Battling Prescription Pill Addiction

Doctor Stephen Schneider was genuinely surprised when he was sentenced to thirty years in prison in 2010. His wife, Linda Atterby, received thirty-three. Charged with unlawful distribution of controlled substances, health care fraud and money laundering, the heads of the Haysville, Kansas-based Schneider Medical Clinic were implicated in the deaths of sixty-eight patients.

It’s easy to dismiss Schneider as an incompetent, money-hungry physician. He and his staff members accepted free gifts and trips from pharmaceutical companies. His patient profile was so overwhelming that he barely had a minute alone with any single person, taking pleas for ambiguous pain relief at face value without understanding their personal history. He could not even recite the Hippocratic Oath, so forget about his understanding the subtle complexity of ‘do no harm.’

Yet as Rachel Aviv reports in ‘Prescription for Disaster’ in the New Yorker, nuances go both ways. At a local meeting of doctors called the Sedgwick Pain Society, twenty other doctors, nurses and physician assistants balked at taking any of Schneider’s patients, who were mostly on Medicaid or had long histories of illness. His clinic had become the only refuge for the chronically ill that no one else would treat. 

Most disturbing in Aviv’s reporting is the number of Americans living in chronic pain. Nearly one-third of our country’s population—100 million citizens—reports this fact as a daily reality. 

I use this column as a space for investigating various spiritual claims and cultural topics. But there is no debating addiction. I’ve watched close friends get hooked on oxycodone and alcohol, among others. You want to say to them, ‘You have the power to stop,’ but when the substance affects their neural patterns, it’s not that simple.

The warning signs of addiction—increased dosage, social withdrawal, personality changes—can be tough to spot. And forget about defensiveness: an addict rarely admits his illness. They set a bar for how much of a drug they can handle until addiction, continually moving that bar, often forgetting where it was originally set.

We all have this condition we call ‘I’ as if our ‘self’ is a separate process from the chemicals and hormones in our bodies. The philosophy of dualism affords this: Sure, that guy over there might be taking pills every day, but me, I’m fine. My body just needs this to cope, but the real me is right where I need to be. I can quit whenever I want.

Until you can’t.

We are that collection of chemicals, however, and they affect 'us'—our consciousness—greatly. Pain is a particularly challenging symptom because it is so broad and can have so many causes. It’s also tough to quantify because so much of it is anecdotal. And yet personal tales clue doctors in to the total story of your body and being, which is in big part where Schneider failed: he never got to know the insides and outs of the people he was treating. This problem is not limited to him—doctors all over the country are experiencing this issue, adding to the surge in popularity of the ‘minute clinic’ at local pharmacies.

While I sometimes write about yoga in this column, it’s upsetting when readers comment that yoga is ‘just stretching,’ as there is so much more to it. That said, ‘just stretching’ is one definitive source of pain relief. I write this both anecdotally, as someone who cured his five-year battle with sciatica through yoga, as well as a teacher of over ten years, who has heard similar stories from people who have taken my class. 

If you’re new to yoga or are curious, my good friend Tara Stiles has hundreds of videos at varying levels of difficulty available for free on her Youtube page.

If you or anyone you know is suffering from addiction, another close friend, Tommy Rosen, is currently hosting the free Recovery 2.0 Conference. On his site you can listen to dozens of professionals talk about a wide range of issues, including trauma recovery, food addiction, co-dependency, the psychology of addiction and many more.

There is no silver bullet for addiction. Overcoming it does require a proactive response to pain management, though. Pills wreak long-term in our bodies and brain, even if the alleviation of pain is immediate in the short term. Resources beyond your local clinic might be challenging to find at first, but there are many online communities available. Check out the links above for two great places to start.

Image: Burlingham/

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