Cassidy Webb was 17 when she got her wisdom teeth removed. As is common after a wisdom tooth extraction, she was prescribed hydrocodone—the generic form of Vicodin—to help her manage the pain. But for Cassidy, it was the spark that ignited an opioid addiction. “I fell in love with it immediately,” she says. “It helped me slow down and relax.”
Taking opioids for even three consecutive days significantly increases the likelihood of chronic use, according to the CDC. And that was true for Cassidy. After her prescription ran out, she complained to her doctor that her teeth hurt and got a refill. And when that ran out, she spent the next year buying pain meds illegally. “I went off to college and I started doctor shopping. I found a doctor who would give me pain medications every month,” she says. “I would just tell him I had bronchitis.” She ultimately started selling weed to have the money to buy opioids illegally—including heroin, which she had started injecting less than two years after getting her wisdom teeth removed.
“All my money went to drugs,” Webb says. She had started college with a full-ride scholarship to study chemistry, but all her attention went to fueling her addiction. “I kept using for two years and it reached a point where I had lost the will to live,” she says.
She eventually decided to intentionally overdose. “I told myself that if I did wake up, I would get help,” she says.
Fortunately, Webb did indeed wake up, in the hospital, and decided to leave her home state of Arkansas and go to an in-patient treatment facility in Florida to deal with her addiction. She says that the withdrawal was miserable (she had shakes, cold sweats, and vomiting for several days straight), but the worst part was the mental aspect. “I just wanted to continue to get high,” she says.
Now, she’s been sober for over a year and works for Recovery Local, a non-profit that provides resources to people struggling with drug and alcohol abuse. “There’s a stigma around addiction and everyone wants to know if it’s a choice or if it’s a disease,” Cassidy says. “And I would say, if I had a choice, I would have never stuck a needle in my arm. That mental obsession was so strong.”
Webb’s experience is far from uncommon, especially for a woman her age. A 2018 report released by Plan Against Pain (a consumer education platform funded by Pacira Pharmaceuticals) surveyed nearly 90,000 women ages 18 to 64 who were prescribed opioids following surgery. And the demographic found to be most at risk of developing an addiction, according to the report? Millennial women. Persistent opioid use among women aged 18 to 34 spiked 17 percent from 2016 to 2017 while use among all other age and gender groups declined. The report also found that women who were prescribed opioids after surgery were 40 percent more likely than men to become “newly persistent” users—defined as individuals who were still getting an opioid prescription 90 to 180 days after surgery.
Men may seem like the face of the opioid crisis, says Samantha Arsenault, the director of national treatment quality initiatives for Shatterproof, an addiction awareness non-profit. “Men do use illegal drugs at higher rates than women and their opioid overdose rate is higher than women,” she says. But a 2017 white paper released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration revealed that the rate of women dying from a prescription opioid overdose grew nearly 500 percent between 1999 and 2015. That’s over twice as much as that of men, which rose 218 percent during the same period. (For context, the CDC estimates that 219,000 Americans have died from prescription opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2017).
So that raises the question: What’s making women turn to prescription painkillers in such growing numbers? Read more in the full article on Well + Good.