Who'd have thought that a simple prescription for Vicodin to treat my relative's carpal tunnel syndrome would light a fuse that would ultimately ruin his life and hurt his family members as well?
With his substance abuse history, this relative (we'll call him Joe) wasn't exactly a tough sell for pill addiction. He had been an abuser of illegal drugs since 10th grade or so, running through all of the "hippie" drugs of the late '60s and early '70s. He's turning 60 this weekend.
He repeatedly got in trouble in his teens and early 20s for drugs, flunking out of college twice for "tripping every day," as he described it, and even bouncing out of the U.S. Navy with a drug amnesty discharge.
But he did make it through those times, and ended up with a good job at a factory in Southern California. He worked there as a manufacturing expediter for 25 years before quitting (or being forced out) and moving back to Ohio. He ran the factory floor, making sure that the process ran smoothly, from the warehouse racks to the testing lab to the machining equipment to the shipping department.
All this time, he continued to over-use alcohol and marijuana, but never so much that it interfered with his work. He was single throughout this time, with just one or two friends. Never one for going out, he'd hole up in his apartment and listen to music, play it on his guitar, or watch TV, all while getting high and guzzling beer.
Somewhere along the line, he started having pain in his thumb and hand, and after seeing a doctor, received a prescription for the pain medication Vicodin. I'm not sure how long it took for him to get hooked but the family, most of us in Ohio and other points back East, first noticed he had a problem when he started borrowing money.
It began gradually, but over the course of three or four years, he ended up owing most of us varying amounts of money. He also owed many of his co-workers money, and that's what finally soured his relationship with his employer. At one point, I noticed his "owesy" list, as he called it, when he was visiting Ohio for the holidays. It contained a long list of names on the left and varying amounts of money in a right-hand column. Some had been X'ed out, while others had new amounts scribbled in.
It was during his early addiction, too, that family members started remarking on the fact that whenever we talked to Joe on the phone, the main thrust of the conversation quickly became his money problems (or his not having enough pain medication). He had maxed out his credit cards, only had $3.50 (or whatever) to last till payday next week, and was eating Cheerios or tuna fish at every meal.
Other family members and I probably heard some version of that conversation a thousand times during Joe's downfall in California and subsequent move back to Ohio. It's still going on today, though most of the family now avoids him.
Over the years, we just got tired of trying to help someone who couldn't get it together to help himself. Perhaps more than anything, the relationships became irrevocably frayed when he showed up at two family events this past year, only to borrow money.
He complains that his family and friends have abandoned him, but seemingly doesn't have a clue as to why – the fact that his single-minded focus on drugs has shoved aside all other common points of reference with people.
When Joe did move back to Ohio a few years ago, owing credit card companies upwards to $60,000, he cashed out his entire 401K – some $100,000 – to help him get back on his feet. Unbelievably, that money was gone in less than a year.
I found it inconceivable that a single person, with a very inexpensive lifestyle and no family to care for, could run through all that money, just buying pills.
But he did. Every last bit of it.
So now, back in Ohio, with no legitimate income other than his disability checks (from the carpal tunnel syndrome), Joe still lives from day to day, borrowing money whenever possible.
He does still have a semblance of a code of honor, and pays some of us back when he's able, only to turn around and borrow again the next week or month.
And now he has another way to earn extra money. He drives a young woman (whose license is suspended) to her "appointments" all over Northeast Ohio. He gets $50 to sit in the car and wait until his friend is finished with her client. Just a hint: she's not doing manicures or back massages, and isn't selling makeup or pots and pans.
He no longer eats Vicodin like candy, but did have a near-death brush with Oxymorphone and black-tar heroin a year or two ago, offered him by his new friend and her sister. Good, decent people, like "family" he calls them.
Now, he insists the only drug he takes is Xanax, and "that's just so I can sleep."
But it's unclear how long he'll be able to take care of himself, and I suspect either jail, a nursing home or death isn't that far away.
I guess I'm telling this story because unless you know someone like this, the whole idea of drug addiction can seem distant, from TV land or some other world. But this country, our own county, is full of stories like that of my drug-addicted relative. You see the names in the papers every day or two – so and so arrested for passing bad checks, stealing from Wal-Mart, selling pain-killers, or whatever.
Each pill-popper has his or her own difficult set of challenges in life, but what you don't see are the families and friends they leave behind with hurt and heartbreak.
The libertarian attitude – he's only hurting himself; let him do it – doesn't apply with prescription pill junkies. They hurt everyone they come in contact with.