Problem Pill

Experts say it is hard to identify a teen who is abusing prescription drugs.

MICHAEL WILLIAMSON/THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES

OxyContin is a painkiller that doctors can legally prescribe to patients. But some teens abuse the drug to get high, which leads to all sorts of trouble.

For Chasey, an 18-year-old from southern Michigan, the end of the line came in an empty supermarket parking lot at 1 a.m. Chasey was living in her car. She hadn’t showered in weeks. She was surviving on a diet of Snickers bars.

But none of that mattered to her. All that mattered was finding a small pill.

Chasey was fidgeting in the front seat of her car. She had a mirror in her lap and a rolled-up dollar bill in her hand. Her plan was to snort a third of a tablet of OxyContin—a potent prescription painkiller and one of the most frequently abused drugs among teenagers. Chasey would crush the pill against the mirror and snort it through the dollar bill. But her hands were shaking badly. She had tried to steady the pill on the mirror, but it tumbled off her lap and disappeared under the car seat.

Meltdown

Chasey slammed her palm against the steering wheel, then began to weep and scream. She needed that OxyContin tablet badly. Her addiction to the drug was her whole life. After getting hooked, Chasey had dropped out of school and gotten kicked out of her parents’ house. Her sister refused to take Chasey in unless she stopped abusing drugs.

OxyContin used to make Chasey feel unbelievably good. The drug flooded her with a warm, blissful sensation. “If I had any bad feeling—physically, emotionally, mentally, whatever—one snort [of OxyContin] and, like, whoosh, it was all gone,” she tells Choices.

But after a few weeks, OxyContin wasn’t giving Chasey the same high. Now she needed the pill just to feel normal. When she didn’t have it, Chasey was sick with chills and headaches. As she sat in her car, her whole body ached. Her skin was cool and clammy. She fought the urge to vomit.

That’s how the police found her—crying and trembling as she clawed her nails into the peeling carpet of her car. She was arrested and charged with drug possession. It was her third drug-related arrest. And for Chasey, it was a wake-up call. “My whole life had become getting that little pill,” she says. “I was either going to get off Oxy, or I was going to die.”

Growing Problem

Abusing prescription drugs—commonly called “pharming”—is the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States, particularly among teens. About 7 million Americans abused prescription drugs in 2007—more than used cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, Ecstasy, and inhalants combined. Nearly 15 percent of high school seniors admitted abusing painkillers like OxyContin, according to the 2009 “Monitoring the Future” survey conducted by the University of Michigan. And some health experts estimate that as many as 1 in 10 teenagers has used “Oxy,” or “OC,” to get high

Few teens—or parents—are aware of how treacherous prescription drugs can be. Many mistakenly believe that, because they come with a doctor’s note, prescription drugs offer a safe way to get high. “Kids get it from home. They go into the medicine cabinet. It’s got a doctor’s name on it. They think because it’s a pill, it must be safe,” says Mylene Krzanowski, executive director of the Caron Student Assistance Program, a nonprofit adolescent drug and alcohol treatment program. “That’s where the huge danger comes in,” she says.

Teens aren’t just abusing prescription drugs at home, either. They’re sharing them at parties and bringing them to school. “I don’t doubt that you can go into any high school in the country and find prescription pills on students,” says Michael Davis, adolescent program coordinator for the Right Step, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Houston, Texas.

Hard to Detect

Experts say it is hard to identify a teen who is abusing prescription drugs. Drugs like OxyContin don’t have an odor. Users may not stumble or slur their speech. And pills can be hidden easily. “You’re not going to swallow an ounce of marijuana,” Davis says. “But you might shove a handful of pills in your mouth to keep from getting caught.”

When taken in high doses, OxyContin can slow your breathing or stop it altogether. Numerous deaths have been linked to OxyContin. In 2006, a 17-year-old girl from Wisconsin was found dead in her bathroom after taking OxyContin. And a 13-year-old girl in Florida died after trying the drug for the first time at a party.

“There’s a mentality with adolescents that ‘It won’t ­happen to me. I’m invincible,’” says Victoria Winebarger, director of Branches Counseling, an addiction treatment services organization. “When you apply that mentality to a drug like this, you are asking for some very bad trouble.”

OxyContin is an opiate that doctors prescribe to help people suffering from chronic pain, like cancer patients. When used as directed, OxyContin has helped more than 2 million Americans function by relieving intense pain.

Searching for Relief

Teens like Chasey turn to OxyContin to temporarily take them away from their problems. “They use it to medicate their emotional pain,” Krzanowski says. “It stops them from feeling the things that are painful. They develop a deep love affair with that feeling. They talk about continually chasing that first initial high. But you can never recapture it.”

Chasey was introduced to OxyContin in a bathroom at her high school. Diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), she had been prescribed the stimulant Adderall to treat her condition. Chasey didn’t like the way Adderall made her feel. But she found that other kids were eager to trade their own medications for hers.

“All these people were offering me money and other pills, so I start bringing all my Adderall to school,” she says. Chasey first swapped her pills for a painkiller called Vicodin. When she was 17, she switched to OxyContin, but she wasn’t prepared for its strong effects. “I was freaking out,” she says. “My body was achy. I was throwing up a lot. All I wanted was more pills.”

Despite the severe effect OxyContin had on her body, Chasey wanted more of the drug. And like many of her peers, she was fooled into thinking that prescription drugs were safe to abuse. OxyContin affects the body similarly to the way the street drug heroin does. Chasey had no interest in taking heroin. “I figured heroin can kill you and Oxy seemed more, well, clean,” she says. “I thought I could trust it.”

Instead, the drug almost ruined her life. She has had to go through drug rehabilitation several times and is currently struggling to stay clean. She is on probation for her parking-lot arrest. She has moved back into her parents’ house but has yet to regain their full trust. “Everyone is on guard around me,” Chasey says. “They are waiting for me to slip up. I don’t blame them. It’s going to take a long time for people to trust me again.”

Choices did not print the last names of Chasey and Brian in order to protect their privacy.

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