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What’s the difference?

“I can’t be addicted to it, my doctor prescribed it.” Those are some of the last words I would hear my grandfather, a Vietnam veteran and retired Sheriff’s deputy, say to my father. He died less than a year later of a prescription drug overdose. Sadly, most Americans have the same misconception that granddaddy did: If the doctor prescribes it, it is not addictive. More and more people are dying of a prescription overdose every year, because nobody is telling them that their medicine could be hurting them. Americans are drugged out, not only on illegal drugs, but on prescribed ones. So I ask you, what is the difference? What makes it wrong to be addicted to cocaine, but acceptable to rely on Lunesta to sleep at night or ritalin to stay awake during the day? Why does society accept addiction in one form and not in another, instead of trying to fight the whole monster? The answer is simple: lack of education. Doctors need to be aware of what they prescribe and to whom, and patients need to be aware of possible side effects and signs of addiction.

Physicians pass out prescriptions like the leader of a parade passes out candy, left and right to anyone who asks and many who do not. A patient comes in with no history of heartburn or digestive issues, but when they ask for the pretty purple pill it is given to them by the nice man in a white coat. Why? Physicians get paid for every prescription they write, and when they put large numbers of people on certain medications, they often receive bonuses or incentives, such as new cars or trips to exotic islands. Many physicians only know the major symptom the medication is meant to treat, not the side effects or possible issues of that medication. They also do not watch for signs of an addictive personality in patients. One scientist says that “increased physician awareness of  trends in drug addiction can significantly reduce prescription abuse” (Riggs 1). A common argument in the prescription awareness debate is that it the responsibility of the pharmacist, not the doctor, to know the potential side effects and signs of abuse in patients (Gianutsos 1). The pharmacist studies the medicine specifically, but they also do not have access to patient history the way a doctor does. All the pharmacist can do is make sure the medicines patients are taking do not have adverse reactions to each other. It is the responsibility of the doctor, who has access to history, sees behaviors and tells the patient to take the medicine, to be sure that the patient needs that medicine, will not have harmful reactions to that medicine and understands what it is for and how it is used.

If every physician learned his or her patients’ history and behaviors, and also learned about which medicines can become addictive, the drug overdose rate would drop dramatically in a few years. If rock and roll legend, Steven Tyler, had seen an aware and educated physician, who knew of his previous addictions and addictive personality, perhaps his most recent trip to rehab, preceding his first season as an American Idol judge, could have been prevented, As it is, the singer was prescribed Lunesta for his insomnia and soon became so addicted to it that he crushed it up and snorted it. This led him back to a cocaine addiction that nearly killed him (Tyler 362). Celebrities like Elvis and Heath Ledger might still be alive if society acknowledged that prescription overdose is a growing problem, with the number of deaths increasing by three hundred percent each year (Tiry 2).This is not a problem limited to famous people or to people with a history of addiction though. Some people have an addictive personality but do not expose themselves to addictive behaviors, like illegal drugs and alcohol because of that personality. But when the doctor says take this to help with your pain, this to help you sleep, this for your acid reflux, they listen because they believe anything the doctor says is correct and anything he says to take will not, cannot hurt them (Sale et al1). They do not even protest when the doctor prescribes something to “prevent” a disease from happening. A recent incident where a “preventive” medication was given was seen in a case study on bone fractures and osteoporosis, where patients with a history of bone fracture were prescribed osteoporosis medication even though there were no indications of osteoporosis (Sale et al 1). Another example is prescribing Ritalin to children in order to make them stay awake. Ritalin is usually prescribed to improve focus in children with Attention Deficit Disorder, and is a schedule II substance just one molecule from being cocaine. It is often snorted through the nose in order to produce intense focus, and everyone knows someone with a prescription(Heyes 1). Doctors are prescribing medication at a rapid pace, with no care for whom they are giving the substance to. Prescribing young people Hydrocodone, with no thought to the likelihood of these young people selling their medicine or sharing it with friends.  This leads to several people being exposed to the medication and often becoming addicted to it as well. Former addicts and alcoholics are daily prescribed medications that are closely related to illegal substances such as cocaine and meth, with no care for how they will react. They often believe that because the drug is legal and was prescribed, it is safe, even when they become addicted(Gianutsos 1). But prescription addiction is not limited to individuals, it is a far reaching social problem that begins at a young age, not in the doctors office, but in the home.

Above the sink in most American homes is a cabinet full of medicine. Prescriptions, old and new, allergy medicine, aspirin for headaches, Pepto Bismal for an upset tummy, and so on. From childhood, everyone is taught to go to this cabinet for every discomfort they experience. As they get older, they see advertisements for prescription drugs that end in an auctioneer’s voice listing side effects too quickly for anyone to notice them and a cheerful “ask your doctor if whatsit medicine is right for you!” This creates a drug first, questions later culture that breeds addictions like maggots feeding off the corpse of self-awareness and critical thought.

For every common illness there is a medication, over the counter or prescribed, that will provide  relief from the symptoms for at least a few hours. However, these medicines often have negative side effects such as vomiting, fatigue, suicidal thoughts, depression, trouble breathing, liver failure and the list goes on and on. When the medicine is used too often or in excessive quantities, it can produce similar effects to many illegal substances. Ritalin, when snorted through the nose, produces intense focus and energy, similar to cocaine. Continued use in patients without Attention Deficit often experience depression and sleep deprivation( Heyes 1).  Just like the illegal drugs medications are closely related to, medicine can be addictive, especially in young people. So why do we tell our young people to stay away from one while insisting that they use the other?

The drug abuse problem in the United States goes back to the medicine cabinet. Mom and Dad keep it full of allergy medicine and aspirin, then when little Tommy says his head hurts, Mom sends him to the cabinet for aspirin. He begins to rely on medicine to feel healthy, which makes him susceptible to the other contributing factor in the home: the media. In one hour of television, there are about seventeen minutes of advertisements. Half of them are for prescription drugs.  The purple pill for heartburn, sleep aids and depression medicine to aid your depression medicine, all these are advertisements are expertly designed to make someone think that they have a disease by listing symptoms and advising that the patient should talk to their doctor that very day about whether or not such and such medication is right for them. The first time they see it, they blow it off, but then they see it again and the next night they feel funny after they eat that spicy burrito, so at their next doctor’s appointment they ask about the purple pill for heartburn. It never occurs to this person to just not eat the spicy burrito, because diet and exercise have been replaced by orange, semi-transparent bottles. As a society we have been trained to take medicine for anything that causes an adverse reaction, even to the point that when we have an adverse reaction to a drug, we are given another drug to fight that reaction. We are an addicted society. Furthermore, we are an addicted society who does not recognize our addiction.

Driving down the highway, commuters are confronted with gruesome images of emaciated, pale, hollow eyed men and women saying, “I wish I had never taken meth.” These signs frighten people to the point that they would never even consider trying meth, but it also encourages them to judge those people who became addicted to it. “Meth heads” and “stoners” are seen as stupid, unworthy human beings even though they become addicted for the same reasons people become addicted to prescriptions: it makes them feel good. Cocaine produces energy, weed provides relaxation, just as Ritalin produces energy and Prozac produces relaxation. But when someone is addicted to their prescriptions, they are not an “addict” and it is not their fault. They just need more of their medicine to combat their health problems and their doctor should be giving them more.  However, the definition of addiction is physical or psychological dependence on a substance. Therefore, anyone who depends on a substance to get through the day emotionally or physically, is an addict.

One of my favorite quotes is, “Do not judge others because they sin differently than you do.” What the addict relies on is not what matters. What matters is fighting the addiction. Instead of reaching for the pain killer, grab the ice pack and lay down for a few minutes. Instead of taking the purple pill, do not eat the spicy foods. Instead of giving children medicine to stay awake and focused, put them in bed early and feed them breakfast. Society needs to fight its prescription addiction! That starts with each individual making the decision to research their medicine and think about their options. Every human on earth has a brain. It is high time they use those brains and make their own well thought out decisions about health. Is the medicine necessary for survival? If the answer is no and the same effects can be gained through a controlled diet and an exercise regimen, why take the medicine? Start the withdrawal process and let’s fight addiction at its roots: in our homes.

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