A Prescription for Addiction

Owen Harrison was a high-achieving eighth-grade basketball player. After getting injured one day during practice, his doctor prescribed him opioid painkillers. Owen had no idea that the pills would make him want more . . . and more. Choices shares Owen’s story so you can learn about the very real risk of opioid addiction.

I was running down the court during eighth-grade basketball practice, just a few days after fall tryouts, when it happened: I stopped short and felt my hip pop. An X-ray showed that I had a hip fracture. I’d be out of school a few days and on crutches for about a month. The doctor prescribed me opioid painkillers. That one bottle of pills would be the gateway to something I never thought could happen to someone like me: drug addiction.

I remember the feeling I had the first time I took a pill: It was like, Wow, this is amazing. I need more of this. My parents doled the medication out as the doctor had suggested to ease my discomfort, but even that prescribed dosage got me high. I later learned that people respond to painkillers differently, and there’s no way of knowing how you’re going to react before taking them. 

At the time, I was really involved at my school and in my community. I was part of the National Junior Honor Society, played sports, worked on the yearbook, and volunteered at my church. But what I’d realize later was that I hadn’t yet learned how to cope with stress. When I took the painkillers, that pressure disappeared—and it felt great. I didn’t want to stop experiencing that sense of relief.

A Downward Spiral

When my prescription ran out, I started sneaking alcohol from my parents, looking to replicate the high I got from drugs. (By this point, I’d been diagnosed with anxiety and depression.) But the summer before ninth grade, my stomach started hurting. It took eight months of going to the doctor to figure out that the problem was my gallbladder. I needed surgery again, and with that operation came another prescription for painkillers.

Things quickly went downhill. I held on to my pills long after the pain was gone, and by the spring of my freshman year, I had figured out how to get my hands on more. Meanwhile, I was also taking medication to treat my depression, but it didn’t seem to help. What I didn’t realize is that anti-depressants are significantly less effective when you’re drinking and taking drugs. I also didn’t know how dangerous—even deadly—it can be to mix them.

At that point, I was still getting good grades, which hid my addiction. But during my junior year, I started classes at the nearby University of Minnesota as part of a college program for high school students. I quickly learned that they don’t take attendance in large lecture halls and stopped going to class. The focus of my days became getting high or drunk.

Hitting Rock Bottom

I started using drugs or alcohol five to seven days a week, but I never got back to that original relaxed feeling. Instead of feeling good, I was constantly sick and miserable. In fact, I had started thinking about suicide. At the same time, I was trying really hard to keep my problem hidden—even from myself. I wore button-up shirts every day because I had this perception that an addict was someone who lives under a bridge or an older man with multiple drunk-driving arrests. Since I didn’t fit that description, I thought that couldn’t be me.

Even still, people found out. One buddy blew up at me and told me that if I didn’t get sober, he wouldn’t be my friend. At that point, my thinking was, “It’s my body. If you have a problem with my using, then leave me alone.” That caused me to lose one of my best friends. Meanwhile, my grades were starting to slip, and I was having screaming fights with my parents. They knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what. It didn’t help that I kept pushing them away.

An Admission—And an Answer

I wanted to get help, so I told my parents that I was stressed about school and asked if I could see a therapist. I confessed to my therapist that I was thinking about ending my life, and was hospitalized for 10 days so that I wouldn’t hurt myself. The intake nurse was the first person who got my entire addiction story. That was when my parents finally found out. It was so out of left field for them that they didn’t know how to handle it. Some days they were angry about it, and others they just cried.

Then, four days after I got out of the hospital, I tore the meniscus in my knee while playing softball. I needed yet another operation. This time, the doctors knew about my history of pill abuse, so when they prescribed painkillers they told my parents to lock up the medication somewhere I wouldn’t find it. But I still found a way: When I finished my prescription, I lasted only a couple of days before texting everybody I knew, asking, “Hey, where are you at? Is there anything I can get my hands on tonight?”

That weekend was my last opioid binge. I got high by myself at home in my bedroom and eventually passed out in the bathroom. The next morning, my parents told me that my younger sister, who was 12 at the time, had been so afraid of me that she slept in her closet. That was a punch in the stomach. I finally understood that my using negatively affected other people. Surprisingly, this is what gave me permission to recognize that I was an addict and start taking care of myself.

I got sober about five months before turning 17. I honestly believe that if I hadn’t, I would’ve died before my birthday. After I got out of treatment in April 2014, I finished high school at a recovery school. Now I’m in college and have a job and an internship. My goal is to work in education and teach kids about healthy coping behaviors so that they don’t turn to dangerous ones like I did. I have a great life, but addiction cost me a lot. I know I’m lucky. Not everyone is.

Additional vocabulary: tolerance; dependence

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