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Stanton Peele Stanton Peele

Ten Steps to Avoid Addiction or Overdose While Using Prescription Drugs

It's America's biggest addiction-related problem. But you can protect yourself by using these practical safeguards and psychological principles.

13 Substance

In the United States today, most drug addiction and cases of overdose involve prescription medications. This category includes anti-anxiety drugs (e.g., Xanax and other benzodiazepines), sedatives and sleep meds, antidepressants (e.g., Prozac and other SSRIs) and antipsychotics (e.g., clozapine and neuroleptic drugs). But the principal drug in cases of addiction and overdose (usually due to the mixing of drugs) is narcotic painkillers such as Percocet, oxycodone (OxyContin) and Vicodin.

This alarm was issue issued by the CDC back in 2011:

Deaths from prescription painkillers (e.g., Vicodin, OxyContin) have reached epidemic levels in the past decade. The number of overdose deaths is now greater than those of deaths from heroin and cocaine combined…

Enough prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult around-the-clock for a month. Although most of these pills were prescribed for a medical purpose, many ended up in the hands of people who misused or abused them.

Prescription painkiller overdose deaths among women. (Source: National Vital Statistics System, 1999-2010. Deaths include suicides.)

Prescription painkiller overdose deaths among women. (Source: National Vital Statistics System, 1999-2010. Deaths include suicides.)

Since then, things have not gotten better. Although more men than women die due to painkillers, nonetheless, according to the CDC, painkillers currently kill more American women than cervical cancer and homicide do. For every such death, 30 women end up in emergency rooms.

Nonmedical black markets exist for every prescription drug. Still, most addiction begins with the misuse of drugs that have been legitimately prescribed. “Use only as directed” should go without saying. But there are several other things you can do to be sure that your or your loved one’s use of a prescription doesn’t become harmful.

First, let’s go over basic safeguards:

1.  Don’t get multiple prescriptions for the same drug from different providers.

You probably already know that this is illegal and inadvisable medically. If you feel your medication isn’t working sufficiently well, discuss this with your primary care physician.

2.  Clear all drugs through one medical provider/pharmacist.

It isn’t just doubling up on the same medication that can cause problems—there can be perilous interactions among different drugs. So you should have a primary care physician and one source for pharmaceuticals, both of whom keep track of all of your prescriptions.

3.  Even under a physician’s care, increasing dosage more than once is a red flag.

Although it is not uncommon for a doctor to increase your dosage of a medication after you and the physician note your initial reaction to it, repeatedly upping the dosage is a danger signal. If this occurs express your concerns to your provider—you must be your own protector.

4.  Indeed, sensing that a medication isn’t working/having the desired effect is a warning sign.

When you note that your psychiatric medication is not doing what you were told it is supposed to do, either switch medications, or else seek non-pharmaceutical alternatives.

5.  Above all, never mix sedatives/tranquilizers/alcohol/painkillers.

The overwhelming cause of what is termed “overdose” is the result of mixing narcotic painkillers with other narcotics (including heroin), sedatives (e.g., Ambien), tranquilizers (benzodiazepines such as Xanax) and/or alcohol. Don’t risk it.


Stanton Peele/Substance.com

Stanton Peele/Substance.com

Now let’s review some basic psychological principles for keeping you unhooked:

6.  Maintain your general lifestyle and health.

Addiction both results from and causes deterioration in your mental health and functioning. So make sure that you keep up with your obligations—your work, your family, your exercise, your recreation—and stay healthy.

7.  Seek psychotherapy or other alternative therapies (e.g., sleep or pain clinics, exercise).

Psychiatric medications will only go so far in remedying your problems.  You also need to address the basic issues of your life—family and other relationships, sleeping, non-pharmaceutical pain relief and work satisfaction.

8. Select a nonmedical partner to discuss the impact of your meds on your life.

While you must keep your physician and pharmacist in touch with your prescription use, you need also to check in with at least one person who knows you well. Your spouse, your adult child or any intimate can be your “pharm-buddy.”

9.  Remember, pharms are not your natural mind at work.

There is a real you beneath the drugs’ effects. Of course, your consciousness or physical sensations may be unpleasant or dysfunctional for you—that’s why you got a prescription. Do your utmost to remain connected to the real, unmedicated you.

10.  Suicide can be more subtle than you think.

All of the above points assume that you want to live. But suicides are included in prescription drug overdose statistics. I can’t tackle and resolve such a serious topic in this brief space. (That would take a book.) I will note here that, to some extent, misusing meds is like incremental suicide, even when you are not intentionally trying to kill yourself. Be aware of this with every mood or pain drug you take.

In the 21st Century, medications to make people of all ages feel better are commonplace—and growing more so. You must always be mindful that your reliance on such meds is not dominating—even consuming—the rest of your life. You can never lose sight of basic life satisfaction as your primary goal. Always retain your focus on the pillars of that satisfaction (i.e., relationships, work, play, health, family, community, self-love, purpose).

There are no shortcuts for gaining life satisfaction; the search for such shortcuts is addictogenic.

Remember, the first rule of medicine is to do no harm. You should have the same rule for how you deal with yourself.

Stanton Peele, a columnist for Substance.com, has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice, including uncovering natural recovery, identifying addiction as being not essentially linked to drugs, and focusing on social forces and individual choice in addiction since writing (with Archie Brodsky) Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict. His website is Peele.net. Dr. Peele has won career achievement awards from the Drug Policy Alliance and the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies.