A new federal report reveals deaths from drug overdoses are up for the 11th straight year, and that most involve prescription painkillers. Colorado is second in the nation for prescription abuse, with 6 percent of the population reportedly using painkillers for non-medical purposes.
While the deaths of celebrities who abused prescriptions, such as Whitney Houston, Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson and Brittany Murphy, always draw renewed attention to the epidemic, far from Hollywood, here in southern Colorado, there are many stories of abuse you haven't heard.
Sgt. Smith, an Army veteran who didn't want to be further identified, said for him, it started in Iraq when his vehicle was bombed by insurgents.
"I was in the backseat, behind the driver and the vehicle came to our left corner panel and blew us up," said Smith. "I don't remember much of it, but I had broken my wrist, hurt my back, hurt my pelvis."
Smith said he was prescribed Percocets then Oxycontin to deal with pain. But there was also the anguish he still lives with: some of his fellow soldiers didn't survive the attack.
"Because of coming home from Iraq and the night terrors and the flashbacks, I would start using my medication to cope," said Smith.
He became addicted, going to the street for more drugs.
"I would get my script for narcotics and then I would go out and buy more," Smith said. "I pawned some stuff, and it was wrong."
Smith said the addiction ended his marriage.
"She was an amazing wife, and I messed that up. And it was because of the narcotics," he said.
Amber Mooney's addiction to painkillers also began with a doctor's prescription.
"Basically, I was prescribed them when I had my son, gave birth to my son and they gave me more to take home," said Mooney.
She said when the prescription ran out, she found a friend with pills to spare who needed some cash.
"He was addicted to crack, so he would sell them to me," Mooney said.
The mother of two boys never intended to become an addict.
"I realized I had to take them. I wasn't just taking them to get high, I was just taking them to function." Mooney said. "You can either go get your pills or you're going to be sick. You can't get up and I couldn't get up and take care of my kid, so I had to have them."
Doctors are prescribing opioid narcotics, like Oxycontin and Percocets, three times more than a decade ago. It started in the 90s when the medical community agreed pain was being under-treated. Dr. Dave Nigh, an emergency physician at Memorial Hospital, says that mindset is changing and hospitals are putting new policies in place to prevent abuse.
"We developed a policy about chronic pain management and the rational prescribing of these medicines," said Nigh. "Less pills per encounter and having the bedside conversations about the relatives risks of these medicines."
Nigh also points to a statewide database for medical providers called the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program which shows a patient's prescription history.
"We'll sometimes see they've been to one provider on Tuesday and another provider for more of the same medicine on Thursday," Nigh said. "So you can see where they've been doctor shopping."
Despite those types of efforts, both Smith and Mooney believe doctors are still over-prescribing.
"I think sometimes people are given medications for the wrong reasons," Smith said.
"The drug companies make so much money off these people taking these prescriptions," Mooney said.
Both are now taking steps to change their lives. Smith is checking into rehab, and Mooney is going to a Colorado Springs methadone clinic. They're focusing on moving on.
"I just graduated college, and actually just had a really good job interview today," Smith said.
They're continuing to fight a battle neither ever expected.
"This was definitely the biggest mistake of my life. By far," Mooney said.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, a federal database can connect you with treatment in your area. Click here or call 1-800-662-HELP.