“I had a 10-year run, stealing, conniving,” Jamie Lee Curtis revealed about her battle with opioid dependence. “No one knew. No one.”
Now, everyone knows. And if the actress’s courageous confession to People tells us anything, it’s that a dangerous dependence on prescription pain pills can happen to anyone. In fact, midlife women—even those who never dabbled in recreational drugs or rarely touch alcohol—may be particularly prone to getting hooked on such opioids as hydrocodone and fentanyl. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women are more likely than men to be prescribed opioids and be taken to the emergency room for their abuse. Perhaps scariest for those of us between 45 and 54, we’re also at high risk of dying from a prescription painkiller overdose.
Opioid Dependence: More Pain, More Pills
So, why us? “Women, particularly those over 50, suffer from a higher incidence of chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis, and we have more knee-related pain than men, often attributed to structural differences in the knee,” explains Deni Carise, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at Recovery Centers of America and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine.
Women, particularly over 50, have a higher rate of chronic pain conditions.
“The likelihood of post-menopausal weight gain puts added stress on our joints, which can lead to a host of painful procedures, including hip replacement and spinal fusion,” Carise points out. Opioids are commonly prescribed following hysterectomy and colectomy, and then there’s the pain associated with cosmetic surgery—pain we may be acutely sensitive to: Research published in the medical journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found that, on average, women have 34 nerve fibers per square centimeter of facial skin while men average just 17. Indeed, Jamie Lee Curtis was introduced to pain meds after plastic surgery on her “puffy eyes.”
Haven’t Got Time for the Pain
Complicating matters for women is our societal role as caregivers. “The average caregiver in this county is a 49-year-old female who works outside the home as well as providing an average of 20 hours of unpaid caregiving a week, typically to a family member,” says Carise. “Research shows that more than one-third of caregivers provide continuing care to others while suffering from poor health themselves. It seems clear that women will do whatever it takes not to disappoint when it comes to caring for others.”
That was surely the case for Barbara French*, a schoolteacher and active churchgoer from Greenville, South Carolina, whom her daughter-in-law Mandy describes as “the last person on earth you’d expect to have a drug problem.” But Barbara’s husband had Parkinson’s disease, and when he went downhill, “she did everything for him—lifting him from bed, in and out of the shower, not to mention all his chores,” Mandy says. Subsequently, Barbara needed rotator cuff surgery, received an Rx for oxycodone, and started down the proverbial slippery slope.
Women will do whatever it takes not to disappoint when it comes to caring for others.
Barbara “never made a peep about her own pain,” says Mandy, but over time her behavior changed and loved ones started to catch on. Unfortunately, Barbara denied that there was anything wrong—and then it was too late. “She got in a car wreck, out there in a part of town where druggies go,” Mandy says. “We all knew what she was doing there. It’s our family tragedy.” Barbara was 63 years old when she died.
Hurts So Bad
Barbara’s refusal to reach out to her loved ones was likely rooted in shame—and she was hardly alone. “Both men and women are harshly judged for having an addiction, but addicted women face even greater stigma, which keeps many from getting the help they need,” notes David Sack, MD, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer of Elements Behavior Health.
If I hadn’t run out of money, I would still be using—or dead or in jail.
That was certainly the case for Dawn Young* of Clifton, New Jersey, who was originally prescribed painkillers after surgery for herniated disks. “The first time I took them, I got this sense of euphoria, like nothing mattered,” she says. “It became something I sought out.” She’d go to a doctor and complain that her back was acting up and easily get a refill. Add to that the fact she had a career in the restaurant industry where pill-popping seemed rampant. She kept her job, managed her relationships, and, above all, hid her habit. “I was so ashamed and worried about what people would think,” she says.
This went on for 16 years—until Dawn got the “opportunity” to try heroin, which many pain-pill addicts turn to as it is a cheaper option. Within a year, she had lost everything. “I tried to stop on my own, telling myself I’d quit and no one would ever know, but I could not jump off that train no matter how much I wanted to.” Ultimately, she did seek help. “If I hadn’t run out of money, I would still be using—or dead or in jail.” But her recovery was an uphill climb that included inpatient rehab and several intense outpatient programs.
No one sets out to become addicted. If you receive a prescription for opioids, proceed with caution. “There are legitimate uses for these drugs, such as for short-term post-operative pain management; we just have to take care to use them correctly,” says Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz, MD, an ob/gyn in private practice in Beverly Hills, California. “You shouldn’t be afraid to take medication you need; just be cautious of taking medication you don’t need.”
So how do you know? “Some women take those first few pills and absolutely hate how it makes them feel, even if the pain is dulled,” says Carise. “Problems arise if you take your first few opioids and think, ‘Wow, this feels great!’ That’s when you must step back and honestly evaluate whether you really need something that strong and frankly that seductive to ease your pain. While no one should be condemned to a life of pain, there’s a fine line between addressing pain adequately and getting caught up with drugs.”
Patients given an opioid prescription from a physician should be proactive and ask:
- Why is this being prescribed for me?
- Are there alternative treatments?
- What are the potential side-effects and interactions with my other medications (prescription or OTC) or supplements?
- Can I drink alcohol or use a sleep aid with this?
Getting sober remains my single greatest accomplishment. Bigger than my husband, children or any work success.
“Be sure to take an opioid exactly as prescribed and only if you need it for pain,” stresses Carise. “Your doctor may give you a two-week supply when you might just have three days of severe pain. When your pain decreases, try another medication that doesn’t have addictive qualities. Always check with your doctor first, but some over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin or NSAIDs can be very effective. There’s no need to take an opioid if other medications can control your pain.”
The devastating opioid crisis claims the lives 115 Americans every day, according to the National Institutes of Health. And for those who survive addiction, recovery is arduous—and continuous. Jamie Lee Curtis still goes to meetings, where, “anyone who brings up opiates, the entire room will turn and look at me, because I’ll be like, ‘Oh, here, talk to me. I’m the opiate girl.’” Today she tells the world that, “Getting sober remains my single greatest accomplishment. Bigger than my husband, bigger than both of my children and bigger than any work success.”
Dawn Young, now two and a half years clean, can relate—she, too, still attends meetings. “I’m learning to live life on life’s terms, to be honest with myself and work a program,” she says. “God and my family keep me going—that and the hope that I can show someone who is suffering that there is a way out.”
* Name and some identifying factors have been changed.
For more information for yourself or a loved one, go to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) websites.
A native Brooklynite, Nina Malkin has written for everyone from hoity-toity fashion magazines to trashy tabloids to The New York Times. She’s the author of six books, including the paranormal romance novel Swoon and the memoir An Unlikely Cat Lady: Feral Adventures in the Backyard Jungle.