Before her life began to unravel, Amy, 35, appeared to have it all and be on top of everything. While raising two daughters, she was working full-time at the University of Pittsburgh, coaching her daughter’s cheerleading squad, and earning her master’s in Human Resources online at Villanova University. Only her husband had any idea that she relied on painkillers to get through her busy days, though he was often not around. “I can't even tell you how many I was taking,” she said. “I mean, it was an all day thing. I was just popping them and popping them.”
She justified her escalating opioid use to herself with how much she was able to get done, sometimes going days without sleep. “I remember I woke up at like three in the morning and I looked around and my house was spotless. My laundry was done and dinner was cooked for a week and my daughter's hair was done,” she said. “And I was like, oh, like I really get a lot done with these pills.” Deep down, though, she knew she had veered onto a dangerous path. “It was one of these experiences where it's like you're looking at yourself kind of start to get out of control.”
Over the years Amy had encountered opioids several times through her doctors for surgeries and other procedures. She’d never previously had a problem putting them down when the prescription ran out. But after her second daughter was born she severely injured her back, effectively disabling her for several weeks. “I couldn't even get up and down the stairs,” she said. “I was on a plethora of opiates: Vicodin, Norco, Percocet, Oxycodone, everything you could think of.”
Even so, she stopped taking them when her pain began to subside and pursued other treatments for her back because addiction runs in her family. “I was really, really afraid to be prescribed anything strong on a consistent basis because of what I had seen in my family,” she explained. Her doctor suggested keeping her on Tramadol, a synthetic opioid, for her pain. “And he had me convinced that Tramadol was just a step above Tylenol.”
Not long after, though, she had another surgery and was prescribed liquid Roxicet. “That was the first time I can remember kind of feeling like, “Hey, I need something.”” When that ran out, she was able to get Vicodin from the doctor treating her back to supplement the Tramadol. Gradually she began taking more pills each day. Then she started ordering pills online to fill the gaps when her prescriptions ran out. Still, she was working full-time and raising a family. “I think when I started using, in the beginning,” she said, “it gave me that superwoman complex...because I could get through everything and do everything."
Within the span of a couple years, however, her marriage dissolved, she lost the job she had worked so hard for and she found herself a single parent spending all of her money on drugs. When she arrived for inpatient treatment after finally admitting that she needed help, her toxicology screening showed that the pills she’d been buying off the street contained methamphetamine, fentanyl and heroin.
After almost three weeks of treatment, Amy returned home to Pennsylvania and started outpatient treatment, including counseling. Initially, she was resistant to the idea of medication-assisted treatment. “I was so afraid,” she told me. “I'd heard all these horror stories about like, “Oh, you're just trading one drug for another.”
For two weeks she tried to continue treatment without medication at home, but she had powerful cravings and overall just felt like a “zombie.”
“I think I was projecting all of these beliefs that I had about Suboxone on myself,” she explained. “I'm like, people are going to think this and think that, and I'm never going to be able to get off of it.” Her doctor urged her to reconsider. “He said: stop punishing yourself. You have a disease, you're trying to get better. You're working through it. You're doing the therapy. You have a sponsor, you're going to meetings, you're working a program. He's like, these medications are here for a reason.”
Once she started Suboxone, she understood what her doctor meant. “It was like I was normal again. I had my personality again and I could, like, do life again,” she said. “But I wasn't high, so it doesn't give me a euphoric, you know, like floating in the clouds and Jesus hugging me type of thing. It's just like, I can function, I can work, I can take care of my kids and pay my bills and I'm not chasing it and trying to buy it.”
After only seven months of medication-assisted treatment, Amy has a better-paying job than the one she lost while she was using. She’s back on her own feet entirely, raising her two daughters and working full-time. “I don't think that I'd be able to do it without Suboxone,” she said.
Taking a medication daily has helped her not only in terms of stabilizing her moods and cravings, but it serves as a symbolic reminder of her duty to take care of herself in recovery. “For me it kind of serves as a reminder every day...to me it's like a diabetic that needs their insulin. I'm like, this is my maintenance,” she told me.
Medication-assisted treatment has given her the chance to be the high-achieving working mother that she is. “I feel like the Suboxone is a medication that does allow me to have a second chance,” she reflected. “Because I don't think I'd be able to function as well as I'm functioning without it. And everybody deserves a second chance.”