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Young man’s death by opioid overdose shows the dangers of experimenting with pain medications

Recently I was sipping a warm beverage, enjoying my morning reading when I came across a story that touched me deeply.

It began as a simple message of thanks from a woman whose family was going through a very painful time. She wasn’t sure how they would get through the holidays without the smiling presence of her 19-year-old nephew, who had died just days before.

“I know people are curious about what happened, and mostly, they’re asking for the right reasons,” she wrote. She had decided to share all the details in hopes of helping others.

How a late-night hangout went wrong

Her nephew, whom I’ll call Chris, spent the last night of his life much like any other college student might. He and his friends stayed up late, eating pizza and playing video games in the basement.

At some point, one of the friends offered Chris a pill that was stamped with the name Percocet, a prescription opioid commonly used to relieve pain.

Chris had no history of drug use. He was a star athlete, a loving son and brother, a strong presence in his community. No one knows why he and a friend decided to take the pills that night. Maybe it was simple curiosity. Or the fact that they trusted the buddy who offered them the drug.

Both young men died almost instantly, according to first responders who rushed to the scene later. Chris’s mom found them both the next morning, and when she couldn’t wake them, she dialed 911.

An opioid that’s 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine

Medical personnel say the pills were most likely laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has caused thousands of overdoses and deaths across the country in 2018 alone.

“We are still waiting for medical reports,” Chris’s aunt wrote, “but we’ve been told the the pills may have been up to 50% fentanyl. According to the detective working on the case, that’s enough to kill 10 men.”

Just knowing that fentanyl is a powerful opioid doesn’t begin to explain why it’s so lethal.

This man-made drug is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. It was originally developed to treat the worst pain suffered by cancer patients. In powder form, it looks so much like heroin that users can’t tell the difference. Drug dealers often pass fentanyl off as heroin, and due to the difference in strength, thousands of users have lost their lives.

“There can be no experimenting” with prescription drugs

Chris had big dreams. He wanted to be a father someday. He looked forward to playing football and baseball in college, hunting and fishing with his grandfather, and enjoying more time with his close friends.

“One bad choice was all it took to end this beautiful life,” his aunt wrote.

And she went on to raise a key point that really resonated with me.

Kids experiment with prescription drugs because they assume they’re safe. If they weren’t, why would the doctor prescribe them in the first place?

The idea that pills or capsules that look like they came from a family medicine cabinet could be laced with a harmful substance might never occur to young people who are just hanging out, looking for a little fun.

“You can’t see fentanyl. You can’t smell it,” Chris’s aunt pointed out. “The only way to be safe is to remember: there can be no experimenting.”

This is the wisest advice you can possibly share with your loved ones. And if you are concerned that a member of your family is playing around with opioids or prescription drugs, we are here to help you start the conversation.

Worried About Opioid Abuse? A Closer Look at the Prescription Pain Medications You or Your Family May Be Taking Right Now

If you’re concerned about someone you know who is taking opioids for pain, then you are not alone.

Throughout the Chicago area and around the country, more and more people are becoming addicted to prescription drugs that are meant to relieve discomfort. Ironically, using these drug for even a short time can lead to opioid addiction – even when we’re following doctor’s orders to the letter.

You may have heard the chilling statistics confirming that opioid overdoses have risen 100 percent from 2015 to 2016. You can’t listen to a newscast without hearing about the mounting deaths. In some communities, local morgues can’t take the bodies in fast enough.

Hospitals and substance abuse treatment centers are stocking up on Naloxone and Narcan, drugs used to treat overdose victims. But many people who overdose don’t seek medical help because they’re afraid they’ll be arrested and thrown in jail.

Understanding the opioid crisis that surrounds us

Looking at these terrible trends, we’re just as worried as you are.

I’ve written before about the classification of pain, because I want it to be clear that doctors aren’t blameless in this situation. Many have unwittingly fueled the opioid overdose statistics by prescribing opioids when other pain management solutions might have worked just as well.

But with the Centers for Disease Control reporting that more than 1,000 Americans end up in emergency rooms every single day, we need to look beyond the causes and work together to find real solutions.

Why some of us shouldn’t take opioids at all

One challenge is figuring out who will have a problem with opioids and who won’t.

It’s clear that some patients are more vulnerable to opioid addiction, yet there is no simple test to help doctors predict who will get hooked. As a result, scripts often end up in the hands of people who are very likely to become dependent.

The website reports that:

  • Nearly 30% of patients who are taking prescription pain medications will become addicted to them.
  • About 4% to 6% of those on prescription painkillers will eventually move to using illegal heroin instead.
  • Around 80% of current heroin users originally started with prescription meds.

How big pharma contributed to the opioid epidemic

In the 1990’s, a surge of new prescriptions for opioids laid the groundwork for the current crisis. Doctors adopted new diagnostic scales to evaluate the level of discomfort their patients were feeling. Many believe that the makers of prescription pain medications pushed for these changes, directly contributing to the epidemic of opioid overdoses and deaths we’re seeing now.

The CDC says the opioid crisis came in 3 overwhelming waves:

  • The first wave hit when a record number of Americans became addicted to the prescription pain medications their doctors gave them.
  • The second wave came when prescription opioid addicts switched to heroin in record numbers, causing a new surge of addiction and deaths.
  • The third wave came when fentanyl, a synthetic and often deadly form of heroin, hit the streets, further fueling the crisis.

Opioids don’t pick and choose their victims

All of us who work in health care are seeking answers, right along with you. We are reading the reports that show where resources and attention are needed most.

Opioid overdose statistics show the greatest number of deaths in Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, all areas that suffer from high rates of unemployment, poverty and occupational disability.

Clearly, communities that struggle to provide a good quality of life are seeing higher levels of opioid addiction. But that doesn’t mean that people in more affluent areas are immune to the problem.

At SunCloud Health, we treat patients from all over the Chicago area. We know that wealth, influence and education are no protection from the addictive power of these dangerous drugs.

How to help someone you love who is struggling

If someone you care about is taking prescription opioids right now, don’t panic. Millions of people are able to use these medications without becoming addicted. However, you should take a closer look to ensure that things really are all right.

Look for signs that may indicate your loved one is in trouble. This helpful guide from the Mayo Clinic is a good place to start.

If you’re concerned, find a non-confrontational way to discuss what you see. Here are some very thoughtful tips from Sharon Osbourne, a wife, mother and performing artist who’s definitely been there. Sharon’s wisdom will give you many practical ways to open a conversation with your loved one.

Even if you don’t succeed in getting through to your loved one, you may need to take action. If it’s clear your loved one can’t stop using prescription meds, or s/he has moved on to illegal drug use, contact us right now. Your call or email message is 100% confidential and we’ll help you both find the help you need.

More than anything, please promise me you won’t blame yourself. You didn’t cause your loved one’s addiction. But you can provide the loving support they urgently need to begin recovering. So don’t put it off. Get in touch with us today.

Baby Elephant Beliefs, written by Shale Marks, LCSW CADC and Dr. Kimberly Dennis, MD

Baby Elephant Beliefs

There’s an old adage about baby elephants. Circus trainers would tie a rope around a baby elephant’s leg and would attach it to a stake in the ground, so that the elephant wouldn’t run away.  When the elephant grew to be an adult and weighed 12,000 pounds, the same elephant tied to the identical stake in the ground, still believed it couldn’t move. The elephant could have easily pulled the stake out of the ground and set itself free, but it was held in place by a limiting belief system. Illusion. Most of what keeps “people stuck” in the cycle of addiction or “dis-ease” are old ideas, limiting belief systems about “the self and the world” which keep illusions alive. People are afraid to let go of those beliefs which for so long served to help them survive in a world that was actually or perceived to be very dangerous.

It’s the rule rather than the exception for those with early traumas to develop and to define themselves by their wounds – this forms the basis of identity. A healthy connection to community is never formed and the reality of one’s being alone and overwhelmed turns into a perpetuated belief that no one will ever be there to help and that even if they were, accepting help would be a sign of weakness. Many people with traumatic histories and insecure early attachments also slip into the belief that real change is not possible – that somehow, they are beyond repair. Too broken.

In the face of overwhelming physical or emotional instability in the environment, the most adaptive response for small children is often the freeze response. Kids learn to dissociate, to go inside and use whatever they have access to in order to self-soothe, survive, create the illusion of security. When there is healthy, consistent attachment to caregivers, neural connections in the frontal cortex of a developing brain are formed normally, especially the parts of the brain involved in executive functioning and compassion–a necessary ingredient in healthy interpersonal functioning. When secure attachments aren’t formed at a young age for any reason, normal development of the  frontal cortex will be impaired. When kids are intermittently or chronically in a state of danger, they are prone to developing heightened activation in certain areas of the limbic system. Increased activity in the amygdala, or fear gating center, can lead not only to ongoing hypervigilance (always looking for signs of danger) but also disrupts the development of memory for example, which can have serious effects on a trauma survivor’s sense of cohesiveness and identity.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy, based on cognitive behavioral principles, is one way to break the chains of old beliefs and a brain stuck in activated trauma patterns. PE uses imaginal exposure in a supportive process and guided by a skilled clinician, to revisit painful and traumatic memories, making them speakable. So often, traumatic memories are pushed down far inside, compartmentalized away, and for good reason! The brain does a wonderful job protecting people, and it also does a great job of healing if or when people are ready to access expert help. Another tool used in PE is in vivo exposure, which involves repeated confrontation with the situations that cause activation but which are not actually dangerous in the present. Working through the activation using newly developed coping skills and healthy attachment to support allows survivors to have corrective emotion experiences. These experiences over the course of therapy lead to deep and lasting change. PE does not necessarily rewrite history, but it can significantly reduce the charge that traumatic memories activate, leading to the capacity to write a new present and live in a different way–a manner of living characterized by intention, consciousness, empowerment and choice. After PE, the patient can begin to see the memories through the eyes of a whole adult, rather than fragmented and splintered-off parts of self from childhood.

The benefit of truly integrated and holistic care is that patients are treated first and foremost as whole persons, rather than a cluster of symptoms labeled as disease treated only with others lumped into the same box. Treating substance use disorder, eating disorders, mood disorders and trauma in an integrated way with a cohesive team is good medicine in and of itself for the fragmentation that results from trauma. Fragmented care cannot heal fragmented humans.

So, how do we let go of baby elephant beliefs? By noticing our patterns, naming them,  and sharing them with our fellow travelers – in allowing others to bear witness to our vulnerability, we find our strength. It is only when we become aware of our limiting beliefs, that we can make a decision to accept ourselves, and expand beyond the old with new actions, new beliefs and a new way of life.


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