By Jordyn Grzelewski
When Sarah Kennedy was in high school, she started to experience the first symptoms of what doctors would later diagnose as multiple sclerosis.
She was fatigued. She was in pain. And her doctors didn’t know what was wrong with her.
“I was just a sick kid all the time,” said Kennedy, 36, of Niles.
At age 16, she was provided relief in the form of a prescription pain medication.
For Tom Brannigan, 39, of Boardman it started with a car accident in 2005.
“I was coming around a bend. Traffic was at a dead stop,” he recalled. A vehicle rear-ended him on the highway, leading to serious spine and back injuries.
Along with physical therapy, chiropractic care, and other forms of treatment, Brannigan was prescribed an opiate medication to relieve his severe pain.
Both Kennedy and Brannigan’s experiences with legally prescribed opiates put them on a path to drug addiction that nearly ruined their lives.
Kennedy’s health issues began in ninth grade. At first she was told she had reoccurring mononucleosis, then chronic-fatigue syndrome.
Compounding the issue was Kennedy’s physically-demanding job at a nursing home, where she suffered injuries such as a herniated disc.
Ultram, also known as tramadol, was the first painkiller she was prescribed. Different prescription painkillers followed. She had no idea at the time that the medications would become central to her day-to-day life.
“When I first started going [to the doctor], it was because I wanted help. I was in pain,” she said. “But I didn’t know what was about to happen.”
After five years of prescribed painkillers, Kennedy knew she couldn’t live without the pills.
She recalls feeling energized and invincible when she was on the medication, allowing her to regularly work extra hours at her job.
“It was like my Superwoman pill,” she said.
“But then they turned on me,” she said.
Her life centered around her medication.
“I didn’t want to work anymore. I wanted to stay in bed. I turned on me.”
Eventually she began doctor shopping – going to different doctors to get new prescriptions. The more she used the drugs, the less effective they became.
She said she would exaggerate her symptoms to doctors to get more. She remembers one particularly low point: throwing herself down a flight of stairs, hoping to injure herself enough to get another prescription.
At one point, she recalls, she would take as much as 680 milligrams of Oxycontin per day, taking 10 or 15 pills at a time.
For reference, Oxycontin tablets come in doses of 5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 40, 60, 80 and 120 milligrams.
GETTING CUT OFF
Ten years into her opiate use, her doctors cut her off.
“I still remember that day like it was yesterday,” she said. “I wanted to die. It was a nightmare.”
Kennedy shudders when she thinks about the withdrawal she experienced 10 years ago.
“It was flu times 10,” she said.
Her skin burned. Her limbs spasmed. She couldn’t sleep. She vomited and shook uncontrollably.
“I was so sick it didn’t matter,” she said. “I never would have thought that taking a little bit of ultram would have led there.”
For Brannigan, that day came one year into his use of prescription pain medication. After an insurance settlement was reached for his car accident, insurance stopped covering his doctor visits and prescriptions, he said.
“It created a hole, where I’m now dependent on the pain medications” but had no way of paying for everything out-of-pocket, he said.
“It was awful,” he said. “If I didn’t have it, basic every- day life was impossible.”
Cut off from the medications on which their minds and bodies had become dependent and experiencing the hellish effects of opioid withdrawal, both Kennedy and Brannigan sought opioids elsewhere.
TAKING TO THE STREETS
Had you asked Kennedy 20 years ago if she would ever try heroin, the question would have shocked her.
“I never thought I’d be that person,” she said.
But when someone offered her heroin after she was cut off from painkillers, she accepted. At first, she snorted the drug.
Then, she saw a friend shooting up heroin. She was shocked.
“I just started crying and begging her to stop,” Kennedy recalled.
But when she realized that the drug would be more effective if she shot it up, Kennedy decided to try it.
For the next 10 years, her addiction to heroin wrecked her life.
“If I needed it, anything and everything it told me to do for the drugs, for money, I did it,” she said. “I stole from people. I lied. Everything my values told me not to do.”
Her parents couldn’t trust her anymore. Her children couldn’t rely on her.
Finally, last October, she was forced to confront her situation.
Kennedy says she snorted about $5 worth of heroin, then overdosed in her parents’ bathroom. She later learned that her brother broke down the door to get to her.
“I was slumped over the toilet. He called my mother to help him. I wasn’t breathing,” she said.
Finally, after emergency medical workers administered six doses of a medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, Kennedy regained consciousness.
After that, Kennedy knew she had two options: die, or get better. She chose the latter.
After Brannigan was cut off from his prescription painkillers, he, too, began buying drugs from the streets. He started first with pills, then started to buy heroin. That choice, he said, was driven by availability and cost.
In all, his drug abuse went on for about a decade. During those years, he said, his life was lonely and dictated by his addiction.
“When you’re heavily involved in addiction, you start to distance yourself from people,” he said. Finding drugs “consumes you from the time you wake up until the time you go to sleep.”
Things came to a head for him in December 2014, when he was arrested in Youngstown on a charge of felony drug possession.
He was offered a spot in Mahoning County’s drug court program, which he accepted. He was ready to get better.
THERE IS HOPE
Brannigan has been in recovery for 21/2 years. Kennedy has been sober for about 8 months.
“My life today is the complete opposite of the way it was in addiction,” said Brannigan. “I’m able to live a normal life. I have a job where I’m able to give back to other addicts.”
He works at Serenity Center in Youngstown and on the county drug-court team that helped save his life.
Kennedy works a 12-step program, and credits her faith in God with helping her.
Although her MS makes it difficult to work full time, she is a coordinator for two sober houses.
“I feel so much better. I gained weight. I don’t look like I’m dying now.”
Her mom used to call her a “skeleton with skin.”
“I have real friends now,” she added. “And me and my children are together all the time.”
It’s a process, Kennedy said. Now age 13 and 17, her children spent much of their childhoods with a mom whose addiction made her absent. She still sees pain in their eyes and knows that they are hurt. But she is making strides with them and other loved ones.
She is quick to take responsibility for her actions – “Nobody put a gun to my head and made me go to the doctor” – but she knows, too, that her story is part of a larger one involving the medical community as a whole.
For many years, prescriptions for powerful and addictive painkillers were dispensed without the understanding that doctors today have about their potentially dire consequences.
Both Brannigan and Kennedy still suffer from the pain that led their doctors to prescribe them opiates. While it’s not the best approach for everyone, they simply deal with the pain because they know they are susceptible to addiction.
“I think people walking into it don’t realize it’s as addictive as it is,” said Brannigan. “You have that trust in your doctor and begin to take the medication, and the addiction begins to develop.”