse. Here is what they had to say about some of the signs of a prescription drug addiction.
There is sudden behavior change
One of the first signs of a prescription drug addiction is an abrupt change in behavior. If you suspect the abuse of prescription medication, take note of unusual behavior you hadn’t observed before.
Psychologist Matthew Polacheck, director of outpatient services at the Betty Ford Center in West Los Angeles, said behavioral changes may also be accompanied by cognitive and physical changes. “The first thing we look for is a change in behavior of any kind. [Someone] who never naps comes home and goes to sleep. [Someone] who is passive suddenly becomes more euphoric. More specific behavior includes nodding off, drowsiness, slurred speech, confused thinking, and pupils can also be constricted,” Polacheck told The Cheat Sheet.
The drug becomes part of a daily routine
If you or someone you know can’t seem to go a day without a prescription drug that was meant for short-term use, this is another red flag. Over time, short-term medication should be slowly tapered down until there is no longer a need for it.
Audrey Hope, an addictions specialist at Seasons in Malibu World Class Addiction Treatment, said if there is difficulty in stopping a drug, this should be a cause for concern. “The main sign that you are a prescription drug addict is that you use the drugs every day. You can’t function without them. You rely on them. You need them. You lie to yourself that it is for the ‘pain’ and because ‘the doctor prescribed it.’ You say it is OK to use them,” said Hope.
More of the drug is used than prescribed
Another sign of trouble is using too much of the prescription and running out of the drug much earlier than expected considering the prescribed amount. Someone desperate for a refill may resort to manipulative behavior to obtain the drug, said Plattor. “Other signs of prescription addiction can include manipulative behaviors such as lying, stealing, using more of the drug than is prescribed, poor decision-making, ‘losing’ prescriptions often, and obtaining a number of prescriptions for the same drug(s) from more than one doctor,” Plattor said.
Misconceptions about prescription drug addiction
There are many misunderstandings when it comes to an addiction to prescription drugs. Here are some of the most common ones.
Myth: Prescription drug addiction is not harmful
While you may not think this addiction is as serious as an addiction to street drugs such as heroin or cocaine, it can cause just as much (in some cases, even more) harm. “Most prescription drug abusers alter the delivery method of the drug by snorting, chewing, or injecting it in order to get a faster, more intense effect. Many doctors are not trained in recognizing signs of drug abuse such as this in their patients and may not realize the progression of their addiction,” said Dr. Romas Buivydas, licensed mental health counselor and vice president of clinical development at Spectrum Health Systems.
Myth: You need a prescription to become a prescription drug addict
Anyone can become a prescription drug addict — even without a prescription. One unsettling fact about this addiction is the ease of access. You are not only susceptible to becoming dependent on your prescription, but so is your child, for example. He or she could simply reach into your medicine cabinet and take some of your pills. Plattor said addictive prescriptions can also be purchased on the street. “A misconception is that addicts get prescription pills primarily from their doctors. In truth, they can be bought on the street, pilfered from medicine cabinets, and shared with friends, which can all be very dangerous practices,” warned Plattor.
Myth: Pain pills are the only addictive prescription drugs
While pain medications are commonly abused, there are many others that can become addictive. “In addiction treatment, what we see most is opioid abuse. We also see abuse of ADHD medications, such as Adderall or Ritalin. Medications like benzodiazepines can also be substances of abuse. Drugs given for anxiety or depression, especially when given without concurrent psychotherapy, can lead to substance abuse problems,” said Dr. Constance Scharff, the research director of addiction treatment center Cliffside Malibu and author of Ending Addiction for Good.
Myth: I trust my doctor so I don’t need to ask questions
Ask questions about your prescription, and don’t just blindly trust your doctor. It’s important to check with your doctor and make sure you understand side effects as well as how much medicine you should take and when to stop. You should also let your physician know if you’re having a hard time stopping your medicine.
A hidden addiction
One of the reasons prescription drugs tend to be abused is that the addiction can be easily explained away. It’s hard to argue with someone who continues to take a pain pill for longer than recommended. More often than not, it can be difficult to determine whether that person really is still in pain or not.
Hope said the drug abuse also continues because the abuser can easily hide the addiction. It’s also hard to stop because the abuser feels good. “The problem is they feel so good, so the addiction develops and is disguised by the addict. He or she might say, ‘Oh, I just take these for pain.’ This is a great excuse to hide the truth,” said Hope.
Where to get help
If you’re looking for assistance for yourself or a loved one, know there is quality help out there. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Francyne Foxman recommends reaching out to a support group such as Narcotics Anonymous. You can also consider seeking the services of an inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation program. You can start your search online on websites such as Recovery.org and Rehabs.com, which have a state-by-state listing of rehabilitation centers. “Prescription drug abuse is a serious matter and ought to be treated accordingly. Depending on the severity, medical intervention may be necessary with detox, hopefully leading to abstinence,” said Foxman.
When it comes to recovery, be prepared for a long road ahead. A prescription drug addiction can’t be cured overnight, said Polacheck. In regards to receiving treatment, Polacheck states:
The bad news about addiction is that it is a chronic disease. The good news is we have excellent treatment. Recovery is a lifestyle and can be a very fulfilling one. There are treatment centers on every corner but it is important to do your research and ensure you’re going to a program that has a good reputation. What also is important is to understand this isn’t a 30-day-and-you’re-cured disease. This is a refocus on your life and finding spirituality and purpose for living.
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[Editor’s Note: This story was originally published November 2016]