Patti Geier, LCSW | Article

The Dark Side of Prescription Drugs: Part 3

Getting Help

There are many treatment facilities located throughout the country. Many insurance plans cover inpatient detox. Some insurance companies will pay for a week, maybe two. Some may pay for rehab as well. It's important to get help and not to try to get off pills on your own. Some people may feel that they can't afford to take a week or two out of their lives to spend in a treatment facility, detoxing. The demands of children, a job, school, or other responsibilities may make inpatient treatment seem like a luxury. It is not. It is unquestionably better to leave the routine responsibilities of your life for a week than it is to suffer the inevitable outcome of prolonged drug addiction.


When an individual becomes physically dependent on painkillers or benzodiazepines, they should not just suddenly stop taking them. Stopping suddenly can cause seizures and possibly even death. The risk of a seizure is actually quite high. Dependency might be dealt with by tapering off the medication. Some people have been successful using this approach. Addicts have often found tapering to be unsuccessful because their addiction is both physical as well as psychological. If tapering is done inpatient, it has more of a chance of success.

Withdrawal symptoms can be, and often are, difficult. Benzodiazepines, for example, are stored in the tissues and fat cells. Getting the drug out of your bloodstream can take a long time. Drugs that go through the digestive tract are more quickly excreted.

Even when someone detoxes inpatient, the symptoms often feel unbearable. While the acute withdrawal symptoms generally last a couple of weeks, the prolonged withdrawal, called Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) lingers. These symptoms have been known to last a year or longer.

In addition, the person who suffers from chronic pain may initially be in more pain than they were before they began to take painkillers. Painkillers and benzodiazapines repress the body's natural production of dopamine and endorphins (the "pleasure center of the brain") and take over their function. After the drug is detoxed, it takes some time before the body's natural pain receptors "wake up" and begin to function normally again.

What other options does someone who suffers from chronic pain have? After becoming drug-free, this issue still needs to be addressed. Some people believe that they can never take prescription narcotics again and need to remain abstinent for life. Other methods of pain relief like meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, or biofeedback may provide some relief. For recovering addicts who need to be on narcotic painkillers, having someone else responsible for the medication may be a good idea.

Who's at Risk?

The elderly are particularly at risk; misuse of prescription medications may be the most common form of drug abuse among the elderly. According to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, as many as 17% of adults 60 and over abuse prescription drugs. While elderly people comprise just 13% of the population, this age group represents as much as 30% of the number of prescription drug abusers.

There is less likelihood that an elderly person will comply with the directions on the prescription bottle. There may be confusion regarding the dose or the frequency with which to take the medication, or difficulty reading the small print. Unintentional misuse can lead to addiction. Compounding this problem, many health care workers may prescribe an addictive substance to an elderly person more than they might to someone younger.

Another at-risk segment of the population is women. One reason is simply that women are more likely to go to the doctor when they are feeling anxious or in pain. Both women and men abuse prescription drugs at approximately the same rate, however, women are twice as likely to become addicted as men. Specifically, females between the ages of 12 to17 and 18 to 25 have shown the largest increase of prescription drug abuse over the past two decades (NIDA). In addition, young girls aged 12 to 14 report that painkillers and tranquilizers are one of the most popular drugs used to get high.


Many recovering prescription drug addicts become involved in 12-step programs. Groups like Pills Anonymous can be very helpful and supportive. The meetings can help alleviate some of the guilt and shame through hearing and sharing the similarities of yours and others' experiences. Unfortunately, there are very few PA meetings around the country in comparison to the numbers of AA or NA and so many pill addicts go to those meetings in addition to or instead of PA meetings.

Some people struggling with pill addiction enter therapy at this point in their lives. Therapy can help you find out what emotional need the pills served and what will fill that need now. Grief is a common feeling among addicts when giving up their "drug of choice.

" Like learning to cope with other kinds of losses, the addict needs to grieve over what had become the most important thing in their life. Therapy groups can function as a safe and supportive place to deal with some of the emotions a recovering addict is likely to feel. Individual therapy can be a very effective way to deal with a lot of the underlying issues that may have led to becoming addicted to prescription drugs.

All of these forms of help can alleviate the isolation an addict may have created when they were using. No one has to deal with sobriety and recovery alone. The feelings that were hidden by the pills will begin to surface and can be frightening to deal with on your own. Having support during this time of a person's life is crucial.