The ugly side of prescription painkillers—and how you could get hooked.
By Elizabeth Foy Larsen
The afternoon of her grandmother’s funeral, Brittany, 19, sat on the bed in what used to be her grandmother’s room, relieved to have finally snuck off after spending all day with her grieving family. In her trembling hands, she held a beaded plastic purse. Brittany knew it belonged to her younger cousin, but still she nervously reached inside, pulling out a $5 bill with her clammy fingers.
Brittany had been furiously rifling through her family’s bags and coat pockets for 30 minutes already, careful to be quiet as her family mourned—somber and teary-eyed—on the other side of the door. She was searching for cash or anything she could steal to sell so she could get high. All the while, her head was aching, and her mouth was dry.
Brittany was desperate. Yet, as desperate as she was, she couldn’t shake the feeling that stealing from a 6-year-old was a new low. How had she gotten here, she wondered—and what had she become?
The answer was at turns frighteningly simple and dizzyingly complex. It all began three years earlier. Brittany had been a bright 16-year-old with good grades and braces, who loved shooting hoops and playing with her dog. After Brittany had her wisdom teeth removed, her orthodontist prescribed Percocet, a commonly used painkiller, for her post-surgery discomfort.
What nobody told Brittany, however, was that using it has a downside. Percocet is a powerful and highly addictive medication—part of a class of drugs called opioids, that are no different chemically than their illegal counterpart, heroin. For one week after her surgery, Brittany took the Percocet every few hours, just as her doctor had prescribed. And with each pill, a numb feeling washed over her—a feeling that she grew to look forward to.
A week later, her pain was gone. But she still had some pills left. So she took one, just for fun.
That single, seemingly innocent, just-for-fun pill led to another, and then another. And before she even realized it, Brittany didn’t just want the drug—she needed it to get out of bed in the morning. Over time, each pill had been changing the chemistry of her brain, turning the happy South Florida honors student into a desperate addict.