Opioid epidemic: Understanding addiction

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Nicholas Tomayko

Patient pictured receiving fluids for an opioid-related stomach tear.

In 2015, at the age of 16, a woman who uses the alias, Jillian Wahla, tried her first opioid. Less than one year later, Wahla found herself homeless, malnourished and addicted to the drug.

“I got a few Vicodins after I had my wisdom teeth removed,” Wahla said. “It was the best my body had ever felt. I knew almost instantly I wanted to feel like that all the time.”

Wahla’s quest for opioids began as soon as her Vicodin prescription ran out. She was searching for relief regarding her undiagnosed cases of gastritis and fibromyalgia – a disorder that renders its afflicted with widespread psychosomatic body pains.

“Smoking weed and drinking never really helped,” Wahla said. “As soon as I had my Vicodin, a warm wave creeped over my body and all my pain just sort of disappeared.”

According to Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford, a mental health specialist, the powerful effects of opioids only last a few hours. This, she concurs, is what drives many to overindulging and eventual addiction.

“It’s just like any other addiction, we see continued use despite negative consequences,” Bates-Duford said. “The common question is why don’t you stop? Because they have become powerless to their addiction.”

For Wahla, that addiction took full power during 2016 when family altercations stemming from her drug use led to an expulsion from her Californian family home.

Newly homeless, Wahla found herself low on cash and unable to acquire what she deemed “necessary” medicine.

“You can’t just find Oxycontin on the street,” Wahla said, “but you can find heroin, which also happens to be very cheap. I met up with other teenage runaways and we would just put our cash together and at the end of the day, we always had enough for more.”

Wahla spent approximately two weeks using heroin, living on the streets of California and the couches of friends before ending up nearly dead in a state hospital. At the age of 18, she relocated to Lansing and while she remains opioid free, the effects of her addiction still remain a daily struggle.

“I’m not using, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to,” Wahla said. “I hate knowing this is something I might have to actively avoid for the rest of my life.”

Michele Pischea, a certified advanced alcohol and drug counselor, believes that addiction is not something that a person can just walk away from, but rather an ongoing battle.

“It’s important to build on people’s strengths, successes and positive experiences, while acknowledging and addressing the influences of the past,” Pischea said. “Clients must be able to identify and strengthen their motivation for change and create foundations to sustain these changes.”

Wahla walks boldly in her ongoing battle with addiction and sobriety, doing her best to keep a positive mindset about what the future may hold.

“I just tell myself maybe one day it will all be over,” Wahla said. “Maybe one day I will wake up and all my pain will be gone. Maybe one day I won’t need to feel like this anymore.”

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