Aug. 22, 2013, is a day that Larry Huddleston is likely to never forget.
About five years prior, to help battle intense, chronic back pain, the Air Force veteran was prescribed 5 micrograms of fentanyl an hour, he said this week at The Signal.
It wasn’t the only pain Huddleston was going through at the time, as he was also in the midst of a divorce, he said.
And before he knew it, his tolerance had increased to the point where he needed 50 micrograms per hour — of the same drug that recently contributed to musician Tom Petty’s fatal overdose, in addition to the rash of near-fatal overdoses in Santa Clarita in April 2017 — as well as about 100 pills every month of a drug called Norco, which is a mix of acetaminophen and hydrocodone.
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“There’s a lot that people don’t understand about what this drug really does,” Huddleston said, referring generically to opioids. “I’ve learned a lot. I don’t judge anybody on this point anymore because I think one of the main things I learned is that people who are physically addicted — they’re treating some kind of pain, I was treating my back pain, and over all that time… I had no idea how much it was numbing that emotional pain — until I stopped.”
Huddleston’s story is common, especially among the 150 or so who die every day in America from opioid addiction, according to Cary Quashen, executive director of the Behavioral Health Unit at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, and founder of Action Drug Counseling.
“We’re treating two different kinds of addicts right now,” Quashen said, mentioning the traditional addict who starts with alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, and he added, “we have ‘accidental addicts,’ where they have some kind of surgery or they need some pain management treatment, such as back pain, for example.”
While pain medications are “wonderful” for short-term treatment, Quashen said, “we all know they’re physically and emotionally addicting.”
So that August day, Huddleston, who works as a computer programmer, chose life. He did what most don’t recommend doing, he decided he was going to quit cold turkey.
So while he’ll always remember Aug. 22, and when he decided to make a difference, he doesn’t remember much after that.
How it started
For Huddleston, it began simple enough, he literally was following the doctor’s orders, at first.
His experience with a “living hell,” which is how he refers to his period of addiction, started on July 27, 2008.
His pain management doctor, who specializes in treating back injuries like the one Larry had, told him that if he continued to use Vicodin for his back pain, the acetaminophen would damage his liver. The recommended treatment: MS Contin, also known as morphine sulfate controlled-release.
Huddleston didn’t have a lot of experience with heavy narcotics, but he knew enough to know that he was taking some pretty powerful drugs. And checking with a member of his extended family who worked as a drug counselor, he realized these weren’t just strong, they were highly addictive.
“For those people admitting they have a problem — that’s a tough one,” Huddleston said. “Stopping is a whole ’nother battle.”
And he quickly realized he was losing control.
“I knew I was addicted early on, “ Huddleston said; however, opioids have a “seductive” power, Quashen said, likening the feeling that the drugs give to the sensation one feels when they take a bite of their favorite food in the world.
And patients are often seduced, so to speak, while they’re already in a weakened state, usually recovering from surgery, or in the throes of agony from a recent injury.
Quashen noted that when you come out of surgery, patients are usually put on an intravenous “drip” of demerol or morphine.
But the problem for many comes when the patient is discharged, and the highly powerful drug is replaced by a much less powerful, but also addictive alternative, such as vicodin.
“Once every four hours won’t come close to what you get in the hospital,” Quashen said, “and one turns into two and then it turns into three…”
One of the many concerns with pain management and addiction that Quashen is working on is a way to have patients discharged at lower dosages, he said.
The long road to recovery
Huddleston has turned 180 degrees in his attitude toward opioids, he said, sharing a story about how after he got clean from those drugs, he wouldn’t take more than a steroid shot and an ibuprofen for the setting of a broken ankle.
And he hasn’t taken an opiate-based pain-killer since his trip to Henry Mayo in August 2013.
But he was brutally honest about the struggle he went through in quitting.
The first few days were agony for Huddleston until, wracked with pain and concern, an ambulance took him to Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital’s emergency room. In extreme pain, his screams and moans turned to expletives and he was ultimately strapped to the gurney, he said. Quashen said the hospital could take that step if a patient becomes belligerent, or is a threat to themselves or staff. But Huddleston remembers little of the actual visit, he said.
But he’s hoping that the sharing of his experience will be enough to convince people to never to become dependent on opioids.
Quashen noted that if those types of pain medications are needed, then so is a long and careful conversation with the doctor prescribing them.
Taking information for granted, Huddleston said, was also part of the challenge. While he was aware of the risk, he also assumed that if a doctor was prescribing them, then the doctor obviously had a way to get Huddleston off of the medication.
“When it comes to the point of addiction, (the patient) needs to see a professional when it times to help you detox,” Quashen said, adding the physical detox was actually the easier part, and the emotional addiction is much more difficult.
“Benzos,” “Somas,” vicodin and oxycontin are all highly addictive and more commonly prescribed medication, Quashen said.
Huddleston said he knew he’d had enough when he could no longer tell how much pain he was really in, or if it was the medication telling his brain he needed to take more pills.
“If you think you’re having a problem with these pain medications,” Quashen said, “if you think there’s something wrong, you better talk to a professional.”