March 26, 2017
Joy Fanguy was so afraid of overdosing on pain pills that she kept a running log of how many she’d taken on her nightstand. Some nights, she scrawled a note in the event she didn’t wake to let her loved ones know her death was not a suicide.
“I was always afraid I would take too much so I wrote it all down,” Fanguy said.
Fanguy got her first taste of prescription painkillers around age 14, when she was given Percocet for migraines. She was addicted by the time she could legally drink, and it would be almost eight years before she recognized she needed help.
Now 31, she’s left the log behind and is moving into adulthood. She is sober, having escaped the grip of a drug that killed more than 1,400 Tennesseans in 2015 as the state — and much of the nation — struggles to counter an opioid-abuse epidemic.
“I’m not the status quo: I didn’t get married. I didn’t have kids. I didn’t get my s–t together until I was 30,” Fanguy said. “I didn’t ‘keep up with the Joneses.’ I lost a decade. My 20s were there — they happened — but I didn’t accomplish anything.”
For some, the introduction to pain pills — Tramadol, hydrocodone, oxycodone, among others — happens during formative high school years: through an oral surgery prescription or a well-meaning parent hoping to relieve some pain. It can happen in a high school locker room before a football game, to dull the pain. Or before a party, to loosen up.
Addiction specialists are increasingly worried about the high school gateway to opioid abuse as they find themselves treating more addicts in their 20s who got started earlier in life. It can begin innocently enough: Just 2 percent of youths between the ages of 12 and 17 misused a psychotherapeutic drug (a pain reliever, stimulant, tranquilizer and sedatives) in 2015, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. But that number rises dramatically to 5.1 percent for the group between 18 and 25. Several people in various stages of recovery interviewed for this story started using painkillers before they received a diploma — setting the stage for a downward spiral in the years that followed.
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Holly Fletcher covers health care for the Tennessean’s business desk, working to explain how the changing health care landscape will impact the people who need health care (everyone) and the businesses that provide care.