Prescription painkiller overdose deaths among U.S. women, 1999-2010. Graphic: CDC

By Hayley Krischer   
20 August 2018

(Marie Claire) – Donna* is from the suburbs. She says so proudly. A really nice town not far from Philadelphia. Donna grew up in a nice middle-class family. She wrote poetry. She had shoulder-length blonde hair and a job at the board of social services.

Today Donna is in a group therapy session at Family First, an outpatient substance abuse program for women.

In 2011, after she gave birth to her son Marco*, now six, a doctor prescribed the then-25-year-old Donna Oxycodone and Xanax for chronic back pain. Donna paid the doctor in cash. It was a “pill mill,” where doctors doled out prescriptions like candy. Her family knew that she was taking a lot of pills, but it wasn’t some drug dealer she was seeing. This was a doctor, after all. And the pills helped. Still, her mother didn’t like it. Her mother thought it was going to lead to something else.

This went on for a while, taking pills without any real issue. And then in 2013, Donna got into a very bad car accident. More prescriptions. Severe depression. A suicide attempt. A stint in rehab. Someone reported the doctor at the pill mill to the DEA and the place shut down. Maybe things were looking up.

Then her husband started taking Percocet for a dislocated collarbone. Here it was again, Oxycodone, right in her house. He became addicted. She didn't—at first. Then her tolerance went up. She spent hours hiding in her bedroom, ashamed. Her mom would watch Marco and her husband would sneak her pills. She hated herself for using.

Percocet isn’t cheap. Percocet is $25 a pill. Heroin is $10 a bag. Donna, of course, didn’t want to do heroin. She had just found out she was pregnant with her second child. Who wants to do heroin when you’re pregnant? But she was taking pills all day every day, and she and her husband could split the $10 bag and feel the same euphoria as with two $25 pills. That’s $50 or $10—what would you spend?

Statistically significant changes in drug overdose death rates involving heroin by select states, United States, 2015 to 2016. Graphic: CDC

When Donna was 37 weeks along, she had a vision of herself dead in a grave. Either dead or high—she didn’t see an in-between. “I want to be induced,” Donna told her OB-GYN. Donna hated what she was doing to her baby. “I want you to induce me because I want to kill myself.” When you tell an OB-GYN that you’re sniffing heroin and want to kill yourself, they don’t induce you. They call the Department of Children and Family. The OB-GYN found a clinic that could get Donna on methadone. Three days later, at 38 weeks, she had the baby. A boy. His name is Dylan*.

Now Donna drives about 20 miles to Camden, New Jersey, every day to sit at the methadone clinic from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Three times a week she comes to the group and individual therapy sessions at Family First. She's decided to send Marco to private school and Dylan stays with Miss Charlotte in the small nursery on the first floor of the building while Donna goes to therapy. She likes the women here. She likes the counselors.

But Donna hates Camden. Camden scares her. It’s filled with people with addictions, she says. Plus, the methadone regiment is restrictive. If she misses a dose, she gets reprimanded. If she misses a dose, she gets sick. She calls it “Methadone Prison.”

It’s working, though. Donna has been heroin-free for 126 days. But she doesn’t feel free. Her husband is in rehab and she can’t visit him there. She wants to move on with her life. When will she move on with her life? How? […]

Emergency room visits for prescription painkiller abuse among U.S. women by age group. Graphic: CDC

By 2013, a new sort of woman was using heroin: Affluent women. Middle aged, middle-class women with carpools. Gen X moms recovering from knee surgeries. College girls with double majors. Women with incomes above $50,000 and private health insurance. Women who had been taking Oxycodone and Vicodin because they’re excellent pain-relievers. Superior to a vodka tonic. Better than smoking a joint.

The CDC declared opioid abuse an epidemic in back in 2011. In October, Trump declared the epidemic a health emergency. According to the CDC, heroin and opioid use among women doubled between 2004 and 2013—a rate twice that of men. More women are dying from prescription pain pills than ever before. Since 1999, the number of fatal overdoses among women has increased 400 percent, among men, 265.

The black cloud of drug use respects no boundaries; it reaches its spindly fingers to all corners of the country, touching all demographics. And while the newest data shows there are still far more men addicted to opioids and heroin, women have become uniquely addicted to the substances and at an alarmingly faster rate. [more]

How Heroin Came for Middle-Class Moms

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