Rebecca Bobb was a success story.
A graduate of Ohio University and the recipient of a law degree from Capital University, she was managing her own law practice in Chillicothe. She was the mother of two boys. Other than the occasional migraine, which she managed by taking pain pills prescribed by her doctor, she was on top of the world.
But in 2008, Bobb was experiencing the worst of a three-day bout with her latest migraine.
Amid abusive relationships that would lead to occasional emergency room trips, Bobb took the advice of a friend and strayed from her suggested prescription pain-medicine dosage for the first time and snorted 20 milligrams of oxycontin.
Bobb realized she was in a downward spiral when the pills were no longer for the treatment of pain, but rather a “means to an end.”
“I knew (the pills) gave me a legitimate escape,” she said. “I knew my family and friends would be here to take care of my kids for the 24 hours or so that I was semi-comatose, in a bedroom, sleeping off the effects of the medication.”
Though Bobb eventually would be thankful that rock bottom came, her journey before it did was “hard and fast.”
“My addiction took me down in about 2 1/2 years,” she said. “I remember sitting thinking ‘Oh, my God; I am addicted.’ … That scared the living crap out of me.”
Humans have an “almost unlimited ability” to develop tolerance for opiates, said Orman Hall, director of the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services. Opiates can come in the form of both prescription pain medication and heroin, Hall said, and they have the same chemical makeup.
“These drugs are dangerously addictive,” he said. The use of prescription opiates to treat pain began in the late 1990s. With a natural ability to spawn dangerous addictions, even the slightest misuse can lead to a certain degree of dependency.
Bobb was no exception. During the height of her addiction, the 37-year-old stole money from her clients, snorted crushed pills on her desk at work and lied to her doctors before a 10-month incarceration for theft.
“That bottle of pills took on a whole different meaning to me,” she said.
Bobb now lives in Columbus and is reunited with her two kids. She’s on the second of a four-stage program from Amythest, an organization that provides long-term drug and alcohol treatment.
Waiting to re-enter the work force, she’s sitting on an uncommon ending to an all-too-familiar story in Ohio, a state that issued 641,822,180 pain-medicine prescriptions last year. That number has risen steadily since 2007, when 492,304,205 were issued.
“Legal drugs, when not used as prescribed, can be just as deadly as any street drug you can find,” said Paul H. Coleman, president and CEO of Maryhaven.
Maryhaven, a health-care facility specializing in the treatment of people with addictive illness, has three locations in Ohio. Coleman said about 70 percent of the facilities’ patients have used opiates in the form of heroin or prescription drugs, and their stories often feature more similarities than differences.
“I might hurt my back and then get prescription drugs as relief for the pain,” said Coleman, re-enacting a typical patient story. “I found out they worked quite well. I got to the point where my current doctor said, ‘Well, you know, I just can’t prescribe them for you anymore.’ I found you can buy them on the street. …
“That’s about the time we hope they will call us for help, and we take them in.”
This holds true for a resident of Heath, in Licking County, but turning to the illegal acquisition of these drugs was not an option for him.
The 39-year-old wouldn’t allow publication of his full name because he didn’t want to embarrass his family or put them at risk. He fears that someone might try to rob them for drugs, despite the fact that he is not in possession of any prescription opiates, he said.
Rob said he suffered a debilitating back injury at work and began a prescription-medication plan with his doctor. After the doctor who originally began prescribing him pain medicine retired, Rob was denied further treatment from his new doctor.
“The new doctor that took over told me flat out, ‘I’m not giving you pain medication, and please leave my office,’ ” he said. “I had to go cold turkey.”
Rob was a prime candidate for “pharmacy shopping,” or illegally seeking prescription medication, as he had switched pharmacies once before with his old doctor.
Under his old plan, Rob was able to get up to two oxycontin and six Percocets a day to treat his chronic pain. When that came to a forced end, Rob went through a crippling withdrawal — at least that’s what his friends and family told him.
“There were hallucinations; I had seizures … I lost an entire two weeks of my life,” he said.
Before the injury, Rob loved to go hunting, looking for mushrooms and four-wheeling. While pain pills helped him partake in those activities in moderation, without them he is virtually immobile, leaving the house just once a day to pick up his daughter at school.
Statistics showing numbers of prescriptions written for people like Bobb and Rob don’t quantify the extent of the problem in Ohio. They don’t include the pills acquired on the street to feed high levels of opiate addiction.
Brian Greer fell into that group last year. He was electrocuted near Rickenbacker Airport while trying to steal copper to help pay for his addiction.
From the age of 18, Greer had been in and out of prison and also using prescription opiates recreationally. During what would be his last stint in jail, Greer received treatment for his addiction and rode a five-year clean streak before suffering a work-related injury.
Without health insurance, Greer turned to a friend for Percocet and Vicodin.
“You can kind of see how much people can build up a tolerance,” said Hall. “If they relapse, which most do, those individuals using at high levels are at risk for overdose and death.”
Greer, at 34, died for a few strands of copper wiring along a set of railroad tracks.
“As far as the addicts go, and the people that are affected, I get the sense that they feel alone,” said Amy Seidle, Greer’s 32-year-old sister. “They’re some of the best people I’ve met in my life.”
A call from Greer during his last stint in prison inspired Seidle to obtain her nursing license and eventually to start a SOLACE group in Circleville.
SOLACE, or Surviving Our Loss And Continuing Everyday, is a group that began in Portsmouth. The group has since expanded, with the mission of helping those who lost loved ones to drugs and addicts make changes.
“It’s for families that have to deal with the stigma of losing someone,” said Seidle. “If we educate, hopefully we can … break the cycle and the stigma that if you’re hurt and you’re an addict, you need to reach out.”
For Bobb, reaching out might be her best advice for those at risk of opiate addiction.
“Do everything you possibly can to look for alternative pain management,” she said. “The moment the pain relief becomes less important than all of the other effects you’re getting from the pill — at that moment, talk to somebody. Be honest about it. Seek intervention.”