Sunday, February 18, 2018

Latham: The opioid addict next door

Feb. 13, 2018 at 11 p.m.

I met a man addicted to OxyContin once, and it led me to believe I must be acquainted with dozens of people who are addicts to opioids — people just like you and me.

This was a matter of happenstance. I was on one of those pleasant Caribbean cruises, and the ship saw fit to match us at the same dinner table. The trip wasn't pleasant for that passenger or his wife. Then again, no day was pleasant. But if you have to live in near-hell almost every day of your life, better to do it with a balcony view of a beautiful sunset.

It's a common perception that drug addicts are a furtive bunch lurking in the shadows, living on the streets, unable to think clearly or operate with the rest of society.

That paradigm certainly wasn't true with this guy. He worked for a major brokerage firm, not as a salesman but as an executive. He wasn't at the top of the mountain, but he definitely was in rarified air.

And he was addicted to OxyContin.

His condition had nothing to do with all the pressure he was under, though that must have been incredible. He found it necessary to spend several hours each day tied to his computer to answer questions from those back at work.

All those people knew of his addiction, of course. In a casual encounter I probably would have never guessed, but once he told me what happened when he got "sick," it would have been difficult to hide.

He told us as easily as one might relate a bad camping trip or recall the time he'd been forced to walk to the next gas station after running out of fuel. No crying or gnashing of teeth. He wasn't particularly angry.

But he had every right to be.

Because, see, every single pill that he took — all of them, he told me — had been duly prescribed by a reputable physician.

If he held a grudge, it would not have been the doctor he would have blamed. This has been two decades ago, but even then he knew who was to blame — the drug companies that passed off OxyContin and other opioids as absolutely nonaddictive.

Indeed, when he told us his story, about the first remark I made was, "I thought those drugs were supposed to be what to take to not get addicted."

So did he in the beginning. So did his doctor.

In the words of Rick Perry: "Oops."

He'd been given the drugs in the first place after hurting his back. The pain did not start off being so bad, but it got that way after surgery. He found he had to have something to dull the pain.

Enter OxyContin.

It was a miracle drug for him. A pill eased the pain and made life bearable. He assumed he could take OxyContin forever and not worry about it. Until one day he ran out of pills over the weekend, was out of refills and could not get more.

He experienced terrible pain and withdrawal. He knew then he was addicted. He told his doctor, who had just begun hearing of such problems.

My fellow passenger said he didn't hesitate to tackle the problem. He had good insurance, and if that didn't pay, he had plenty of money. He checked himself right into rehab. He was not going to have a monkey on his back.

"I paid $25,000 to get clean," he told us. "When I got out of rehab I thought that was it."

Well, no.

He could get rid of the monkey, but the pain was still there and would be forever. So he went back to his doctor for help. The doctor mostly shrugged and said about the only thing that could be prescribed was more of the same.

He refused for a while, until the pain became intolerable. He got another OxyContin prescription but at a lesser dose, hoping he could avoid addiction.

Good idea, but it did not work. When I saw him every day at dinner, he would be sweating and shaking, waiting for his next dose, which did not come until bedtime.

I have no idea what happened to him. We were roughly the same age, so statistics would suggest he still is alive.

"Alive" would have a different meaning for that gentleman, though. If, as it is said, the wheels of God's justice grind exceedingly small, someone, sometime is going to pay.

— Phil Latham is editor emeritus of the News-Journal. His column appears Wednesday. Email



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