Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories to be featured in the Herald, delving into the opioid epidemic and its impacts in Uinta County. In this instance, the names have been changed to protect the identity of the couple involved and allow them to speak freely about their experience.
EVANSTON — From 2006 to 2012, as the opioid crisis was escalating nationwide, more than 76 billion oxycodone or hydrocodone-based prescription pills were dispensed from retail pharmacies across the country, according to Drug Enforcement Agency data recently released by The Washington Post. Just under 127 million of those pills were dispensed in Wyoming.
Here in Uinta County, that number was 5,777,950 — enough for 40 pills per year for every single county resident.
One local resident, David, readily admits his personal usage accounted for a portion of those nearly six million opioid pills.
David and Mary have been married for roughly four decades. In most ways, they are not unlike any other long-term couple in Evanston. They’re educated, career professionals whose children are now grown and living on their own. They’ve seen their share of ups and downs.
Like many couples who have been together for long time periods, they can often finish each other’s sentences. They make one another laugh and there’s a twinkle in their eyes when they look at each other that instantly broadcasts their mutual affection.
David’s opioid addiction nearly destroyed them.
After first receiving a prescription in the late 1990s following surgery for an injury that also resulted in chronic pain, David was taking opioids at escalating doses for years. He said he learned early on that they did help with pain relief, but that relief was rather short-lived as his tolerance increased.
Signs of problems began to appear early on as well.
“At some level, I was manipulating them even then,” David said.
In the mid 2000s, Mary’s father, who had also been prescribed opioids for severe pain, passed away, and large bottles of pills were left in the home. David began taking those as well in what’s known as diversion — taking medication prescribed for someone else.
Eventually, David’s medical condition worsened to the point he was deemed disabled and no longer able to work, which he said was incredibly difficult emotionally.
“I felt so worthless when I couldn’t work anymore,” he said.
That emotional burden only worsened his reliance on the opioids.
Mary said it never occurred to her that he could be addicted to the pain pills and manipulating them to get high.
“It would never occur to me in a million years to not take a prescription as it’s written,” she said, “so it never crossed my mind that he wasn’t taking them as written.”
At doctor visits, David would tell physicians he was still in pain and they continued to increase his dosage.
“There was one time when a doctor seemed concerned about the dose he was taking,” said Mary. “The rest of the time they kept saying there was still some wiggle room to keep adjusting them.”
David said he engaged in all sorts of behaviors to avoid taking the prescription as directed and instead take it as he wanted to in order to get high.
“Once I was fully addicted, I would lie,” he said. “I just didn’t care. I just wanted more. It wasn’t even about the pain anymore. It was about not wanting to be sick like I was when I didn’t have them. It was wanting to be off on my own little fluffy cloud.”
For her part, Mary said she believed if he was taking a prescribed medication, he couldn’t be an addict, even when it became more and more obvious there was a problem. David was emotionally withdrawn and distant and would fall asleep even in the middle of meals. When family members, including their children, began to question if the pills were a problem, Mary found herself getting defensive and reiterating that it was prescribed medication. It was even suggested that David had some type of sleep disorder, when in reality he was high on opioids.
“I thought, ‘As long as he’s taking a prescribed medication, it’s not an addiction,’ but it is,” Mary said. “That’s part of the lie you buy into with opioids.”
Even though they’re both educated people and had even seen friends’ lives ruined by addiction, denial factored heavily into the situation.
“I would draw a line in the sand, that if he got to a certain point, I would know he had a problem, but that line just kept getting moved and redrawn,” Mary said. “I kept thinking he would eventually stop.”
David said he absolutely knew he was addicted.
“I woke up every day knowing I was an addict and wanting to quit,” he said. “There’s just so much shame involved with addiction.”
Eventually, David began stealing pills that had been prescribed to Mary for her own health problems. One day he reached a breaking point and called her at work to confess he had stolen her pills.
“I’ll never forget the sound in her voice,” he said. “It wasn’t anger; it wasn’t sadness. It was just resignation.”
They made a decision to get him off the pills on their own, taking nearly six months to taper down his dosage while he went through severe withdrawal symptoms.
“He threw up every day for six months,” said Mary.
While they both knew there were options to help with treatment, David said he didn’t want to go that route.
“I wouldn’t necessarily recommend my method to anyone, but I made it through,” he said. “But the heart of my addiction lasted at least five years. I wasted five years of my life.”
Now having been off the opioids for an extended period of time, they’re able to reflect back on the experience and what they’ve learned. For starters, they both said David’s pain is better managed now than it was for the years he was taking opioids. He’s better able to function and is emotionally present for his family.
They both said they don’t blame doctors for the addiction, even though they kept increasing his dose.
“They were doing what they were trained to do to try to help my pain,” said David.
Mary said there were several times local pharmacists would question the dosage and she would get defensive and irritated. They decided to share their story in hopes of helping people understand the dangers.
“We’re both educated and know what addiction is and didn’t think it could happen to us,” said Mary. “I wish somebody had told us how insidious they can be and how opioids can destroy families. You have to really walk through the costs, and with opioids that cost is everything that you are. He completely lost himself.” After the couple exchanged a glance, she added, “We got lucky.”