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Mom's Little Secret

What starts as a little pain relief is turning some East Bay suburbanites into full-blown drug addicts


Kate looked like any suburban mom as she hurried through the doors of Rite-Aid on a sunny summer afternoon. In shorts, with blonde, short-cropped hair, she might have been running a quick errand on her way to the gym. Kate needed to pick up a prescription. But as she neared the pharmacy counter, a police officer caught her eye. He was looking right at her. Kate turned around and headed back out the doors of the store. She had just stepped into the parking lot when she heard the officer behind her, asking her to stop. >>>

Kate stopped. And at that moment, she knew she had hit the wall. The 30 to 40 Vicodin tablets she had been taking every day had finally caught up with her. Now she would go to prison, she thought, and lose everything she loved—her husband, her three children, friends, a beautiful home in central Contra Costa, her career.

The officer asked her if she had come to pick up a prescription for Vicodin, gently adding that the doctor whose name was on the slip of paper denied issuing it.

"I tried to lie at first, say that it wasn’t me," says Kate, who asked that her name not be used for this story. "And he said, ‘Don’t even go there.’ Then I just broke down, and I said for the first time, ‘I’m a drug addict.’"

Drug abuse in the suburbs isn’t new; housewives in past decades were known to be overly fond of stimulants and diet pills, as well as Valium. But Vicodin and other similar prescription painkillers are the new drugs of choice among affluent suburbanites, authorities say, and their popularity is skyrocketing.

Doctors and counselors at local rehab centers say they are seeing a sharp increase in the number of people who are addicted to Vicodin or OxyContin, an even stronger drug. "It’s going full blast," says Dr. Frederic Von Stieff, medical director for the John Muir/Mt. Diablo Center for Recovery.

Vicodin and similar drugs are so addictive that some people can get hooked after just a few weeks of use—and that includes prescribed use as a pain reliever, says Dr. Ken Saffier, who specializes in treating addiction for Contra Costa County. Although Vicodin, a narcotic, makes some people dopey and depressed, for other users it’s a "happy pill" that makes them feel energetic, free of anxiety, and euphoric—sensations associated with street drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, and even heroin.

While outwardly healthy, suburbanites can acquire Vicodin easily without having to do a deal on some grim downtown street corner. It’s widely prescribed by doctors for effective, fast-acting pain relief.

These days, getting Vicodin doesn’t even require employing scams like faking pain at a doctor’s office, hitting real estate open houses to sneak bottles out of medicine cabinets, or forging prescriptions. Over the past few years, a new free-flowing prescription drug pipeline has emerged: the Internet.

"It’s essentially a lawless frontier," Von Stieff says of the online open market cruised by his white-collar clients and "housewives from Walnut Creek and Danville" who charge hundreds, even thousands of dollars a month to their credit cards at Internet sites selling drugs.

Anyone can Google "Vicodin" and come up with a long list of online pharmacies that will issue prescriptions and ship pills overnight. For addicts, says Dr. S. Alex Stalcup, of the New Leaf Treatment Center in Lafayette, getting drugs online furthers the illusion that taking them is OK. And with paperless purchases a click away on the computer, it makes hiding an addiction even easier.

Kate never shopped for her drugs online—she admits she didn’t know about the Internet as a source for drugs until after she was arrested. She jokes darkly about wishing she had known: "Then I wouldn’t have gotten caught."

After two years of being clean, Kate holds nothing back as she tells the story of her journey from happily married professional to accused felon. Sitting in her antique-filled living room, with its cathedral ceiling and picture window looking out onto a sparkling blue swimming pool, she speculates that genetics played a part. Her family tree, like many of ours, has its share of problem drinkers and drug abusers, right down to an alcoholic father, and a sister and daughter who battled drug addictions.

As a teenager growing up in the Bay Area, then as a student in nursing school, Kate partied on the weekends, indulging in what some thought was a harmless, recreational amount of alcohol and illegal drugs. "I was a weekend hippie," she says, "but I never abused during schooltime."

When she started working as an emergency room nurse, a job she loved, she left partying behind. She got married, had three children, and, with her executive husband, built a prosperous, happy life in an upscale neighborhood. She drank wine or beer socially, but never to excess. She didn’t drink at all during her pregnancies. "I was Mother Earth," she says. "I was a soccer mom."

This picture of domestic perfection faded once her kids hit adolescence. While her sons rebelled in typical teenage ways, her daughter was in serious trouble. Struggling in school, often belligerent, and constantly breaking the rules, her daughter consistently pushed Kate’s buttons.

Kate did not like the confrontation. "I always felt I should be the perfect mom. I’m a real people-pleaser and I want everything to go right. But there was chaos in the house," she says. "I drank after work, and it got to be a daily habit. I just drank wine, so I thought there was nothing wrong with that. It helped me sleep."

But one glass after work quickly turned into two, and then to a half bottle or more. She says she was afraid to face the depths of her daughter’s problem, which was an addiction to methamphetamine. Kate also tried to avoid confrontation with her husband, who wanted to take a tough-love approach and kick their daughter out of the house. "I felt if I didn’t have to talk about it, the problem wasn’t there," she says. "I was becoming more and more stressed out, and not just at home, but at work."

Then Kate hurt her back at work. It was a relatively mild injury, but it was painful, and her doctor prescribed Vicodin. Kate was an immediate fan. The chemicals attaching to the nerve receptors in her brain and spinal cord not only stopped her back from hurting, they gave her a pleasant lift, dissolved her worries, and left her with a sense of centered calm. "I thought, wow, this is really nice."

hile teenagers might pass Vicodin around at a party, most adults who abuse it are like alcoholics who drink on the sly. These secret addicts usually don’t resolve to stop until after they’ve done something drastic: wrecked the car, messed up at work, or hurt someone close to them. Getting arrested—for buying drugs on the street, "doctor shopping," or forging prescriptions—can be a blessing, a moment of truth that prevents a worse tragedy.

But addicts who get their pills on the Internet face little chance of getting the wake-up call of a brush with the law. For one thing, the Internet drug market is running way ahead of authorities, even at the federal level. Norm Wielsch, commander of the state Justice Department’s Central Contra Costa County Narcotic Enforcement Team, says Web sites often handle drug transactions at offshore locations, where U.S. drug laws have no jurisdiction. Sometimes, drug
sites offering quick and easy access to controlled substances pop up overnight, then disappear—often returning to the Internet under other names.

In researching this story, Diablo ordered 30 Vicodin tablets from a site whose link came courtesy of a spam e-mail. Its $79 "doctor consultation" consisted of four questions: Are you pregnant or nursing? Do you smoke? Any drug allergies? Are you currently taking other prescription drugs? The pills arrived via UPS three business days later.

t wasn’t long before Kate started taking Vicodin simply to smooth out the rough edges of a bad day. For Kate it was like speed, without any side effects of nausea or sleepiness. "But it was a happy speed," she says. Her new-found energy made her want to clean the house, charge to the gym and work out, or organize family-bonding outings with her husband and kids. Life on Vicodin, she says, seemed "so much better."

At first, Kate could get that buzz by taking one or two pills a day. As a nurse, she figured she would know if she had a problem. She’d seen addiction in the ravaged faces of heroin addicts, and jaundiced alcoholics throwing up blood. She definitely didn’t see herself in that picture.

One day, Kate’s energy began to flag, so she took some Vicodin while she was working. "I remember feeling a little guilty, but then I thought, well, nobody knew. And I really thought I performed better; it made the time go faster, and because I was elated, it made me think, I really like my job."

Over the next year, her cravings intensified. Two pills a day became a few a day, and then there were the days when she lost count. She continued drinking wine, mostly in the evenings to bring her down from her Vicodin buzz. She found herself needing to figure out a way to maintain her pill supply. Unlike some medical professionals who get hooked on drugs, Kate didn’t nip pills from workplace cabinets. She made the rounds of doctors’ offices, feigning back pain. She knew which doctors in the county were likely to give her what she wanted. Then she stole prescription pads from the hospital where she worked. "I sort of knew how to play the game," she says. "Knowledge can be evil."

So can denial, and Kate, like most addicts, was able to tell herself that she was keeping things together. Her husband, for instance, didn’t notice the $30 or so she was spending for each bottle of pills—a gradual hemorrhaging that eventually amounted to $800 or $900 a month.
"We had the money, so he didn’t miss it," she says. "He thought it was my mad money, or I was spending money on the kids or on groceries."

About a year into her addiction, Kate began going to her daughter’s counseling meetings as she recovered from methamphetamine addiction. Kate played the role of loving but occasionally aggrieved, self- righteous mom—while she was high herself.

But things started to slip. She’d forget to pay the household bills. If her husband complained, she’d say, "I have a lot on my mind right now," but wouldn’t elaborate. She withdrew from him in other ways as well—coming up with excuses to nix his plans to travel. "It was too panicky for me to be out of town," she says, "because I didn’t know where I would get my drugs."

At one point, her husband quizzed her about her daily shopping trips. She was hitting pharmacies around the county for drugs but always told him she was going to "the grocery store." Why didn’t she plan better, he asked, so she’d only have to shop for food every few days? And when she sometimes returned empty-handed, he’d ask, Where are the groceries?

"The lies built up," Kate says. "They were hard to keep track of, but I couldn’t tell him. We had a great marriage, but I couldn’t tell him. I thought he’d leave me and be disgusted with me."

fter a while, the pleasant, floating feeling Kate first got from Vicodin began to disappear, no matter how many pills she took. The drugs had damaged the brain chemistry that allowed Kate to experience pleasure. Eventually, the continued use of Vicodin alters this chemistry so it stops giving pleasure altogether, says Rick Baez, director of outpatient services for the John Muir/Mt. Diablo Center for Recovery. Yet the body needs a constant infusion of the drug or it goes into physical withdrawal, which Baez describes as "flu times 30"—muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes, even seizures.

Each morning, Kate would wake up shaking and cramping. She needed to take at least two pills to make that feeling go away, just to "feel normal." Her use of Vicodin ratcheted up to 30 or 40 pills a day, and she recognized that the cramps and shakes were symptoms of withdrawal. She worried that she was damaging her liver and that she was risking her patients’ safety by being high at work.

"I kept looking for ways to stop by myself," she says. "I really thought I would be able to, but I kept putting it off. You tell yourself you’re going to do it. You know you need to do it, but I just couldn’t."

Kate’s arrest finally stopped her. Her husband arrived home from a business trip to find his wife missing. Her kids didn’t know where she was, and neither did her best friend. Then came the call from the Martinez Detention Facility.

During those hours sitting in the women’s lockup, Kate figured she would probably go to prison. But as devastating as that prospect was, she thought there was one advantage to it. It would force her to get off drugs, and the nightmare would be over.

By 1 a.m., her husband had posted her bail, and Kate found him waiting for her in the front lobby. His face was tired, but not angry. "He gave me a hug, and he said, ‘You need help.’"

The next day, Kate visited a lawyer, then checked into rehab. For several days, her body shook with chills and muscle spasms, and her bowels raged with unrelenting diarrhea. The medication she took to prevent seizures made her feel so tired and sluggish that she felt "more screwed up" in her head than when she was on Vicodin, she says.

"It was hard to see my kids," Kate says of visits with her husband and children during the three weeks she was in rehab. "I felt like a failure to them.

"But they were supportive. My daughter, who was an addict, was pretty angry at first, but she also understood."

Over the next few months, Kate and her husband did a lot of talking and "Monday-morning quarterbacking." Her husband realized he had noticed Kate’s distance and irritability but had wondered if the fault lay somewhere in the marriage. Now some of her behavior started to "click." Kate, meanwhile, realized how her attempt to maintain the facade of perfect wife and mom stopped her from having difficult conversations with her husband that would have led to a more honest—and tenable—life.

Her recovery wasn’t easy, but she was determined. She joined a special drug program for nurses. Two years later, she still follows the program, with its weekly meetings, random drug testing, and monthly reports to the state Board of Nursing. She’s also a regular at local Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She admits to feeling occasional cravings for Vicodin when she sees a prescription drug bottle, and she’s learned to avoid alcohol, knowing she’s at risk of replacing her addiction to one substance with another. She has recently returned to her job on a limited basis, working without access to medications.

Luckily for Kate, she’s not facing legal consequences. A year after her arrest, her attorney told her that the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office had declined to file charges against her, though he was never told the reason why. "He just told me to take it as a gift," she says.

She knows she’s lucky in other ways, too. She could have overdosed. She could have made a mistake at work and hurt one of her patients. She could have permanently damaged her liver. She could have gotten into a car accident. She could have alienated her husband and kids to the point that they would never want anything to do with her.

But she was caught—a kind of salvation that the fastest-growing group of addicts in this area, people who get drugs on the Internet, may not find. Like all drug abusers, they face tragic outcomes, but with little possibility that they’ll get caught by the law before one occurs.

"For an addict, there are all those ‘not yets,’ those bad things that haven’t happened yet," Kate says. "But it’s only going to get worse. They’re going to lose everything. Those ‘not yets’ are going to happen."

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