Opioid use and abuse is quickly on the rise in Canada. In fact, opiate overdose deaths have become so prevalent that the Canadian Health Minister has stated that it could prompt the government to declare a national health emergency.
It's critical to understand the risks associated with opioids, how to minimize them, and how to overcome opioid addiction if necessary.
What are opioids and how do you get addicted to them?
A lot of opioid abuse starts after a doctor prescribes opiate painkillers to a patient. In their synthetic form, opioids are known as opiates (pharmaceuticals), and are also known as narcotics. They are frequently prescribed by physicians to help stop pain from things like car accidents, diseases like cancer, or brain illnesses.
Because opioids and opiates affect the pleasure center in the brain, they are frequently abused by those who gain access to them, either from a prescription, by purchasing them, or taking advantage of someone else's prescription. A healthy person who takes opioids or opiates will often feel a deep sense of euphoria (high), and then very relaxed and sometimes sleepy.
Some of the most popular opioids in Canada are:
- Fentanyl (Duragesic)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet, Percodan)
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lorcet, Lortab)
How can you tell whether you're addicted?
Because much of the original uses of opioids are legitimate (that is, prescribed by a physician), it can be difficult to understand how addiction takes hold. However, regardless of how it started, addiction must be dealt with directly, and as quickly as possible.
Signs of opioid addiction and abuse can be physical, mental, and emotional. Physically, they may include:
- Slowed breathing
- Drowsiness, sometimes to the point of falling asleep without meaning to
- Nausea, vomiting, and sweating
- Headaches and dry mouth
- Poor judgment, confusion, and slurred speech
Those who've become addicted to opioids will also frequently build up a tolerance to them, which means it will take more of the drug in question to get the same effect (i.e. to feel high). This often means someone addicted to an opioid will seek out more of the drug, either legally (by switching doctors or trying to go to multiple clinics) or illegally (buying it, or knockoff versions of it, on the street).
Another major sign of addiction is becoming depressed or agitated if you can't get ahold of the drug. One of the hallmarks of addicts is becoming obsessed with getting more of the drug, regardless of the consequences on your own life or the lives of others.
Finally, if opioid addicts try to stop taking the drug all at once, they will experience withdrawal, which is one of the reasons it's important to seek out professional help when ending addiction. Symptoms of withdrawal can include:
- Muscle aches
What are the risks of addiction?
One of the major risks associated with opioids is mixing them with alcohol. Because opioids slow a person's breathing, they can actually suffocate users if they're not taken properly, and especially when combined with alcohol. It is extremely dangerous to consume opioids or opiates along with alcohol.
The most serious risk of opioid addiction in Canada is overdose leading to death. In 2016, roughly 2,000 Canadians died from opioid overdoses. Around 700 deaths or more take place in Ontario each year, with similar numbers in British Columbia and increases in Alberta, Manitoba, and more.
On stopping the growing crisis, Ontario Health Minister Eric Haskins has said, "I think there is a societal understanding that we need to act urgently and effectively."
In addition to the physical risks associated with addiction, the emotional and psychological impact is severe. Opioid addicts can end up sacrificing everything - school, work, family relationships, romantic relationships, friendships, careers, and social ties - for the drug. Addicts frequently experience financial issues, as they spend more and more on the drug, and often find themselves in trouble with the law. Some even end up homeless.
If you are struggling with addiction, do not wait until your life is falling apart to seek assistance. Opioid addiction is common, can be devastating, and yet is treatable. Addiction is nothing to be ashamed of, but it's vital to get the right help.
How do you get help for opioid addiction, and what role does rehab play?
The medical establishment has classified addiction as a disease. It must be emphasized that addicts, by definition, are no longer in control of their drug use. It is compulsive, and assistance is needed to overcome it, just like other illnesses.
Rehab, short for rehabilitation, is a way of recovering from opioid addiction as well as other forms of addiction. Both inpatient and outpatient drug rehab centers can help addicts get clean and sober, and are often the best way to begin.
Inpatient drug rehab centers generally start with medical detox, a process by which all drugs are removed from the body. This stage can last from 3 days to several weeks, depending on the severity of the addiction. Without the medical support provided in rehab, going through detox can be painful, intense, or even fatal. Inpatient drug rehab treatment centers are staffed by professionals who can keep patients safe and comfortable as they make the transition to sobriety.
Therapy follows the detox process, and most rehab programs provide individual as well as group therapy.
Individual therapy involves meeting with a mental health professional such as a therapist or counselor who helps you on your path to sobriety. It is a safe container within which to explore addiction itself as well as its root causes.
Group therapy is another important component of the process, as it helps those recovering from addiction feel a sense of support and solidarity as they go through the healing process. Group therapy allows those struggling with addiction to share their stories with one another in a safe environment. You connect with others who've been through similar experiences, and learn how to move forward without being alone. Many report group therapy as enlightening and uplifting, since it gives you for the opportunity to heal and grow in a truly non-judgmental setting.
Hope, advancement, and the future
Addiction is never planned. It can feel terrifying, especially as it becomes apparent that you are not in control of it. Many addicts feel overwhelmed and alone, feelings that can lead to anxiety and depression, sometimes even suicide.
Canada and the U.S. have the highest levels of prescription opioid consumption in the world. The healthcare community recognizes its part in the sudden and catastrophic rise in opioid addiction, and is ready to help correct the issue.
The important thing to understand is that you can recover from drug addiction. Millions have gone through opioid addiction and come out as stronger and more resilient human beings. With the right help, you too can get clean and lead a life of dignity and purpose.