‘It never really leaves you’: Opioids haunt users’ recovery

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It’s hard to say whether businessman Kyle Graves hit rock bottom when he shot himself in the ankle so emergency room doctors would feed his opioid habit or when he broke into a safe to steal his father’s cancer pain medicine.

For newly minted lawyer Bianca Knight, it happened after hitting the street to find pills when her opioid prescription ran out, as she envisioned her career dreams crumbling.

Addiction to powerful painkillers sneaked up on Graves and McCoy and Knight, ordinary Americans who began taking the drugs legitimately for pain, but like millions of others, got caught up in the worst opioid epidemic in U.S. history.

Now they’re fighting the same tough, slippery battle for recovery, owing their lives, they say, to an anti-addiction medicine similar to pills that nearly led to their demise. They credit a Nashville doctor too, an addiction specialist who also works as a Vanderbilt University pain medicine physician — sometimes recommending the same drugs to pain patients that brought the others to the brink.

The ironies and tragedies of the crisis are not lost on Dr. Dan Lonergan, who faced his own dark abyss years ago in medical school, when his older brother died suddenly of a possible opioid overdose.

He’s heard criticism about doctors “who get ’em hooked on drugs and then turn around and treat ’em for addiction.” And he’s seen the finger-pointing from those who think faith and willpower are the answer, who say prescribing opioid drugs to treat addiction is trading one vice for another.

“Doctors have contributed to this problem. In the past three decades we have gotten a lot of patients on medications that can be very dangerous,” he said. “The pharmaceutical industry has contributed significantly to this problem. This is a problem that we all need to own.”

But to stigmatize addiction as a moral failing rather than a brain disease is wrong, Lonergan says. Research has shown that opioid drugs can cause brain changes leading to uncontrollable cravings for drug use even when it leads to dangerous and unhealthy behavior. To not offer medicine as a treatment, he says, would be like withholding insulin from a diabetic.

This is a snapshot of those in the trenches of America’s addiction crisis. More than 2 million people are hooked on opioids. Overdoses from these drugs have killed more than 300,000 Americans since 2000, and they are killing an average of 120 people every day. Even for survivors, success never quite seems lock-tight.

The family man

Kyle Graves groans slightly as he sits down on the dark leather sofa in his apartment living room, feeling the stabbing pains that a daily handful of pills used to ease. At age 54, he shares the small but comfortable space with his ailing mother, bedridden from a stroke, and two small dogs in Franklin, Tennessee, an affluent Nashville suburb.

Framed thrift-shop art posters and secondhand knickknacks decorate the place, fitting decor for a man seeking a second chance at life.

Graves’ troubles began more than a decade ago when he sought relief for degenerative arthritis in his hips, shoulders, feet and back. He was prescribed hydrocodone, an opioid drug that works best for short-term pain but is risky and potentially addictive when used long term.

He got several refills for persistent pain. But when he lost his dream job as a car dealership finance manager, Graves found the pills helped get him through that crisis, too.

He was a functioning addict when his sixth child was born — a boy named Joshua Jeremiah who contracted spinal meningitis during childbirth. The infant clung to life for six weeks; his death sent Graves sinking deeper into addiction.

He’d use up a month’s supply of pills from pain clinics in days, followed by terrible withdrawals — vomiting, diarrhea, shaking uncontrollably and intense pain. It’s familiar territory for addiction patients.

Graves turned desperate after a doctor refused more refills, suspecting he was selling the drugs because opioids didn’t show up in a routine urine test — he’d swallowed them all weeks earlier.

With his wife at work and kids outside playing basketball, Graves grabbed a loaded .22-caliber pistol from his bedroom nightstand.

“I thought, ‘I really can’t hurt myself by shooting myself in the foot or ankle.’ I thought that story sounded legit.” He pulled the trigger, then called an ambulance.

At the hospital, two shots of morphine “did the trick.” The only pain he recalls was when doctors removed the bullet. Graves thinks only his wife suspected the ruse.

She grew weary and left with the kids — the harshest blow to a man who worships family.

Finally, jobless and living in a lonely Nashville motel room, Graves knew he had to seek help. “I lost my wife, my kids, my home,” he said. “It just devastated and ruined my life. I never thought anything like that could happen to me.”

His sister helped send him to a California rehab center where hard work and prayer were the main treatments. It worked for a time, but after relapsing Graves sought help from Lonergan, who prescribed recovery medicine containing buprenorphine, an opioid drug that reduces cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Graves has been on the pills for about three years. He says weaning himself “would be a struggle that I haven’t wanted to try yet.”

He has had setbacks, the most recent in 2015, when money was tight, his youngest daughter was distant and he was facing another Christmas without his kids. He knows they won’t come around if he falls back into addiction.

His hopes of rebuilding a life with those five kids, now grown, help keep him clean.

“I’d like to have a house, a place they can come over and have a cookout on the weekend,” he said.

“They know I love ’em with all my heart,” he said. “They still have issues. I’ve offered to get them together and talk to them. I guess they’re not ready yet.”

Graves’ triggers are tragedy and misfortune; he tries not to dwell on what the future might bring.

“I don’t worry about it a lot right now. Anything could happen, though, that could change that,” he said. “You never know.”

Pain wakes Graves up at night and greets him in the morning. He takes nothing stronger than over-the-counter pain relievers. He has stopped asking Lonergan for opioid pain pills. The answer was always no.

“I’ve come to tears in his office,” Graves said. “I’m going to get older and it’s just going to get worse…what is a guy like me supposed to do?”

He passed an important test a few months ago when another doctor prescribed opioids after shoulder surgery. Graves took the pills as directed, then quit.

He’s on disability now; looking after his mom keeps him busy. Sometimes he writes country songs — some sound good enough to be played in clubs 20 miles up Highway 65 in Nashville, and it doesn’t take much prodding to get him to share one.

“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, when he’s loving a woman, a woman like you,” Graves sings. “He’ll sacrifice and give all he’s got, to keep the fire burning, to keep the fires hot.”

At times, in the middle of the night, when back pain flares, he still fights flickers of temptation.

“It really never leaves you,” Graves said. “The voices always still call you back to the darkness. You just have to ignore ’em and go on.”

The lawyer

At the end of three grueling years in law school, after graduating with honors and passing the bar exam, Bianca Knight had a nagging question too tough for even the smartest lawyer.

“How do I know if I have a problem?” she asked Lonergan, the Vanderbilt physician who treats McCoy and Graves.

Knight had spent the past two years medicated. Every day. On hydrocodone pills a different doctor had prescribed when she injured two spinal disks lugging around heavy law books.

They helped with the pain, along with steroid injections, but she found the pills did something else.

“They also gave me a euphoric feeling and helped me get through my long day in law school,” she said. “It made it all easier.”

Knight, 37, is nearly blind from a rare optic nerve condition she developed several years ago. It may have added to her challenges but she wasn’t going to let it stop her from pursuing a career. She knew of blind attorneys, and a state program for the disabled paid for a reader who helped with her law school homework.

When she got her first opioid prescription, she was given a vague warning that some people can become dependent on the drugs, but thought, “that won’t happen to me.”

Opioids made her feel energetic, not impaired. Soon Knight was thinking about them all the time, and taking far more than the prescribed amount.

“Toward the end, I resorted to buying off the street,” claiming to have had dental work and no insurance, Knight said. “Eventually someone can point you in the direction of someone looking to get rid of some drugs.”

But resorting to street pills made her worry about her safety and the legal ramifications, picturing her career dreams crumbling if she didn’t seek help.

When she asked whether she had a problem, the doctor explained addiction and told her the average person doesn’t think about opioid pain pills 24/7 and carry them around in a purse.

Knight agreed to try buprenorphine treatment. Attending church and support group meetings also help, she says. She was able to continue medication treatment when she became pregnant last fall, which helps with her ongoing pain. She says the baby is extra incentive for her to stay clean.

“Now I’ve got someone else counting on me,” Knight said.

The doctor

Dr. Dan Lonergan says relapse is the biggest risk for patients recovering from opioid addiction. The drugs work by attaching to chemical receptors in the brain and sending signals that block pain and create pleasurable feelings. Repeated use can lead to drug tolerance, meaning increasingly high doses are needed to produce the same effect. In recovery, patients lose that tolerance so resuming the drugs can be fatal.

Addiction medicine — buprenorphine and methadone — act on the same drug receptors but produce much milder effects, along with reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

As a pain specialist, Dr. Dan Lonergan sometimes prescribes opioids to patients with no history of drug abuse. But for patients taking medicine for their addiction he won’t, no matter how strenuous their pleas.

“Every day in my practice there are conflicts like that,” Lonergan said.

His double focus on pain and addiction is personal. When he was a second-year medical student, Lonergan got an early morning phone call from his distraught father with the news that his older brother was found dead on the couch. The young man used powerful painkillers for severe headaches and other medical problems, and his death was considered a possible accidental overdose.

“There may be some therapy for me in treating patients with addiction, but you never recover from the loss,” Lonergan said softly. “There’s still a hole there that will never be filled.”

Lonergan says the opioid crisis is compounded by not enough specialists trained to treat it and a persistent stigma, especially in Bible Belt states like Tennessee. He says patients’ families can sabotage their recovery efforts by telling them church, not medicine, is the answer.

Many of Lonergan’s patients are on addiction medication long term, though some can be weaned off. What he has found though, is that most need other addiction fighting tools, too — counseling, group meetings, social support, learning to manage life’s problems “in more old-fashioned ways,” he said.

Even with all that, he said, “there’s still a lot within the patient that has to come from the heart.”