When Jack O’Connor was 19, he was so desperate to beat his addictions to alcohol and opioids that he took a really rash step. He joined the Marines.

“This will fix me,” O’Connor thought as he went to boot camp. “It better fix me or I’m screwed.”

After 13 weeks of sobriety and exercise and discipline, O’Connor completed basic training, but he started using again immediately.


Jack RodolicoAs New Hampshire Public Radio’s chief health and science reporter, Jack Rodolico covers a diverse range of topics which include the likes of public health, scientific research, drug addiction, developmental disabilities and mental illness. Jack has also worked as a freelance reporter who has had his work aired on BBC, Marketplace and NPR to name a few. In this article, he details the life story of an individual suffering from opioid addiction.
Editor: Arman Ahmed


“Same thing,” he says. “Percocet, like, off the street. Pills.”

Percocet is the brand name for acetaminophen and oxycodone. Oxycodone is a powerful opioid. It’s one of the most commonly prescribed painkillers, and is a key factor in one of the country’s most pressing public health problems — an opioid addiction epidemic. It is a crisis that started, in part, from the overprescription of painkillers like Percocet, and then shifted to heroin as people addicted to prescription drugs looked for a cheaper high.

anatomy-of-addiction-2

O’Connor is one of an estimated 2.5 million Americans addicted to opioids and heroin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Over three years, he detoxed from prescription painkillers — and heroin — more than 20 times. Each time, he started using again. So why is it so hard for opioid addicts to quit? You can boil it down to two crucial bits of science: the powerful nature of opioids and the neuroscience behind how addiction hijacks the brain.

“The first recording of opioid use was 5,000 years ago,” says Dr. Seddon Savage, an addiction and pain specialist at Dartmouth College. It was “a picture of the opium poppy and the words ‘the joy plant.’ ”

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‘It Ruined Me That Time. But I Loved It’

Jack O’Connor says he ended his freshman year of college as an alcoholic. He went home that summer desperate to replace alcohol with something else. And it was not hard to do. In 2012, 259 million opioid pain medication prescriptions were written — that’s enough painkillers for every American to have a bottle of the pills. O’Connor got his hands on some 30-milligram Percocet.

“I ended up sniffing a whole one, and I blacked out, puking everywhere,” says O’Connor. “I don’t remember anything. It ruined me that time. But I loved it.”

Opioids got him higher faster than any drug he had tried. And even though different drugs produce different highs, they all involve the same pathway in the brain.

 

 

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