“I Was Hooked on Prescription Drugs”
Tim Bracaglia was a model teen. A self-professed science nerd, Tim aced his honors chemistry class. Not only did he never fail a course—he never even got a C. On weekends, he starred for his travel hockey team. His friends got tired of hearing their parents bemoan, “Why can’t you be more like Tim?”
But Tim had a secret. And between his slipping physics grades and his growing absences from the hockey rink, it was getting harder to hide.
Tim was a drug addict. He was taking drugs from his parents’ medicine cabinet. He was swapping pills in his high school hallways. And he was rummaging through friends’ bathrooms for little plastic bottles with pharmacy labels.
Tim was hooked on prescription drugs—legal medications distributed by doctors for everything from anxiety and shyness to depression and pain. He’s not alone. “Pharming”—abusing pharmaceutical drugs the way some people abuse street drugs like marijuana and cocaine—is the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States, particularly among teenagers. Every day, 2,700 teens abuse a prescription drug for the first time.
“Prescription drugs are the number-one drug problem we face today,” says David Rotenberg, executive director of the adolescent treatment center at the nonprofit Caron Foundation. “They are more widely prescribed, more widely available, and more widely abused by adolescents than they have ever been before.”
There are many different types of prescription drugs, each with its own side effects and dangers. There’s the head-whirling high of painkillers like Percocet, the blurry haze of depressants like Xanax, or the jittery jolts of stimulants like Ritalin. More than 7 million Americans abused prescription drugs in 2010, including nearly 3 million teens and 15 percent of all 12th-graders. More teens abuse prescription drugs than any illegal drug, except marijuana. In fact, four of the top five drugs abused by 12th-graders are prescription or over-the-counter medications, like cold and allergy remedies.
“In my neighborhood, I wouldn’t have any idea how to get a drug like crack,” Tim says. “But prescription pills? They were everywhere!”
Prescription drugs have helped millions of people deal with a variety of medical conditions. Opiates, for example, are often given to patients to relieve pain after surgery. Depressants help patients who suffer from anxiety disorders, panic attacks, or stress. Stimulants enhance brain activity and can help treat ADD.
But unless they are taken exactly as a doctor intended—and by the patient for whom the medication is prescribed—prescription drugs can be just as dangerous as illegal drugs. Opiates can slow your breathing or stop it altogether. Depressants can decrease your heart rate so much that you risk slipping into a coma. Stimulants can make your heart race so rapidly that your body suffers a seizure or a heart attack. And all three of these types of prescription drugs can be deadly when mixed with alcohol.
“Our message is simple: Unless those pills have been prescribed for that particular individual by a licensed physician, any use would be considered illegal and very, very harmful,” says Amy McCoy, coordinator of prevention services at Caron.
Unfortunately, many adults and teens don’t realize how dangerous prescription drugs can be. Many mistakenly believe that because they are recommended by a doctor and can be found in your own home, prescription drugs offer a safe way to get high. About 40 percent of teens believe that abusing prescription drugs is safer than using illegal drugs.
“You look at heroin or crack cocaine, even marijuana, as a dirty street drug. For all you know, there could be rat poison in there,” Tim says. “But I’d say, ‘This Percocet was made by a pharmaceutical engineer. That person went to college. He went to grad school. He wouldn’t put anything crazy in there.’”
Tim was an A+ student in science. He researched prescription pills on the Internet and tried to plan his doses for the maximum high. “I thought I was in total control, that I was too smart to get addicted,” Tim says. But just like street drugs, prescription drugs can be dangerously addictive, and Tim was hooked. He got caught snorting Xanax in a bathroom at his school. Even after getting busted, Tim tried to hide his addiction by cheating on a drug test. Believe it or not, he tried to pass off his dog’s urine as his own. It didn’t work.
Tim, now 19, eventually got the help he needed, and these days, he’s getting ready to leave Daytop’s rehabilitation clinic in New Jersey. He hopes to study biochemistry in college and eventually become an addiction psychologist. Tim believes he has valuable lessons to pass on to other teens.
“Learn the truth about these pills—and don’t take them lightly,” Tim says. “In my health classes, we spent so much time talking about hallucinogens and crack and cocaine. But we barely touched on prescription drugs. I never took those other drugs seriously. I would have paid a lot more attention if they talked about the stuff in my own house.”