Andrew Dewey once had a good job as an assistant manager of a department store. He was married with a son, and had saved a nest egg. All that changed after his doctor began prescribing potent painkillers.
In a story that has become all to familiar, he became addicted to the pills and then began using heroin.
“I tell people all the time, we as citizens in Illinois need to grasp that this drug doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care what race you are, what color you are, what income you have, what suburb you live in. It will take every one of you if you let it," Dewey said on GLT's Sound Ideas.
"We have this stereotype of the addict as a dirty guy in an alley. It’s a housewife down the street who is addicted to pills. It's the judge's son at the local high school," he added.
Dewey will tell his story as part of a panel discussion on the opioid crisis Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Normal Public Library. The program is sponsored by the McLean County League of Women Voters.
Opioid deaths in McLean County more than doubled to 33 in 2017, according to county coroner Kathy Davis, who will speak on the League of Women Voters panel. Law enforcement officials say an estimated 140 Americans die of opioid overdoses daily.
Dewey began taking the prescription drug Vicodin when he was living in Texas, after suffering a back injury. He was transferred to central Illinois for his work and settled in Jacksonville, Illinois. Moving furniture into his new home, he again injured his back and sought help for the pain from a doctor in that community.
"Without doing an exam, without doing an MRI, without an X-ray, in fact he never laid a finger on in me, but within five minutes he wrote me a prescription for 90 Vicodin a month, He wanted me to take three a day, which was quite a bit of opioids," Dewey said.
Dewey said his physician never explained the potential ramifications of taking the painkillers.
"Me not being a medical doctor, I assumed what most people would assume: He knows what he is doing. This is what I am supposed to do. Never did he mention, be very careful, these can become addictive. There was no warnings whatsoever. That is the thing that makes me most angry."
Dewey said the doctor eventually prescribed yet another, more potent painkiller, Norco. Ultimately, Dewey said he was given Oxycontin, a painkiller normally prescribed for cancer patients, even though he had not asked for a stronger medication.
Again, he said, he didn't ask questions because the pills helped his pain.
"As naive as it might sound at the time, in 2006, the press wasn't yet all over the opioid dangers," he recalled.
When his physician left the community, Dewey said he began buying painkillers on the street.
"The withdrawal from these pills was unbelievable. My legs would cramp so bad I couldn't even walk to the bathroom, so I would throw up on myself, I couldn't make it in time. Sometimes I would just be laying in (vomit)," he recalled.
"The pain is so intense and the stomach cramps. It was the most unbearable thing I have felt in my entire life," Dewey said.
One day, he recalled, a woman he knew handed him a syringe and told him there was another way to ease his pain.
"I said, 'This will make all of this pain go away?' She said yes. I said, 'Do it.'"
It was the first time Dewey said he injected anything into his veins.
"In 15 minutes, I felt like a new man. I said, 'What was that?' She said, 'Heroin.' And I said, 'Holy crap.'"
Dewey said as shocked as he was that he was taking heroin, he couldn’t stop.
“As any addict will tell you, the memory of that pain of withdrawing was so strong I wasn’t going to stop. I couldn’t stop.
His addiction swiftly took a toll. He said he was spending as much as $600 a week on heroin and pills. He quickly depleted his $18,000 in savings. He lost his car. His marriage disintegrated.
"I couldn't pay my rent ... I never came out of my house anymore. I didn’t speak to my parents for two and a half years. There were weeks I didn’t take a shower. That is how miserable it got."
Dewey remembers the date and exact moment he decided he had to change his life: March 12, 2012.
“I started the day as I always did, taking six pills and swallowing them down with pint of vodka," he recalled.
Then, he said he did something he rarely did, even when shaving. He looked at himself in the mirror.
"I know it sounds like a cliché, but it really happened. I was washing water on my face, I saw my eyes were sunken sockets. I looked like I weighted 92 pounds and I’m 6 foot 2," Dewey said.
He called a local treatment facility called the Wells Center, since closed under state budget cuts.
He had to wait three days for bed. "I went through a horrific withdrawal," he recalled. Eventually he was admitted for treatment.
“It was an amazing step in my life for sure," he now says.
Dewey says programs like Safe Passage, in which addicts can turn in their pills and syringes to authorities without being charged in return for entering drug treatment, are among the best solutions for dealing with the crisis.
"There is this huge cry, put them in jail. They made that choice," Dewey said, citing a common public perception. Prison, he says, isn't the solution.
"We are never going to prosecute or arrest our way out of this crisis," he said.
Criminal records only make it harder for recovering addicts to return to a productive life, he said.
"We want them to come out of prison, but we gave them a felony, so now they can't get public housing, most jobs won’t hire them, so pretty much we saved a life while ruining it," he said.
Those recovering from opioid addiction, he said, also need intensive counseling once they leave a residential treatment program.
Dewey is currently finishing a master's degree in counseling. He works to counsel drivers who have been arrested for driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
He says he is in a stable relationship and is back in touch with his son.
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