It was supposed to be a short course of treatment with tranquilizers after the death of her infant son 15 years ago. But Lynn Ray, 46, of Germantown, Md., says her abuse of the anti-anxiety drug Xanax and other prescription drugs led to a long struggle with addiction that nearly ruined her life.
Tranquilizers, which slow down the central nervous system and cause drowsiness, numbed Ray's agony, helped her sleep, and untied the relentless knot in her stomach. Soon, even if her doctor had prescribed one pill in an eight-hour period, she took two or three in an attempt to intensify the calming effect of the drug.
When the doctor stopped writing prescriptions for her and encouraged grief counseling, Ray began doctor-shopping--going from doctor to doctor, fabricating panic attacks, backaches, migraines, and other ailments that would get her multiple prescriptions for tranquilizers and pain killers. "I became a very good actress," Ray says. "I thought I needed these drugs no matter what, even if I had to bamboozle the doctors to get them."
Most patients take medicine responsibly, but approximately 9 million Americans used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes in 1999, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Non-medical purposes include misusing prescription drugs for recreation and for psychic effects--to get high, to have fun, to get a lift, or to calm down.
Experts stress that prescription drug abuse isn't about bad drugs or even bad people. It involves a complex web of factors, including the power of addiction, misperceptions about drug abuse, and the difficulty both patients and doctors have discussing the topic.
There is also the delicate balance of curbing criminal activity related to drug abuse while making sure that people with legitimate health needs can still access care, says Alan I. Leshner, Ph.D., director of NIDA. "We recognize the very real issue that millions of lives are improved because of prescription drugs--the same drugs that are sometimes abused," he says.
Consequences of Abuse
Ray had convinced herself that abusing prescription drugs was safer than abusing heroin, marijuana, and other "street drugs." "I would never do those," she says. "I figured I had a prescription for what I was doing, which made it OK."
Scott Walker, program director for substance abuse at the Mountain Comprehensive Care Center in Prestonsburg, Ky., says he hears that rationalization over and over. "Some people tell themselves they aren't using something old Joe cooked up in a garage somewhere," Walker says. They may figure a legitimate manufacturer made this, "so what could be the harm?"
As Ray's life unraveled, she found out the harm can be great, whether you're using heroin or sleeping pills. She lost her job as a computer programmer after repeatedly showing up late for work and falling asleep at her desk. Her son, a preteen at the time, couldn't understand her erratic behavior and didn't want anything to do with her.
Then in 1995, she crashed her car three times in one month while under the influence of tranquilizers and painkillers, seriously injuring others each time. Her driver's license was revoked, and she served a one-year jail sentence in 1998. "I will always know in my heart that I could have killed those people," she says. "It doesn't matter that I didn't kill them; it matters that I could have."
Walker says that roughly half of the people undergoing substance abuse treatment at Mountain Comprehensive Care Center come after realizing that they found themselves in a hole too deep to get out of on their own. The other half, like Ray, come because of some criminal charge related to drug possession or drug use.
OxyContin (oxycodone), a controlled drug approved in 1995 to treat chronic, moderate-to-severe pain, has received considerable attention because of deaths and crimes associated with its abuse. (For more on the classes--or...