By Kyle LoJacono
Ryan Wegener is one of many who is addicted to the latest trend in drug use — prescription pain pills.
Nationally in 2008, 12.2 percent of all crimes committed were related to prescription abuse, an all-time high, and 1,150 people in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties died last year from overdosing on the medications, a state record.
Ryan, of Land O’ Lakes, became addicted to prescription drugs around age 19 while doing construction work.
“I was really sore the first two weeks and I got with a couple guys who were a little older,” Ryan said. “I said, ‘Man my back is really killing me,’ and they were like you know we got something to take care of that and the drugs are legal too. I said, ‘What’ve you got?’”
Ryan was given several pills of Rocicet, commonly called Roxys, a painkiller that contains acetaminophen and Ocycodone.
“So I took it,” Ryan said. He then added, “After a couple weeks of every other day taking them, my back wasn’t hurting anymore. I didn’t need the pills to go to work, but I still wanted it.”
Ryan said after a while, one pill wouldn’t satisfy the addiction. He needed two or three to subside his craving for the medication. As his addiction grew he started injecting the pills, a common practice for hardcore users to get a stronger high faster.
Ryan would go on benders where he would use 100-200 pills in three or four days and fall out of contact with his family. Parents Chris and Diane saw changes in his behavior but never suspected he was an addict.
“It was humiliating,” Diane said. “What did I do wrong?”
Chris added, “We weren’t in denial in that he dabbled in drugs or tried alcohol, but to find out that he was addicted to drugs — that was devastating. When he said he had an addiction, I think that kind of blew us away.”
The addiction drove off Ryan’s childhood friends.
“It hurt, and I slowly started moving on to a new crowd of friends,” Ryan said. “These were the friends that you could pass out with your mouth open drooling out with your eyes closed scratching yourself, because that’s what you did because you have real bad itches. Those were the friends you wanted to be around, because they had no problem with you being high.”
His abuse also cost him his girlfriend.
“She was the best,” Ryan said. “I could look her in the eyes every day, and she would look me in the eyes and say ‘You are high. I can tell you are high.’ I’d lie and say ‘No I’m not,’ but she knew how I was. We’d been together for five years. She tried so hard to get me off of these pills.
“I couldn’t go through the withdrawals,” Ryan continued. “I did one week with her without taking a pill, and I seriously almost died. Then I got back on it, because I couldn’t take it anymore. Sooner or later she caught back on and it came down to either the addiction or her. I wasn’t physically strong enough to say I want to be with you. I’m going to get off of this. I ended up throwing away the best thing that I had for an addiction.”
A price to pay
Ryan was always looking for ways to pay for his drug problem.
“Constantly trying to find somebody to steal from; to con out of money to get some way to get your high,” Ryan said. He then added, “Going in your mom’s purse taking $20-$30; going in your dad’s wallet taking $20-$30 and then going in your girlfriend’s purse, just anyone’s purse or wallet that’s just laying around and taking when no one is around.”
He even stole from drug dealers.
“If you rip off the right drug dealer you can get away with it, but if you rip off the wrong drug dealer you make sure you hide,” Ryan said. “You make sure you’re not in contact with anyone that knows that person because those people are serious about $800, $1,000 that they made off these pills. If you go and take it away like that, they have no problem telling someone they will give them 50 pills to go knock this kid off.”
Diane said dealers would come to her door looking for Ryan. Despite the risk of overdosing and from drug dealers looking for him, Ryan said there was little fear of dying.
“When you’re doing it, it doesn’t really scare you because you’re high at the time,” Ryan said.
Six deaths finally woke up Ryan.
He had two friends who overdosed and died two days apart from each other, and another friend and his son also died a few months later.
Another of his friends and his older brother died a few months apart, and it was at the second funeral where Ryan saw how the abuse can devastate a family.
“I saw one of my friend’s mother and father crying at his funeral,” Ryan said. “They couldn’t stop crying, and I knew the people pretty well. Just to see how bad his mother was hurt. Those were her only two kids, and they both ODed within three months of each other.
“I just wanted to find some way to get away from that,” Ryan continued. “If I didn’t cut this (stuff) out, my parents were going to walk into the bathroom and find me ice cold and not breathing with a spoon, a lighter and a needle hanging out of my arm.”
Ryan told his parents on Christmas 2010 he was addicted to prescription drugs and wanted to quit. The Wegeners decided to make a documentary, called “Obsessed,” to assist other families struggling with prescription abuse and also to help Ryan get well.
The film helped Ryan for a short time, but he suffered a relapse three weeks after its filming. He has relapsed three times since.
“It was the last thing that I really wanted to do,” Ryan said. “It definitely wasn’t the best option. To be honest with you, I don’t know why I returned to it. It was really something stupid that happened, but I just thought to myself if no one is going to believe that I’m sober then I might as well not be sober.
“That’s what is so scary about this, is there are a thousand different triggers that can make you to the point where this is why I choose to go get high again,” Ryan said. “That’s exactly what a relapse is. Mine was just not having trust.”
Ryan, now 22, has been sober for six months. He spent three months in a court-ordered rehab program, and has spent the last three pulling his life together.
“It’s a long-term disease, and I’m definitely not out of the woods yet with this,” Ryan said. “I’m grateful to be as far as I am, but I would definitely say that this is a lifelong disease that I have got caught up in. A lifelong addiction I got caught up in, because I couldn’t go around my old friends right now. If I saw them partying and doing some pills I could not tell you definitely I would not do them. … A relapse could happen any day.”
“Obsessed” includes interviews with Jose and Carolyn Aviles, who lost their son to a prescription drug overdose, as well as Ryan’s struggles with his addition. It also offers advice for those looking for help.
The Wegeners’ goal is to have the documentary shown in local high and middle schools to help steer students clear of prescription drugs.
“If I can save one life, that’s what it’s all about,” Diane said.
Drug addiction signs, sources and solutions
David Holtz is a drug rehabilitation counselor who has seen a big shift in substance abuse during the last decade.
Years ago, the majority of deaths from drug use were caused by either cocaine or heroin, but today it’s legal prescription pills that have risen to the top. Holtz said the problem is how addictive opiate painkillers are.
“From the 17 year old in high school to the 83-year-old grandmother who’s got her hip replaced,” Holtz said. “This is what we’re seeing in our rehabs today. We’re seeing that everyone who starts this drug in a short period of time becomes physically addicted and then can’t get off the drug.”
Holtz said many of the people he has worked with mistakenly think the prescription pills are safer than street drugs because they are a “pure form” that won’t hurt them.
“However, there are just as many deaths from Oxycontin as from heroin,” Holtz said. “The fact is if you do too much, you’re going to die.”
Holtz said the other problem is doctors overprescribing the medications to people who don’t need them at all. He said this “pill pushing” becomes so extreme that pharmacies will open near such doctors to boost profits.
“I actually had a talk with my doctor, my own personal doctor, and he went into how it was the greatest (thing) since sliced bread,” Holtz said. “I mean this was my own doctor; my doctor telling me it’s a wonder drug, and I started thinking no wonder if the doctors all believe this.”
Holtz said that 12.2 percent of all arrests during 2008 in the United States were prescription drug related, an all-time high.
The Tampa Bay area has become one of the epicenters for the drug abuse problems in the country. The Florida Medical Examiners Commission’s statistics show that of the 2,710 deaths attributed to prescription drug abuse last year, 1,150 were from people in Pasco, Hillsborough or Pinellas counties.
Joe Stimac, a corporal with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, said he has seen many people’s lives ruined by prescription drug use. He told a story about a 15-year-old kid he knew who was “by all measures a good young man.” Four years later he got a call from someone about her 19-year-old grandson who had stolen everything.
“He’d robbed her blind, and it was the same kid,” Stimac said.
The kid had already been thrown out of his parents’ house for stealing and was eventually arrested for stealing from his girlfriend.
Holtz said there is no one sure way to get off prescription drugs.
“Different types of treatment programs work for different people for different reasons,” Holtz said. “So it’s important that you seek out professional advice when finding a treatment center.”
Holtz said there are many ways to treat the addiction, but the most important step is getting help as fast as possible. He said in most cases people should call their local law enforcement agency and report the abuse. From their people can get court-ordered rehabilitation, which is usually more successful than individuals trying to kick the addiction on their own.
Symptoms of drug abuse
–Constantly in emergency situations