Misha Hollins, 41, went to a Palmdale doctor’s office bleeding excessively during her menstrual cycle and doubled over in pain. The doctor gave her morphine, and prescribed her Vicodin and codeine to take at home for the remainder of her cycle. She felt relief, and would return to the doctor every month for more medication. She soon found herself needing to take higher doses of medicine to relieve the pain.
“At one point, the doctor just wouldn’t give me any more,” Hollins said.
She began to seek alternative methods to obtain the pills to feed her growing habit, such as buying drugs from people she knew, and going to hospital emergency rooms. She also started taking over-the-counter drugs to ward off the preliminary effects of her menstrual cycle.
She eventually began to write her own prescriptions, calling various pharmacies to have them filled. About a year and a half later, Hollins entered a pharmacy near her home in Palmdale to pick up her forged prescription, when she was arrested for felony drug possession.
She remained in jail for 30 days, where she suffered symptoms of opiate withdrawal.
“I had diarrhea, I was throwing up, I had a runny nose, and my bones ached,” Hollins said.
The court ordered her to complete a six-month outpatient drug program. She was required to submit to random drug tests, and show proof to the court that she attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
She did not use any prescription drugs during that time, but once she completed the court order, she quickly resumed taking high doses of Vicodin and codeine.
Hollins soon returned to the pattern of abuse, but she eventually grew tired of the cycle.
“I got tired of using—of the quality of life,” she said. “I wasn’t ambitious, I was isolated, I didn’t want to spend any time with my family. I wanted to live.”
Hollins has been sober since she sought treatment in 2006, and she now works at a recovery center.
Hollins was able to overcome her opiate addiction—a struggle she deals with every day. But many other people are not as fortunate.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that approximately 15,000 people die each year from overdosing on prescription painkillers, amounting to more deaths than heroin and cocaine overdoses combined. This number has almost tripled since 1999.
“The problem of prescription painkiller overdoses has reached epidemic proportions,” according to the CDC.
Opiates such as morphine, codeine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone—the narcotic component of Vicodin—are among the most widely abused prescription drugs.
These medications are prescribed for the management of pain, and work by reducing the intensity of brain signals that control pain sensation and emotional responses, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“The symptoms of the pain are being treated, instead of the cause of the pain,” said Marvin Friedman, a pharmacology professor at Santa Monica College.
The need for increased drug doses that Hollins experienced commonly occurs with prolonged treatment that can develop into drug addiction.
Friedman said that once addiction develops, withdrawal symptoms occur when medications are abruptly discontinued.
Improving the way medicine is prescribed can reduce the number of people that abuse these drugs, according to the CDC.
“They’re beginning to put CURES in place,” Friedman said, speaking of the California Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, a database that monitors individuals who may abuse prescription drugs, run by the California Department of Justice.
“There’s a lot of deception,” Friedman said. “After needing more, they go to different doctors and emergency rooms.”
The NIDA reported that 16 million people used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons in 2010.
Opiate painkillers are not the only prescription drugs that prompt the potential for abuse.
Often prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disorders, central nervous system depressants—such as sedatives and tranquilizers that slow brain activity—can be addictive, according to the NIDA.
Benzodiazepines, including Valium and Xanax, are often used to treat anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and alcohol withdrawals.
“Usually, benzodiazepines are not prescribed for long-term use because of the risk for developing tolerance, dependence, or addiction,” according to the NIDA.
Barbiturates are used less often because of the higher risk of overdose, according to the NIDA.
Health practitioners use stimulant prescription drugs to treat symptoms of asthma, obesity, attention deficit disorder, narcolepsy and neurological disorders. Stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin heighten aletness and energy, and raise breathing rate, pulse and blood pressure. The NIDA reported that these drugs also carry the risk of addiction and abuse.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental health professionals recognize certain prescription medications not as cures for mental illnesses, but as methods to alleviate uncomfortable effects and to help foster recovery.
Elizabeth Waterman, a clinical psychologist at Morningside Recovery in Newport Beach, said that medications do not necessarily treat underlying issues. .
“As long as [patients] have doctors who use medication as a treatment approach, it’s effective in the short-term, but in the long run, it’s a huge problem because they’re not learning to use alternative skills to deal with the problems,” Waterman said.