EUGENE, Ore. -- Drug overdose death rates have more than tripled in the U.S. since 1990, and a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributes more than half of those deaths to prescription painkillers.
“Half my patients here at Serenity Lane have opiate addiction,” said Dr. Ronald Schwerzler, an addictionologist at Serenity Lane, who oversees around 60 in-patients at any one time.
“People are dying from this, in record numbers,” he said.
According to a CDC study, 100 people die from drug overdoses every day in the U.S., and most of those deaths were caused by prescription painkillers — 14,800 in 2008 alone.
And the study added that one of the groups at a higher risk is people between the ages of 15 to 24.
Dr. Schwerzler said the problem starts with easy access to prescription medications, mainly opiate-based pain relievers.
“Somewhere around 20 percent of our high school students have tried a Vicodin, a Percocet or an Oxycontin,” said Dr. Schwerzler. “Where do they get those?”
“They’re raiding their parent’s cabinets, their grandparent’s cabinets or getting it on the street,” he said. “It’s very available out there on the street.”
But Dr. Schwerzler said not everyone’s opiate addiction at Serenity Lane started with unlawful acquisition of a prescription painkiller.
"I never would have thought in five years, I would be injecting heroin in a bathroom somewhere, in a stall, finding dirty needles off the ground and using them because I couldn't find any clean needles,” said Omer, a 24-year-old recovering addict, as he sat in a meeting room at Serenity Lane.
Omer said his opiate dependence started after he injured his back.
"First time I did them was after a ruptured disk in my back, and I got Percocet, and I took two,” he said.
Omer said he was hooked from that day forward.
"And the problem with those medications is that you build up a tolerance to them,” said Dr. Schwerzler.”It takes more and more to get the same effect."
“I started out with 30 pills, and then I got them to give me 60, and by three months I was actually starting to manipulate him into getting more because I realized that I needed to get more because my tolerance built up really, really quickly,” said Omer.
Dr. Schwerzler said opiates do what they were intended to do—mask physical pain—but that they can also have addictive and deadly side effects.
“A couple tablets a day and not get relief, so you go to four tablets, 20 tablets, 40 tablets and so on,” said Dr. Schwerzler. “So, you build up a tolerance, and there’s a threshold. And you get to a certain level, and people stop breathing.”
Eventually, Omer said that his doctors in central Oregon cut him off from his pain medications.
That’s when he started getting them illegally.
“I was buying the same painkillers, but off the street, for a lot more money,” said Omer.
Eventually, Omer’s abuse of painkillers almost cost him his life when he ended up in the hospital for an overdose on Methadone, a potent pharmaceutical opiate medication that he combined with methamphetamine and painkillers.
After his brush with death, Omer said he ended up in detoxification at Serenity Lane. He completed 45 days of in-patient treatment.
When he got out, he said he remained sober for about six months until his best friend died of a heroin overdose.
"I really wanted to die, so I didn't even care what happened to me,” said Omer. “I started smoking heroin, and then I started using IV heroin-using a needle."
He said he switched to heroin because he could not afford the painkillers he was getting on the street.
Dr. Schwerzler said he sees this all the time among his patients.
“People are also switching, when they can’t get the prescription drugs, switching over to heroin,” he added. “The human brain doesn’t know the difference between a Vicodin tablet and heroin.”
“I switched from using opiate painkillers to heroin because it was a lot cheaper,” said Omer.
After switching to intravenous heroin use, Omer said the last pieces of his functional life fell apart.
“I was in bed, sick, vomiting,” he added. “I was looking at my mom, and my mom was crying, and she pulls out this bucket out of my garbage can. It was full of dirty, bloody needles. I had probably 25 of them in there.”
Omer said this moment was after his mother took him home from the hosital when he overdosed on heroin and other drugs. He said that is when he knew he had hit rock bottom. His parents took him back to Serenity Lane the next day.
He said his second time in drug treatment was tougher than the first.
“I would be vomiting,” said Omer. “I would have diarrhea. I would be sweating excessively. I would be drenched in sweat, having to change my shirt four to five times a day.”
But he made it past the physical withdrawals, and said he now has to work on taking his sobriety one day at a time.
“Life on life’s terms,” he added.
And even with more than 90 days clean, Omer said he’s still scared for what lies ahead.
“I pray to god that I don’t use again because I don't know if I'd be able to make it back a third chance,” he said.
Dr. Schwerzler said if his patients complete 90 to 120 days of in-patient treatment, go into sober living and keep up with prescribed after care, there is a 75 percent chance they will maintain sobriety.
“If you just take it day at a time, those days build up over time,” said Omer. “It’s been working.”