Women are dying from painkillers now more than any time in America’s history. Real people, true stories, harrowing destruction.
Charlotte* still has the track marks crawling up her arms. Her face has broken out with red bumps, and her bleach-blonde hair has grown the roots halfway out. She sits on a bench at a rehab facility in Arizona, picking at her bitten fingernails, unaware of the stares she’s getting from the seasoned patients.
Charlotte comes from a middle-class family, replete with a minivan, loving parents and a comfortable suburban lifestyle.
What has brought her to this state of fallen grace?
Charlotte’s boyfriend started selling Oxy in high school because the profits were so much higher than working in fast food restaurants like his peers. Over time, the boyfriend started using his own product, and so did his girlfriend.
The addiction took hold of Charlotte in less than a week, and the ecstasy and relief from the stress and insecurities felt by your average teenage girl was amazing. She felt like she needed more drugs around her menstrual cycles.
Dependence grew to tolerance, and tolerance grew to seeking more and more and stronger and stronger drugs. Before she knew it, our girl was shooting heroin with her boy behind the bleachers.
Now, in her late 20s, Charlotte awoke in her own vomit and soon found herself on an Arizona bench.
Charlotte survived, but more women than ever before in American history do not.
As women, we have an increased biological vulnerability to drugs. We get addicted much faster than our male counterparts, and we are affected by our hormones and a half dozen other factors. It’s not fair; it’s biology.
A Californian mom of two beautiful teenage girls, Mandi* was rear ended by a drunk driver and sustained a shattered kneecap. The outrage and pain Mandi endures is still unbearable, years later.
“I was in so much anguish and anger, I couldn’t see straight,” she says.
Though Mandi went to counseling and was prescribed Percocet, her pain never completely went away. After only a few weeks of round-the-clock medicine, she was getting less relief with more pills. When Mandi had to quit her job due to the knee injury, she lost her health insurance.
Still suffering, Mandi had to find an alternative numbing product. What she found was that prescription drugs sold on the street are expensive and she couldn’t afford her habit.
The first time Mandi snorted the comparatively inexpensive drug heroin, she felt better than if she were smoking a fat joint or drinking cranberry vodkas. Snorting quickly turned to heroin injecting, which brought on shame and guilt. How could a woman with teenage daughters be shooting up?
Mandi was fearful of talking to her doctor about her heroin use. Like many of us moms who might find ourselves in similar circumstances, she worried she would be ostracized by others – or worse, that her children might be taken away by Child Protective Services.
The stigma around illicit drug abuse causes isolation, depression and creates a cycle of more drug use.
We can’t scream it loud enough: Women addicted to heroin are only human, regular people, no less worthy than other men and women who don’t have to suffer with the insidious disease of addiction.
Pill Mills Make It Too Easy
Pill mills are places that:
- Take cash only.
- Use their own pharmacy.
- Let patients pick their own medicine, no questions asked.
- Are illegal.
A recent study conducted by the U.S. Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Division found that narcotics are the second-most abused drug (just behind marijuana). These opioids rank above meth, cocaine, heroin and crack.
Controlled prescription drugs are accountable for tens of thousands more deaths due to poisoning than illicit drugs are. Many come from pill mills.
Female Heroin Use
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2004 and 2013, heroin and opioid use among women has increased at a rate twice that of men.
By 2013, a new type of female opioid user had emerged: a woman in college, a suburban mom, a working professional pulling in more than $60,000.
Women bear a heftier burden of emotional sensitivities and mental health issues like depression, trauma-related disorders and anxiety. Our brains are just wired differently.
This emotional make-up means women are more likely to be prescribed benzodiazepines and opioids.
Additionally, one in three women have experienced domestic violence. This type of trauma predisposes us to mental health issues and drug and alcohol abuse. Being hurt by the one you trust and love creates emotional scarring and scathing brain changes that endure long after the physical scarring dissipates.
It is truly startling that this epidemic has crossed all demographic lines and spread its wrath among every income and social bracket.
If these stories and facts shock you, maybe they shouldn’t. Out of all of the heroin-addicted, middle-class suburban women, more than 75 percent of this group started with legal prescription opioids, reports the acclaimed JAMA Psychiatry journal.
Even though we are becoming more aware since the Trump-proclaimed national health emergency, it is hard to resist a drug that takes away your pain, physical and emotional. Sometimes, for women, the line between what is physical pain and what is emotional pain is blurry.
Women are particularly vulnerable to diseases like fibromyalgia, a disabling illness which causes both physical and emotional pain, including a host of other symptoms.
What Is Your Picture of a Heroin User?
Before our culture understood that addicts are just people, and that we’re all in this world and this predicament together, we might’ve assumed a woman that uses heroin lives on the street. Maybe she turned to sex work to afford her heroin habit, or maybe she had to take heroin to endure selling her body.
Did you picture her as uneducated, unemployed or on government assistance?
Well, maybe that was true…40 years ago!
Who Is Immune?
The heroin epidemic is so widespread it makes us wonder if there is a demographic that’s immune to opioids.
Painkillers are, in essence, heroin packaged in pharmacy vials.
This gives us a false sense of security about taking them. In America, we hold our doctors in high esteem and leave them to decide what’s best for our health. They’re the experts, right?
But when the doctor says, “Enough. Your surgery was three months ago,” it’s too late: We’re hooked. And once the addiction has taken hold, it is normal to feel there is no way out.
So, who can truly be immune to the opioid epidemic?
Hooked on Heroin
Once the addiction has hooked us, it is then that women often turn to finding that same drug in new places rather than experiencing the dramatic rise in pain and sickening withdrawal systems? Who can cast blame? We’re only human.
By now, the effects of the painkiller are not as good as they once were, anyway; a tolerance has set in. We have become physically dependent.
Women go to pill mills, multiple doctors or, embarrassingly, the black market. After paying $20 or more per pill, we hear about heroin. For $10 a bag, you can get even more pain relief, your suburban neighbor says.
It is humiliating for a mom to admit she has a heroin addiction, so the secrets and lies begin. And the relief felt with heroin is sooo much better than pills; the first dose is orgasmic.
Pain Alternatives for Women
What can we do to deal with chronic or intense pain? The medical community is working harder than ever to come up with alternative treatments for women suffering from pain.
Some options to consider for physical pain include:
- Physical therapy
- Nerve block treatment
- Anesthesia via IV or injection
Emotional Pain Alternatives for Women
For women suffering from emotional pain, which is often tied to physical pain, some non-pharmaceutical treatments to try are:
- Massage therapy
- Relaxation techniques
- Electrical muscle stimulation
Reach Out If You’re Affected
If you are a woman dealing with a heroin problem, we really hope you’ll give us the chance to help you find solutions difficult time. There is a better way.
Women suffer from unique challenges in life. If someone you care about is struggling with heroin addiction – or you fear they’re heading down that road – don’t let her become another statistic. We implore you to reach out to us for help in finding treatment. Call or send us a note now.
*Real names withheld