Recovering opioid addict: Expanding access to treatment only way to curb epidemic

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- As lawmakers, prosecutors, doctors and law enforcement officers all battle over how to solve the heroin and opioid epidemic, one man, a recovering addict, says he knows the answer.

He doesn't want to use his name or show his face, so we'll call him John.

“It comes back to the stigmas of addiction,” he said.

But he hoped his story could help shine a light.

“We have to change the way we look at addiction, the way we punish addiction,” he said.

His issues began when he got in a car accident about 11 years ago.

“I got rear-ended at 60 miles per hour and we were at a dead stop on a major highway," he said.

He had major muscle injuries, so doctors prescribed him hydrocodone. John developed an addiction to opioids within six months, he said.

“I took the medicine they told me to take. Little did I know that was the start of a vicious cycle,” he said.

He did inpatient treatment, but he relapsed. It almost cost him everything.

“When you’re an addict, the first thing that pops into your mind when you wake up is, ‘How am I gonna get high?' I got out ahead of it before bottomed out. I was on the verge of losing my job. It was affecting my personal life, home life and work life. That brought me to the point where one day I picked up the phone,” he said.

He spent all day calling places and getting rejected.

"‘We're full. We're not accepting patients,’ they'd say. That’s pretty devastating to someone who's trying to get help and can’t get it. So that’s where the mindset in society has to change. We've got to be more compassionate," he said.

He kept calling, until one receptionist told him to try the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center.

“I called. I was in here the next day,” he said.

Dr. Daniel Sumrok acts as director of the Center for Addiction Sciences, where John and about 400 other patients get outpatient treatment for opioid addiction.

“It involves both cognitive, behavioral therapies, 12-step facilitation, motivational enhancement therapies and then medically assisted therapies,” Sumrok said.

But not enough people in the Mid-South know about the center, even though it’s emerged as a national model, Sumrok said.

He said their treatment represented the best solution to Tennessee's opioid and heroin epidemic.

“We try to meet them individually where they are, understand their needs and create individualized treatment plans,” Sumrok said.

“It’s all about compassion,” John said. "One thing I've noticed is they're supportive, patient and understand what you're going through."

John’s treatment includes a daily dose of Suboxone, a prescription drug that gets rid of his cravings.

“You eliminate all cravings to use opioids. I can’t describe that feeling enough to where I just feel normal,” he said.

He also said the center doesn’t kick out patients who relapse.

“They don’t send you to the streets to use again. They work with you to get back on track,” John said.

John has now been drug-free for one year and two months. He said his life is back on track; he’s getting promotions at work and re-establishing relationships in his family.

“It enables me to live a normal life and be productive and not be a drain on society basically,” he said.

That's why he said the only solution to fixing the opioid epidemic is to increase access to treatment.

He wanted others to know they can do it too and there are more resources than they realize.

“Hopefully stories like this, we need to talk more about it. We don’t need to sweep it under the rug or put them in jail or in the ground. We need to save people’s lives. They gotta get the help,” he said.

He hoped one day he can give a name and face to the problem.

If you or anyone you know could benefit from UTHSC's outpatient addiction center, call 901-866-8630.