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Prescription for Disaster

Opioid abuse is a major public health issue.

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Dana Knowles Licko has always appeared to have her you-know- what together. With a 12-year career in journalism and 13 years of marriage under her belt, Licko gladly accepted a new job title—mom—in 2007, when her oldest child was born. Before long, she had become that Facebook friend who always looks so put-together, standing next to her successful husband and perfect children on some fabulous vacation. But behind the smile was a woman struggling to stay afloat in the throes of a serious narcotic addiction.

It might sound surprising, but opioid abuse is a major public health issue, and it’s not just junkies shooting heroin illegally. The words “opioid” and “opiate” are often used interchangeably to describe a class of drugs that includes heroin, fentanyl, and other pain relievers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine. The United States is in the midst of a prescription opioid overdose epidemic, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. In 2014, more than 28,000 people died from opioid overdose, and at least half of those deaths involved prescriptions.

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In Colorado, there’s an opioid overdose every 9 hours and 36 minutes, according to data collected by Arapahoe House, the state’s largest provider of substance use disorder treatment, offering specialized programs for women with young children and pregnant and postpartum moms. “Our state remains second in the nation for misuse of prescription drugs,” says Kate Osmundson, spokesperson for Arapahoe House, where opioid patient admissions (prescription painkillers and heroin combined) have increased by 500 percent since 2008.

It Began wIth a PrescrIptIon

Licko had been a “big social drinker,” as she puts it—but she never had a problem with addiction until 2011, when she had surgery to repair a labral tear in her hip. Post-operation, Licko’s doctor prescribed Percocet, a combination of acetaminophen and oxycodone, to manage her pain. Licko took her meds as prescribed, and soon discovered that the painkiller did more than ease physical discomfort.

Opioids act on a user’s opioid receptors to produce morphine-like effects. “I felt invincible,” Licko says. “I had no insecurities, and I had the energy I needed to do everything I had to do.” Over time, though, Licko developed a tolerance: The longer she used Percocet, the more doses she needed. A year after her hip surgery, Licko’s doctor cut off her prescription. By then, it was too late. Licko was hooked. After just 24 hours without her prescription, Licko started experiencing classic opioid withdrawal symptoms, including vomiting, severe stomach cramping, headaches, back pain, insomnia, paranoia, coughing, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, chills, and sweating “Let’s just say it sucks,” Licko says.

The worst part was, Licko’s doctor never told her what to expect. Without professional intervention, Licko says, “I couldn’t stop taking them.”

That’s when the panic and the hiding kicked in.

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A Double Life

It’s a common misconception that prescription medications are safer than illegal drugs. Prescription opioids are essentially the pill form of heroin, and they can be even more dangerous. Users often rationalize their substance misuse when painkillers are doctor prescribed. For the next three years, Licko lived a double life. To her friends and family, she came off as a healthy, happy homemaker as she continued to abuse opioids.

“I was like a mom robot,” she says. Licko was alert enough to satisfy her family’s basic needs. She made sure her kids were safe. They always got to where they needed to go, ate three square meals, and finished their homework. “But there wasn’t much emotional attachment,” Licko admits. “I couldn’t really talk to them or enjoy them.” Licko’s marriage was suffering, too, as her husband became increasingly suspicious of his wife’s secretive behavior.

Seeking Treatment

In 2015, Licko spent a month in recovery at a treatment center in Denver. But that wasn’t enough time for her to fully commit to making critical life changes. When you’re in recovery, Licko says, “Not only can you not do the opiates, but you can’t drink either because alcohol hits the same part of your brain.”

After nine months of total sobriety, Licko went on a weekend getaway with her girlfriends. “I started drinking again,” she says. When she got buzzed, Licko craved opioids, and before long, she caved. The second time around, the addiction was ten times worse.

“I had to go back into treatment, and this time I had to leave the state,” she says. Most Colorado-based treatment and recovery programs wouldn’t accept insurance. Not only were Licko’s health care bills racking up, but Licko knew that, in order to get well, she”d have to leave everything behind—even her children.

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Licko flew to the Banyan Treatment Center in Florida. “That’s where the real work began,” she says, adding, “It was tough. It was really, really tough leaving my family behind. My ego kept telling me that nobody does it like mommy.”

Licko had to let go of trying to control everything at home. “I had to take my ego out of it. I accepted the fact that (my kids) had lots of love and support from their dad, his parents, my mom, and both of my sisters, who came from out of town to help.”

In Florida, Licko was finally able to dig into the factors that had contributed to her addiction, which stretched back to early childhood, when Licko had been molested. By the end of the summer, Licko had made major personal strides. Now it was time to come home and heal her family, too.

Recovery With Family

Licko and her husband have had extensive couple’s therapy, and have stayed together. The experience also forced the Lickos to talk to their children about topics that many parents avoid. “They knew what was going on,” Licko says. “Kids know! They might not know how to articulate it, but they know when something is off.” In addition to ongoing and honest discussions, the Lickos recently sent their oldest daughter to a multi-day workshop at the Betty Ford Center Children’s Program in Denver, offering a special program for children ages seven to 12 who grow up in families hurt by addiction.

“My kids know I have a disease that isn’t curable, but they also know that I can put it into remission if I take care of myself in very specific ways,”

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Licko says. The specifications include working with a sponsor through Alcoholics Anonymous, frequenting hot yoga classes, which force Licko to practice sitting through pain and discomfort, and resurrecting a pre-baby career via smoothies, of all things.

In early recovery, Licko learned that nutrition can be used to heal the brain after addiction. In a quest to fit as many nutrients as possible int a single dish, she made smoothies packed with vegetables, plant proteins, and superfoods. When Licko started posting pictures of her smoothies on Facebook (recipes and autobiographical notes included), she says, “That become a way for me to be creative again.” Licko’s smoothies were so popular with her social network that she launched a blog, youarewhatyoudrink.blog.

“I don’t walk around with a fake smile anymore,” says Licko. “I have good days, and I have bad days.” She’s a mom who is trying her best to be a better person “literally every day,” she says. “That’s my way of making this up to my family.”

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer and mother.

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