Family deals with
by Kelly Feser Eells
"Jane Doe" moved from Santa Barbara to Ojai with
husband "John" and their infant son two decades ago.
They were young, upwardly mobile professionals, and John soon
made his name in charitable causes - while Jane opted to become
a "stay-at-home mom."
Their second son, now in his late teens, was born in this "beautiful,
spiritual place that represents peace, home and comfort to thousands
of people," and the family, by Jane's account, was content.
"I did a pretty good job of mothering," she says with
a modest smile. "I home-schooled my kids for several years,
was a regular classroom volunteer (when the boys attended public
school) and, though we were neither rich nor poor, we always
knew love, abundance and happiness."
The Does also know more than a few years' worth of pain. Specifically,
the pain of drug addiction; the havoc it can wreak on even the
"best of families;" and how difficult it is finding
support - local support, especially - in this, "our culture
A series of sports- and work-related accidents left Jane's oldest
child, whom she describes as "a good young man, a lover
of life, children, baseball and even good old American apple
pie," addicted to Vicodin, a narcotic pain medication widely
prescribed from the late 1980s to the present.
Vicodin, or, in its generic form, hydrocodone, is chemically
similar to opium (five milligrams hydrocodone is equivalent to
30 milligrams codeine; 15 milligrams is equivalent to 10 milligrams
morphine) and is, like oxycodone, e.g., Percocet and OxyContin,
classified as a Schedule II controlled substance pursuant to
the Controlled Substances Act. (The five controlled substance
schedules are separated according to their approved medical use,
in diminishing order of their abuse potential. For example, Schedule
II substances have legitimate indications for the treatment of
severe, acute pain; Schedule I substances, per the U.S. Department
of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, have "...no
legitimate medical uses." Both Schedule I and Schedule II
substances, however, are classified as having "... a very
high potential for abuse.")
Still, the family's 'real troubles' began one night about four
years ago, "when our son ran out of his prescription, and,
after complaining of his pain to a 'friend,'" discovered
The drug, Jane notes, "is no different than the heroin that
we, as kids, were taught to never use. Except it's actually easier
to use, and far easier to get. With OxyContin, there aren't any
needles involved; you just crush the pills and sniff them"
- thereby removing much of the social and/or psychological stigma
associated with heroin use, though other sources say that intravenous
use of OyxContin has become common.
Shaking her head, she adds, "OxyContins, or, 'O.C.'s', as
the kids call them, are so incredibly easy to obtain. Here in
Ojai, by the time our children are 13 years old, some even younger,
they'll have been exposed to them God knows how many times: at
school, in the shopping centers, right under your nose at the
laundromat, and in their best friends' houses. This beautiful,
spiritual community has become a dangerous place for our youth,
and it's an epidemic that's slowly gaining momentum."
Oxycodone, synthesized from thebaine (a minor constituent of
opium) has been around since the early 1960s, most commonly used
in painkillers like Percodan and Percocet, prescribed for the
treatment of acute, short-term pain. OxyContin, on the other
hand, is relatively new. It was developed in late 1995, and by
early 1996, was already being hailed as a "miracle drug,"
able to take away the pain of the dying, terminally ill cancer
patients, and just about anyone suffering from a chronically
debilitating condition. Indeed, its distributors, Purdue Pharma,
L.P., as well as the DEA and the Food and Drug Administration,
acknowledge that it "...contains a much higher concentration
of thebaine" than any other licit opioid. And a spokesperson
for an East Coast pharmacy chain (which has, in response to both
a spike in armed robberies and select state mandates to "prevent
diversion of the drug to illegitimate dealers," quit stocking
OxyContin), called it "the closest thing to heroin you can
"This drug," Jane sighs, "doesn't discriminate
against class, sex or religion. Our kids, you, me, anyone, can
become addicted in one use; it's that powerful. Yes, it takes
away the pain. And a whole lot more. It's just doing what it's
supposed to do."
OxyContin is, as Jane states, "just doing what it's supposed
to do." And that is why patients rights groups, hospice
workers, oncologists, and a variety of health care professionals
across the country are reluctant to support any of the growing
grassroots efforts aimed at imposing stricter government control
of the drug.
The Drug Abuse Warning Network, billed as a "national surveillance
system" sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration branch of the U.S. Dept. of Health and
Human Services, reports that OxyContin prescriptions have increased
from some 300,000 in 1996 to close to seven million in 2001.
Still, Dr. Russell Portenoy, board member of the American Pain
Foundation and consultant to an "oxycodone discussion panel"
convened last year by the FDA and the DEA, spoke for a majority
of nationally prominent medics when he said that, "imposing
(further governmental) restrictions would have the unintended
effect of reducing access to patients who genuinely need it."
No one argues that OxyContin abuse is disproportionately higher
than abuse of other oxycodone-based medications; another DAWN
report, released last December, claims that oxycodone-related
deaths "have increased by 400 percent" since Purdue
Pharma's product first appeared on the market.
But that doesn't address the fact that all drug overdoses are
the result of intentional misuse, from taking medications that
weren't prescribed to mixing the ones that were with alcohol
and/or other substances, to suicide. It just happens that OxyContin
is much "easier" to overdose on than any other oxycodone,
described by patients rights activists as "a lifesaver for
the millions of pain-afflicted people who legitimately need it."
So easy, apparently, that the DEA has taken the unprecedented
step of scrutinizing a specific brand, as opposed to entire class
- like methaqualone, marketed as a "safe barbiturate substitute"
from 1965 until 1984, when it was reclassified as a Schedule
I controlled substance - of drug. In response to such scrutiny,
Purdue Pharma has removed its highest strength OxyContin, the
160-milligram tablet, from the market and is currently working
with the FDA on the development of an "abuse-resistant"
form of the pain relieving tablets.
In addition, the company is distributing educational kits designed
to "help physicians distinguish between real pain sufferers
and fakers," kits that include, among other things, "tamper-proof
Unfortunately, none of these measures seem to have helped make
OxyContin any less available to Ojai Valley youth.
"When my son realized he couldn't get off this drug without
help," said Jane, "he and his friends got together
for 'meetings' to try and help one another. But, sadly, these
meetings fell apart after only a few weeks."
Since that time, "my son detoxed himself twice. My husband
and I helped him detox several times at home, and, in between,
he detoxed several times in a hospital."
Detoxification is the process by which chemically dependent people
return to normal physical and mental functioning by either abruptly
or gradually discontinuing use of the chemical they're dependent
on. With chronic alcoholism and opiate addiction, the body goes
through extremely severe withdrawals - profuse sweating; shaking;
nausea; headaches; sometimes accompanied by uncontrollable itching
and always accompanied by overwhelming bouts of fatigue, i.e.,
"the nods" and/or "the chills" - lasting
anywhere from five to 21 days. Some people withdraw "cold
turkey," others under a physician's care, with or without
the assistance of such medications as Antabuse (for alcoholism)
and Naltrexone, an opiate blocker that tells the brain it's received
the drug it had been dependent upon to release naturally-occurring,
Despite her son's many attempts at detoxification, Jane concedes
that, "he couldn't stop."
Between the euphoria delivered by OxyContin itself, not to mention
the prevalence of oxycodone-based drugs in affluent, "bedroom
communities" like Ojai, her son could manage only a few
days' sobriety between detoxification episodes. "In desperation
for his life and, frankly, suicidal, he began methadone maintenance
last spring. Not a choice he or we thought he'd ever have to
make for his life. But, without methadone, there really were
only a few 'alternatives' remaining: detox in prison, die on
the streets, or, as has sadly twice been the case here recently,
die in your own home."
Methadone, a synthetic narcotic developed during World War II
as a cheaper alternative to morphine, does not produce a "high."
What it does do, per its proponents, as well as the U.S. Dept.
of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration, is provide a humane way of weaning opiate-dependent
people from street drugs; more importantly, it helps them "shift
their focus." Instead of spending their days thinking about
drugs or how to score them, they're free, like Jane's son, for
instance, to return to "normal life."
Though her son is back at work and is, for the most part, showing
signs of successful recovery, methadone maintenance is an intensive,
i.e., daily, form of treatment, requiring a minimal six months-to-two-years'
"My son counts five friends who have entered methadone treatment
(programs) in the last few months and, of those five, two have
dropped out and are back on OC's. When I asked him what made
the difference between those who stayed and those who left the
treatment program, he replied that 'one of them didn't want to
tell his mother'" he was on methadone. And, without a drivers
license, "he simply didn't have a way to get to the clinic
for his daily dose.
"Our value system," Jane concludes, "is really
She indicates that mainstream society's reluctance - "and
our own community's refusal, in particular" - to equate
'white collar,' prescription opiates like OxyContin with illicit/Schedule
I substances like heroin, mescaline or LSD makes "us all
part of the problem. We've all participated in this disease,
this growing epidemic.
You hear people say, 'that sort of thing' would never happen
here. Not at Nordhoff or Thacher or, God forbid, Villanova.'
We were taught that, only those 'bad boys and girls from Watts
or Harlem' did heroin. But it's here, and we must all set aside
any selfish desire to shield ourselves" from being 'exposed'
as parents of drug users. "Ojai has a very dark side, believe
me. It is up to each one of us as adults to come out of denial
and help our children into recovery. Even now," said Jane,
alluding to both recent OxyContin-related tragedies and reports
of the drug's potency, "my son has 'friends' who are just
starting to use OCs. We have to be willing to be willing to see
and hear what we never wanted to. We have to put some time, money
and energy into the community so that our young people feel they
have a steady, honest, dependable" source of help they can
turn to, "without worrying about being ridiculed or disowned."
As parents, "we can attend AA, NA, Al-Anon - which has been
a Godsend to me; my son's addiction literally brought me to my
knees - and other support groups, and if you're suffering from
your own drug or alcohol problem, your kids will need even more
support. Encourage them to attend Al-Ateen meetings. They deserve
to be able to talk about their feelings and gain relief from
this terrible disease just as much as you do. These aren't bad
boys and girls' these are our beloved children, and they deserve
a chance to become healthy, happy adults."
© 2002 The Ojai Valley
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