Many prescription drugs contain distillations of plants. Heart medications might contain bits of tiny purple flowers, while drugs made to quell pain might hold the sticky, tacky residue that was once found inside a seedpod. Unlike natural plants that might vary in potency and that might only contain a little bit of an active ingredient, a prescription drug tends to be intensely powerful, capable of dramatic alterations in the way the body functions. As a result, these therapies are made to hit the market only when a doctor thinks that the risk of using a powerful medicine is less than the risk of leaving the issue untreated.
The dangers of prescription drugs can be hidden to the people who use them, however, as the pills, shots and tinctures can look totally benign and harmless. Sometimes, the ignorance of the power of these therapies leads to prescription drug abuse.
A Common Concern
A person who intentionally misuses a prescription drug is committing a form of abuse. The person might take the drug specifically for the sensations it can bring about, not for the disease it might cure, or the person might take the drug in a way that differs from the method outlined in a prescription. The abuser might not even have a prescription. In 2010 alone, about seven million people took prescription drugs in an abusive manner, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
This means prescription drugs are becoming common choices for people with abusive tendencies, and in time, the number of people who abuse medications might eclipse the number of people who abuse illicit drugs like marijuana or heroin.
Problems like this are hard to solve, as the sheer number of people involved can be simply exhausting. But families that work hard to spot an addiction and get care for someone in need may help. With each step they take to fight an addiction in their own families, they’re helping their communities to heal. There are many signs to look for, but spotting just one could be enough to force a conversation, and that might let the healing begin.
Any drug that emerges from a pharmacy under the order of a doctor could be a target for prescription drug abuse, but there are some specific medications that seem most appealing to drug abusers. Each of these drugs can cause specific signs of intoxication that families might quickly spot.
Common culprits include:
- Painkillers, such as codeine, hydrocodone and morphine. Intoxication signs include drowsiness, dizziness and sedation, along with clammy, sweaty skin.
- Depressants, including barbiturates, benzodiazepines and sleep medications. These drugs also cause sedation, but they can also deliver impaired coordination and memory loss.
- Stimulants, such as amphetamines. These drugs tend to make users feel euphoric and powerful, and they might even seem a little aggressive and irritable.
- Cold medications that include dextromethorphan. This drug is sometimes included in prescription cough syrups, and it can cause slurred speech, dizziness and paranoia.
Intoxicated people may work hard to hide their symptoms, but they may just seem unusual and strange, upset or euphoric, aggressive or passive. Something about the way they’re acting just isn’t right, and that little note of worry might be enough to convince some family members to speak up and speak out.
While intoxication might be easy enough to spot, it might not be a reliable indicator of a chronic drug abuse issue. People who have addictions tend to develop a physical tolerance for the substances they abuse, meaning that they can take huge amounts of drugs without really feeling the impact of those substances. They might just feel normal and alert while on drugs, not sedated and impaired, so intoxication signs might not apply to them.
As the addiction progresses, however, people may find it more and more difficult to obtain the drugs they crave. Tolerance means people must take huge doses of drugs in order to stave off signs of withdrawal, and that might mean people are taking 10 or 20 pills per day. Some people get drugs from their friends, particularly if the abuser is young or in college. According to research quoted by the National Council on Patient Information and Education, about half of students who are sophomores in college have been provided with some type of opportunity to abuse prescription medications. Sharing drugs just seems common, and it might even seem harmless.
Those with addictions may exhaust their supply of friends with open prescriptions, however, and they might be forced to shop for doctors willing to medicate them with their drug of choice. A study in the journal PLoS One suggests that doctor shoppers like this make up a very small portion of those who buy prescription drugs like opioid painkillers, but the number of drugs they buy is astonishing, adding up to about four percent of narcotics medications sold. Someone who is always looking for a new doctor or complaining of a new ailment may very well be doctor shopping, and they might be hoarding huge amounts of drugs as a result.
People who abuse prescription drugs may also have behavioral changes that are attributed to their newfound hobby. Rather than spending time with friends and socializing with family, these people might hole up in their rooms and demand increasing privacy. They might begin to skip work from time to time, or refuse to participate in hobbies they once loved. It’s a form of turning inward and ignoring the outside world, and the addiction is to blame.
People who turn away from their families to continue an addiction can do incalculable emotional harm. The family left behind can feel neglected or rejected, and they may wonder what happened to the person who was once such an active part of the household. Finances may take a hit, as the person may spend huge amounts of money on drugs while refusing to work. Lawyers may even get involved, especially if people get arrested due to their choices.
But the harm to the person who takes drugs could be even greater. These substances are potent, and they’re just not designed to be taken in massive, flooding doses. It’s not uncommon for people to develop heart problems, nervous system problems or worse, all due to the drugs they take. Some people even make disastrous choices that impact their long-term ability to live a healthy life. They might transition from prescription drugs like Vicodin to illicit drugs like heroin, raising the risk of:
- Site-specific infections from dirty needles
- Blood-borne infections from shared needles
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggests that nearly 80 percent of people who started using heroin in the recent past had previously chosen prescription painkillers for their abusive purposes. It’s a sad statistic, but it does seem to indicate that the path from prescription drugs to illicit drugs is chosen by many people.
For families of addicted people, stopping the abuse as quickly as possible is the primary goal. If the person would only stop abusing drugs, these families reason, then the health of the entire family unit might be restored. Unfortunately, it’s rarely possible for someone with a prescription drug abuse problem to quit cold turkey. In fact, it might not even be safe for them to do so.
Prescription drugs can change chemical or electrical activity in the brain, amending the way vital cells work and relate to one another. These little changes persist when the person is no longer intoxicated, and in time, the brain cells may begin to act as though intoxication is the normal and natural state for the brain. An amended brain like this simply can’t behave normally without drugs, and terrible physical and mental symptoms can take hold when no drugs are present. It’s known as withdrawal, and in some cases, it can be life-threatening.
In a formal detox program, people work with medical professionals in order to transition from intoxication to sobriety. They progress in slow, steady and measured steps with the help of medication and supervision, allowing them to achieve sobriety without enduring life-threatening complications in the process. It’s considered the first part of the healing process from a prescription drug abuse problem, and it simply must take place with the help of a doctor.
With sobriety comes a clear mind, and this is the point at which therapy can begin. Often, therapy for prescription drug abuse problems follows a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy model, in which people have the opportunity to examine the thoughts, beliefs and behaviors that tend to lead to drug abuse. The emphasis is on building skills and changing old patterns, so the person can emerge from therapy with the ability to identify risks for relapse and handle them when they appear. This therapy can take place in individual settings, but it might also be effective in group settings.
Participating in therapy can be helpful, but some people find the work hard and tedious, and they may want to return to their former lives that were filled with immediate rewards. A contingency management program may help. Here, people are provided with small rewards for each session they attend or each clean urine screening they provide. This makes the benefits of therapy immediate, and it could keep people motivated.
Adding the family might also be helpful, as group therapies that involve all members can help the entire family to work together in a cohesive manner. They might all learn a lot about addiction, but they may also learn how their communication styles and old grudges can keep the family trapped in a cycle of addiction, retribution and blame.
Medications may also play a role in the therapy phase of treatment, as some people come to prescription drug abuse due to underlying mental illnesses they’ve not addressed properly in the past. Soothing distress with pharmacology could help these people to feel at ease, so they can more fully participate in the hard work of therapy.
A comprehensive program may add all of these therapies together in a customized attack against an addiction, and the results can be impressive. For example, in JAMA, researchers examined the effectiveness of a program that involved therapy, medications and contingency management. They found that this approach seemed to encourage people to stay enrolled and participating, while leaving elements out tended to result in a lowered level of success.
At Black Bear Lodge, we believe in using a customized approach to handling prescription drug addiction, and we build our programs using a wide variety of tools, including individual psychotherapy, group skill-building activities, family therapy and more. We’d love to hear your family’s story of prescription drug addiction and tell you a little more about the therapies we can provide that might help. Please call to talk to an intake specialist.