Prescription drug addiction has been all over the news recently, with reports that overdose deaths have reached epidemic levels, and more newborn babies than ever are being born with painkiller addiction. But too many assume that these stats apply only to delinquent drug abusers who find loopholes in the medical system in order to get their kicks. Not so. Last week, we told the story of Karly Long, a 29-year-old who died of an overdose after becoming addicted to prescription drugs in the course of treating her mental illness. And yesterday, Business Insider published the shocking story of Bernie Mullen, a man who was injured in a crane accident and became addicted to painkillers—resulting, years later, in his own daughter being born with her own addiction, too.
Mullen’s story reads like a Darren Aronofsky anti-drug PSA. A boom crane fell on him at the start of Thanksgiving weekend in 1988. He sustained injuries that would eventually require eight surgeries, two neck screws, five pins in his spine and another big plate in his neck. Which, as you can imagine, would all require some serious pain management. But the problem is that, over the course of a 15-year stint in and out of hospitals, with pins popping out of his neck, he built a tolerance to his meds that meant he could no longer manage his pain with a legal dosage. As he tells it:
“One day, you’re a citizen, taking your meds as prescribed, doing what you’re told, all that,” Bernie says. “Then the drugs stop working and you know it’s illegal to get more, so you start changing the way you take them.”
Bernie, who had moved to Sarasota, FL a few years after his accident started crushing up his Roxycodone first. “Once you cross that line,” Bernie says, “it is unreal how fast shit starts to unravel.” From crushed and swallowed, to smoked, to snorted, to melted down and injected. “I don’t remember the timeline,” Bernie says, “but no matter how I took them, I just wasn’t getting enough.” And the issue went from pain to full-blown addiction.
To make a long story short, he and his wife both became addicted to painkillers, seeing a total of 26 different doctors (and carefully struggling to keep their pharmacies straight) in order to get their fix of meds without getting arrested for using the drugs illegally:
“Between the two of us,” Bernie says, “we were going through 300 30-milligram pills of Roxycodone a day. We would cook 20 30-milligram pills at a time.” (Roxycodone is Oxycontin without the time-release effect.) I do the math in my head as they watch: about 9,000 milligrams a day, almost 300,000 milligrams a month. “Pure insanity,” Bernie says and looks at his wife.
They also started doing cocaine in order to remain functional enough to get their medications, and eventually, made money by selling pills and cocaine, living in crack houses and dives that got raided by police. Bernie developed MRSA—a type of staph infection common in users of intravenous drugs—and his wife was so drugged up that she snapped her collarbone and didn’t even know it until weeks later, when she finally visited a hospital for the pain.
See? I told you this sounds like an Arronofsky movie. But what the couple say is most horrific about their story is that while they’ve both started to treat their addictions (after hitting getting arrested and charged with crimes), their daughter, born 18 months ago, has been addicted since the time of her birth:
“I’ve been sick before,” Bernie’s wife says. “I’ve gone through withdrawal, all that, but to listen to my newborn baby scream from methadone withdrawal, no other pain in my life has ever come close to that.”
What’s most shocking to me about their story is that, like Karly Long, Bernie didn’t start out as a crack addict looking for more ways to get high. He started out as a working class guy who had an accident that brought on a need for prescription painkillers, and eventually, his injury led to a full-blown addiction that, unlike Karly and many others, didn’t kill him, but nearly ruined his life.
Addiction like Bernie’s and Karly’s seem unimaginable, but CDC reports show that they’re killing record numbers of people. And the question still remains: Who’s responsible? Why aren’t doctors, pharmacists, family members and patients able to stop this problem from escalating in so many cases? We’ll be writing more this week about some of the proposed solutions, but what do you think?