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Why are opioids so addictive?
01:09 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Chris Heide is a recovering addict, the recipient of the Kaplan Award for Narrative Journalism and is the co-Founder and editor-In-chief of Chosen Magazine, a publication that shares the stories of those who continue to fight with their addictions. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

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Chris Heide: The most difficult thing I had to do was try recovery again after I relapsed

Successfully beating addiction takes more than just administrative changes to health care policy, he writes

CNN  — 

My sobriety date is March 19, 2013. This date will enable me to persevere for the rest of my life.

Chris Heide

Social stigma accompanies the opioid crisis and prevents many people from seeking the help they need. The popular misconception is that addiction is some sort of moral failing; that it is simply picking the wrong choice. When society insists that addiction is a choice, it perpetuates a culture of guilt and shame, which inevitably keeps addicts from seeking help.

In order to truly fight this crisis, public discourse needs to change. As leaders and citizens in cities, states and the nation realize how wide-ranging the scope of the opioid crisis is, the question of what to do next should be a key part of the health care discussion.

In 2016, more Americans died from a drug overdose than died in the Vietnam and Iraq wars – more than 64,000 – combined. This sobering statistic sheds light on the fact that America is embroiled in the largest drug epidemic in US history.

For many years of my life, it seemed that I would become nothing more than a victim of my addiction. But I am one of the fortunate souls who had a chance at recovery. At 21, I was prescribed opioid pills, by a medical professional, for back pain. Slowly – but surely – I became addicted, and in just a few years, my life was falling apart. Without treatment, I would have become a part of the staggering overdose statistic.

I was 25 years old when I first went to rehab. I was in denial about being an alcoholic and drug addict. I understood that I had a prescription pill problem, but I continued to dismiss the notion that the pills were the reason my life was in shambles. I couldn’t see that they were slowly killing me and affecting my family. And the idea that I would be sober for the next 50 years of my life terrified me. I didn’t believe that I could be happy in life without some sort of chemical dependence, and I was willing to sacrifice anything that inhibited my dependence.

You don’t know you are addicted until it is too late. I still had a home, a boyfriend and money. I abused my support system’s weak boundaries. I was still capable of manipulating my mom, sister, friends and other sober people who supported me, to feed my disease. The temporary high that I craved replaced my unresolved feelings of not belonging.

After only 28 days of rehab in 2011, I relapsed. I fed my addiction with other opiates, justifying my freefall through denial: As long as I avoided my drug of choice, I wasn’t addicted, right? I lost everything, including friends and family. And jail – even death – became very real possibilities. I had no friends, and my family had exiled me from any family celebrations. The noose was tightening.

Recovery after such a tortuous and destructive relapse was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. I had to relearn how to be a human being again. I had to relearn how to be an adult, how to care for others, and how to keep my word. I had to face my personal issues head-on and learn how to cope.

I didn’t have a choice. I knew that if I relapsed again, I would surely die. This was my last shot at recovery. I reached out for help.

People seeking help need access to affordable treatment. Low-income and uninsured addicts may not have access to professional rehabilitation clinics, which are very expensive, but offer the greatest rates of recovery. Personal treatment is possible, but has the highest rate of relapse. Often, many people opt for incarceration, which provides health care treatment paid for by the city or state.

Prevention remains elusive. Although every state has a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP), which aims to identify and prevent prescription drug abuse, only 16 states require medical providers to use PMDPs. PMDPs are a top-down approach to the crisis, but more can be done to educate from the bottom up.

More than 92 million Americans – 38% of the population – were prescribed opioids in 2015, where an average of 5% of adults were misusing the drugs. Many times, doctors have no idea that their patients are more naturally susceptible to abusing opioids, and some patients – myself included – had no idea until it was too late.

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Beating the opioid crisis will require more than administrative changes in health care policy. It will require educating people on the serious dangers of abusing prescription drugs, more collaborative monitoring of prescriptions among state governments, and – culturally – learning how to accept those with the disease through destigmatizing addiction. Until then, Americans will continue to succumb to a preventable disease that will taunt them for the rest of their lives.