Jagged Little Pills

By Anna Sachse

Posted December 10, 2009 in Mind Body Spirit

When you consider the long list of celebrities who have been addicted to painkillers—Paula Abdul, Winona Ryder, Matthew Perry, Jamie Lee Curtis, Eminem, Courtney Love, Charlie Sheen, both Kelly and Jack Osbourne and, of course, Michael Jackson, to name a few—it seems like it might be easier to simply name those who haven’t had a thing for pills. 


But it isn’t just the rich and famous who love to use and abuse medication. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 48 million people (ages 12 and older), or approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population, have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons in their lifetimes. Commonly abused classes of prescription medications include: opioids (for pain), such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), meperidine (Demerol), morphine, fentanyl and codeine; central nervous system (CNS) depressants (for anxiety and sleep disorders), such as barbiturates like pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal), benzodiazepines like diazepam (Valium) and alprazolam (Xanax), and nonbenzodiazepines like zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta); and stimulants (for ADHD and narcolepsy), such as dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta) and amphetamines (Adderall).


Although they are all perfectly legal, the illegal abuse of these drugs stems from the fact that they are so easy to acquire and they just feel so damn good going down. If you actually are in pain, an opioid will bring you fast and pervasive relief. If you are anxious or can’t sleep, a central nervous system depressant can help you feel sane again. If you have had a hard time focusing all your life, a stimulant can help you get on track. And the thing is, even if you don’t have those problems, popping a pill can still potentially give you benefits i.e. folks who are perfectly healthy and pain-free can still experience the euphoria that comes with taking a painkiller like OxyContin, or a student who doesn’t have attention problems can pop an Adderall and still stay up all night cramming for a test. 


That said, many people who become addicted to pills were once prescribed the medication by their doctor for a valid reason, but they started taking too much of it or continued taking it after it was no longer necessary. Either way, the brain begins to increase the number of receptors for the drug, while, at the same time, nerve cells start to degenerate and cease to produce endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. The result is a physical dependency on a steady supply of pills—once your brain chemistry has been altered and the addiction has formed, you can’t stop without experiencing extremely painful withdrawal symptoms. 


But there are other things that are worse than withdrawal. Death, for example. (Heath Ledger, anyone?) In addition, opioids can produce drowsiness and depressed breathing; CNS depressants can slow brain function and, when combined with alcohol, can reduce heart rate and respiration to dangerous levels; and stimulants can cause anxiety, paranoia, dangerously high body temperatures, irregular heartbeat and seizures.


If that doesn’t sound like fun to you, take the following advice when dealing with prescription meds:


1. Don’t take other people’s pills or give yours to others.


2. Take your medication according to the directions and prescribed dosage. Snorting or injecting opioids, which results in the rapid release of drugs that are meant to be slow-released into the bloodstream, is what leads to most of the overdoses.


3. Be honest with your doctor if you have a history of drug abuse or addiction.


4. Consider natural alternatives to pills, such as yoga or meditation to relieve anxiety instead of Xanax.


5. If you already have a problem, seek treatment. It is very hard to stop without help, and you don’t have to do it alone.












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