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The Power Of Prescription Drugs

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Last week, Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk acknowledged that she sought treatment for prescription drugs during her campaign. On Tuesday's Think, KERA's Krys Boyd talked with a panel of addiction experts about the unique challenges in treating this type of dependence.

It takes a trained eye to spot a prescription drug addict. First, you won’t typically see them buying from a dealer on a street corner.

“At least 60 percent of them first get it from a family member or friend," says Dr. Lee Spencer, an addiction psychiatrist on the medical staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. “I think probably the second most common way to get it is doctor shopping.”

That’s when an addict collects prescriptions from a variety of doctors. And some doctors become addicts by abusing their prescription-writing privileges and skimming off their patients’ medication.

Pepper Harper is a counselor with Sante Center for Healing in Argyle.

"We treat a lot of medical professionals, so it’s kind of the one for me, two for you type mentality, where they’ll just simply take a little bit off of the patients’ medications," she says. "And that can be difficult to track. They can go a long ways down the road of addiction before this becomes alert to their employer or family members.”

Harper says prescription drug abusers are often able to fly under the radar because they restrict their habits to their home lives.

“Many of my patients that I’ve worked with, they don’t use during the day. This is something that they do when they get home in order to unwind. They may use at night and get up in the morning and push through. And so they may come across as depressed or exhausted or anxious, but not necessarily intoxicated.”

And when a normal-looking patient shows up looking to refill a pain-medication prescription, Spencer says that can put the physician in a tough position.

“The difficult part when you have a patient in front of you that’s obviously suffering and obviously in a lot of pain is – my job is to relieve this suffering. This is what I’m called to do and I want to help this person feel better," Spencer says. "But then you have to take a step back and think, is this good for the patient … do they have a propensity to become addicted to something down the road? Or, are there other ways to treat the pain that wouldn’t necessarily be addicting?”

Once someone becomes an addict, the road to sobriety can be long, including stays at places like the Sante Center. Harper says one of her chief tasks at the facility is helping patients come to a realistic understanding of what their lives will be like away from pain pills and other medications.

“I think as we work with patients who are addicted to these substances, they are operating under the belief that they should feel nothing. And so convincing them that a little bit of pain is a better alternative to the life that they’re currently living – a life addicted – does take some time.”

Think re-airs Monday-Thursday at 9 p.m., or listen to the podcast.

Stephen Becker is senior producer of the Think show , which airs on more than 25 stations across Texas and beyond. Prior to joining the Think team in 2013, as part of the Art&Seek team, Stephen produced radio and digital stories and hosted "The Big Screen" — a weekly radio segment about North Texas film — with Chris Vognar. His 2011 story about the history of eight-track tapes was featured nationally on NPR's All Things Considered. His works has been recognized with numerous state and national awards.