The Addict Next Door

Oct. 10, 2016

woman in front of drawn blinds

Tennessee takes action against its prescription pain pill epidemic, one person at a time

Sheryl never imagined what would happen to her after taking that first pain pill.

She was in severe pain. A too-quick return to work following abdominal surgery led to an injury right at the incision site.

Her doctor, hesitant to do a second surgery so soon after the first, prescribed an opioid pain reliever.

“Initially I took it as directed,” she recalls. “But then it stopped working. Pretty soon I needed two to do what one did. Then three to do what two did. Within two months I was going through a one-month prescription in a matter
of weeks.”

At no point did Sheryl consider this a problem.

She was taking medicine because she needed it.

And then one day, she popped a pill into her mouth and realized that, actually, the physical pain had subsided.

She took it to feel better emotionally, not physically.

It was a moment of clarity. But she pushed it aside.

“I had a very narrow idea of addicts and addiction,” she says.

“I never thought that would happen to me. I thought of a person with a needle in their arm, or an old man sitting under a bridge hanging onto a bottle.”

Sheryl grew up in a well-off, religious family.

She worked in an emergency room and had seen people who overdosed.

So she knew, without a doubt: “Girls like me aren’t addicts.”

A common self-deception

Many an addict starts out with that self-image, bolstered by the need for pain relief and a legal prescription from an honest physician.

A physical dependence takes hold with continued use, so that they really do need that pill to feel good.

“True physical pain is a catalyst,” says Cindy Sneed, chief clinical officer of The Next Door, a faith-based treatment center for women in Nashville where Sheryl eventually found help.

“Opioids were designed to treat pain, but in an addict’s mind, if one is good, then two are better.”

“They are dealing with other discomforts or stressors, and the pills offer relief from those too. When you take their pills away, you are taking away their relief from an original pain that won’t go away.”

It took Sheryl years to make that connection, and numerous attempts at getting clean before she found her way to sobriety.

When Sheryl’s doctor refused to refill her pain medication prescription, suggesting she had a problem, she got angry.

She found a way to get what she needed through her work admitting patients into the emergency room.

Many would bring in their medications to inform the staff of what they were taking. When those bottles were put aside, Sheryl helped herself.

“I didn’t just skim off the top. I cleaned them out,” she says.

“I took everything. And, always, I justified it with my injury, and the fact that my doctor was not cooperating.”

Soon enough, when there weren’t enough medications coming in, Sheryl would supplement her supply by turning to drug dealers. One weekend, she showed up at her dealer’s place, and he told her that he had no pills.

“Heroin or cocaine,” he said. “Which one do you want?”

She took the cocaine. Heroin, needles — that was a line she could not cross.

As she left, she wondered what she was doing. She knew she was not treating physical pain, that she had a problem. She got scared.

So she asked for help through her employee assistance program and went to rehab for the first time.

She had a short stay to detox, got a crash course in addiction, and immediately went back to using.

An endless cycle

Sheryl eventually lost her job and went to work for her parents’ company.

Still using, and needing far more than her salary to keep up with her habit, she embezzled the money she needed. A lot of money.

“I saw that I was getting out of hand and turned myself over to my parents,” Sheryl says.

She began the cycle of detoxing, then relapsing, and with each relapse the addiction got worse. She lost her job, her apartment, her car. Her parents staged an intervention and sent her out of state for rehab.

She stayed with it, even taking a job with the rehab center for three years.

“I was getting high all the time,” she says now.

“As soon as I had any freedom I was right back out there, but more slick about it.”

“Until I overdosed and they found me unresponsive in my apartment.”

And so the cycle of getting clean and relapsing started again, until finally she was arrested for driving under the influence.

She did 48 hours in jail, and when she had to come back to DUI court for a drug test, she failed it. The judge sent her to jail until they could find her a bed in a treatment facility.

“My heart fell into my shoes,” Sheryl says. “In jail I talked to everyone. And with all of them — bright, beautiful, talented women just sitting and wasting away — drugs were part of their story.

“Every one of them started with some legitimate injury and moved on to heroin or meth.

“They told me how they wished they had stopped, but they went back and now were in for trafficking, robbery, attempted murder.

“It was a reality check that this is where my life is headed.”

Ready for recovery

Sheryl entered treatment at The Next Door in Nashville and this time, she found a place where everything clicked.

She has been clean for five months. She has a job. She stays active and busy.

She is living without drugs, and finding relief from the hold they had on her for so long.

She saw what the counselors at The Next Door see every minute of every day:

Anyone can be an addict, whether they grew up wealthy and have advanced educational degrees, or spent their lives in poverty without any of those advantages.

No matter what kind of life they go back to when they are sober, they will face challenges that can easily send them back on the wrong path.

“We plan every day for what happens when our clients leave treatment,” says Sneed.

“Addiction is a cyclical disease and you need to replace all the things that the drug did for the addict with coping skills and a quality support system.”

The Next Door treats the disease of addiction, while also addressing the underlying issues that intensify that disease.

In addition to medically monitored detoxification, clients can get inpatient treatment, intensive outpatient therapy and Lifetime Recovery Management.

“They taught me how to reprocess my thoughts,” Sheryl says.

“I have used everything they taught me since I have been out and it works. It really is a new way of thinking. It is not about fitting sobriety into my old life.

“I’m building a new life around sobriety.”

Photos by Hollis Bennett.