SIDNEY — With information about the dangers of opioid abuse and worst-case scenarios of addiction abundant in the news and throughout social media, many may wonder what drives people to start using these drugs in the first place.
Of course, the answer is different for each user, and there are many contributing factors that may lead someone to turn to opioids. Things like mental illness, physical injury and previous abuse of other drugs may all play a role in a drug user’s addiction. However, these are simply potential contributing factors and are not present in all cases of addiction.
For Donnie King, 40, of Sidney, it was his struggle to alleviate the pain associated with Hodgkin lymphoma that first led him to opioid use.
Although he was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2015, King said he had dealt with symptoms of the disease for nearly two years before seeing a doctor. During this time, he self-medicated illicitly with opioid drugs.
“I started with pain pills before I found out I had cancer because I was in pain and didn’t know what the problem was,” King said.
At the time, it was easy to associate the pain with his labor-intensive job—King worked for an aluminum casting manufacturer—rather than to assume anything was seriously wrong, he said.
Once King had the cancer diagnosis, he underwent 12 months of chemotherapy and was given multiple opioid medication prescriptions to manage the painful side affects. These prescribed medications included morphine, Percocet, Dilaudid and Oxycontin.
Upon completion of chemo, King’s cancer went into remission and he was subsequently taken off of pain pills. He was given a prescription for Suboxone, which is a milder, opioid-like medication, to ease the transition.
A combination of buprenorphine and naloxone, Suboxone is a medication used to treat opioid dependence. Buprenorphine works by filling the brain’s opioid receptors and alleviating pain without producing the euphoric high. The naloxone works to block the effects of opioid medication, which can help prevent abuse.
While Suboxone has been shown to be effective in treating opioid dependency, it is not foolproof, and if used incorrectly, the ability to abuse opioids is still present.
“(The doctors) put me on Suboxone for pain management, but mentally, I wasn’t ready,” King said. “I just kept abusing pills and went to heroin.”
The first time King used heroin, he snorted it. He described the comparison to pain pills as “next level.”
“It takes away all your pain,” he said. “All your mental pain, everything, goes away.”
King continued, “After you do it, let’s say three times, or if you do it three days in a row, you’re hooked. You’re addicted. Then, if you don’t have it, you go through miserable withdrawal.”
Withdrawing from heroin led to diarrhea, vomiting and cold sweats, he said. Other common symptoms of withdrawal include anxiety, depression, seizures and hallucinations.
These symptoms can become intense and overwhelming, which is why many drug users find themselves stuck in a never-ending cycle of substance abuse.
“I didn’t wake up and decide I wanted to be an addict,” King said. “It’s not something I chose. It happened and it was miserable.”
As for how a drug user is able to obtain the illegal substance, King said it is much easier than non-users may think.
“(Heroin is) everywhere in Sidney,” he said. “Sidney is infested with it. It’s easier to find heroin right now in the city than it is marijuana. Say I was looking for some weed and I called 10 people, eight out of those 10 would say they have heroin but they don’t have weed.”
King also commented on fentanyl—an opioid up to 50 times stronger than heroin—and its more recent prevalence within the heroin drug market.
“It’s like Russian Roulette because you don’t know what you’re getting,” he said. “When I first started, there wasn’t fentanyl, so you didn’t have to worry as much as you do now. Now, you don’t know what you’re getting. One cap and you could be dead.”
King believes it was fentanyl or fentanyl-laced heroin that led to his first and only drug overdose, which occurred in November of 2017.
Three weeks prior, he had gone to the University of Toledo Medical Center’s detoxification unit after learning about the center from a friend, a fellow drug user who found help through UTMC. King completed the outpatient detox program before returning to Sidney in the hopes of finding long-term treatment at a facility near home.
However, finding this help proved to be a much longer process than King had initially anticipated. It was during this time that he relapsed and overdosed.
“When you’re on heroin and you finally hit bottom and say, ‘I want help,’ you need it now,” he said. “I called over 50 numbers trying to find help. I was crying, begging; either there was too long of a wait or (I was told to) call back every day until a bed opened.”
After realizing he may not be able to find help quick enough in Sidney, King called his counselor from the UTMC detox center and was placed in program at the Joshua Treatment Center, in Holland, near Toledo.
King completed the 30-day program at JTC before transitioning to a sober living facility called the Beacon House, located in Wooster, where he plans to stay until he feels confident and secure in his sobriety.
“It can be a very extended time (at the Beacon House) if you don’t feel like you’re ready (to leave),” he said. “I don’t plan to come back to Sidney for awhile. I don’t want the temptation.”
“I don’t want to live that life again,” King continued. “I was miserable. Even when you’re high, you’re not happy because you’re worried about the next fix or about being sick. I would like to go back (to school) to become a chemical dependency counselor, but that’s not something I can even look at right now. It’s honestly one day at a time; focusing on staying sober and clean.”