By Jennifer Mayerle

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The death of Prince from an accidental painkiller overdose highlights a crisis plaguing this country.

“Every 20 minutes one American dies of an opioid overdose, which is approximately 500 per week,” Dr. Emily Brunner said.

Two and a half million Americans have an opioid use disorder, according to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Dr. Marc Myer spoke about how far he went to get painkillers, and the intervention that led to a series of recoveries and relapses.

Myer is a successful doctor with a loving family. But not far from his mind is a path that led to pain and addiction.

“I always felt kind of different, kind of maybe like I didn’t belong completely,” Myer said.

He first took an opioid, Percocet, as a 4th year medical student after having his wisdom teeth removed.

“From the first moment that I took an opioid I felt bigger, faster, stronger, more able to focus, able to get more done than I did without it,” Myer said.

The Percocet was only prescribed for a few days. When he became a medical resident, his problem picked up.

“So I started taking samples out of the sample closet and eventually crossed the line to the point where I was taking medication from my patients,” Myer said. “I knew logically and emotionally that I was doing wrong and that it was something that I shouldn’t be doing, but that sense of that need for euphoria initially, and eventually the need to use the substance to avoid withdrawal symptoms was an overriding force.”

The behavior progressed over three or four years. He needed more and more opioids over time, and at times tried to detox, but couldn’t stand the effects.

“I would go into this really rapid period of hopelessness, and it was achiness and lack of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, you name it,” Myer said. “It was an awful experience and not something that I could hide.”

So he took the opioids, until co-workers intervened.

“It was almost a relief at that point that yes, this is no longer a secret and I can finally get the help that I need,” Myer said.

Dr. Brunner treats opioid use disorder at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

“That’s a really difficult line to figure out when the medications are being used appropriately and when it starts to transition into something else,” Brunner said.

She said most opioid addictions begin with someone sharing a painkiller. It can progress to the need for daily use, and when it becomes prohibitively expensive, buying an opioid, like heroin, on the street.

Others may see the warning sign before the user even knows they’re becoming addicted.

“Seeming excessively tired, being irritable, missing obligations without giving any clear reason, seeming to sleep a lot more,” Brunner said.

If not realized and treated, the disease can be deadly.

“This is a chronic lifetime terminal illness, it’s like cancer or diabetes. Left untreated this can result in death and often does but treatment is available and treatment really work,” Brunner said.

Dr. Myer lost his medical license during his seven treatments for opioid and alcohol use disorder. In between, he says he made more bad decisions.

“[I] started using heroin off the street just because of lack of access, and when I wasn’t using heroin I was using alcohol. It became evident quickly after getting into recovery how close I was to death many times, overdose and situations in which I was, there was the possibility of personal harm and violence,” Myer said.

Dr. Myer has been clean and sober for nearly 8 years. And he can practice medicine again. He wants others to know there is help available. And you can recover.

“I wish I hadn’t been so worried about losing the things that I had in my life because the paradox is that when I didn’t ask for help I ended up losing all those things anyway,” Myer said.

Dr. Myer is the Health Care Professional Program Director at Hazelden Betty Ford. The program treats those in the medical field dealing with addiction. Click here for resources.

Brunner added that millions of Americans are prescribed opioids and do not become addicted.

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