Prescription painkillers can be deadly

Martha Armstrong (right) lost her mother Patti Hodge to an overdose of painkillers six months ago. Armstrong’s YouTube video has drawn attention to prescription drug abuse.

When Martha Armstrong’s mother died in November, she really lost two people.

The first was a talented, loving woman who hand-sewed her children’s clothes, rescued stray animals and cared for the dying as a hospice nurse. The other was a tortured soul whose struggles with pain, depression and substance abuse derailed her personal life and several marriages.

Armstrong’s mother, Patti Holden Hodge, was no match for the prescription drugs that came to consume her. She hopped from doctor to doctor in search of painkillers, and turned to street sources when other avenues dried up.

She had to have them. Until they killed her.

Hodge died Nov. 3 in Timmonsville of a lethal cocktail of drugs. She collapsed on a piece of key lime pie, a half-written letter to her seventh husband by her side. Authorities ruled her death a suicide. She was 64.

In her grief, Armstrong came to realize that she and her mother hid behind masks of pain for years. Her mother feared exposure and the loss of her career should her addiction become known.

Armstrong had pushed her to get help, but fear and embarrassment kept Armstrong from speaking out and telling others about her mom.

Until now. In a swirl of grief and frustration, the 28-year-old Francis Marion University student recently posted a homemade video on YouTube in which she shared her mother’s story and appealed for people to confront the growing epidemic of prescription drug abuse.

“It is through these personal stories that lives will be changed,” the Florence woman told her audience in a voice shaking with emotion. “It’s time we stop hiding ... and start talking about the fact that painkillers kill people.”

The video, titled “I am a rebel with a cause,” has attracted hundreds of hits since it debuted late last month. Perhaps more importantly, it caused others who had been suffering in silence to reach out to Armstrong with their stories.

They now are talking about making a documentary, raising public awareness about painkillers and petitioning state lawmakers to enact stricter controls over prescription drugs.

Among those Armstrong is working with is Susan Overstreet, a Florence mother who lost her 25-year-old daughter, Jaycie, to an overdose of painkillers one year ago.

Overstreet fought for seven years to help her daughter get off prescription drugs, but they seemed to be all too easy to find. Overstreet is now raising Jaycie’s 8-year-old son in her absence.

“She loved him dearly and hated her disease,” Overstreet said. “The country needs to start realizing the severity of prescription drugs and the way they are taking over. There is just no control over it.”

Statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Centers for Disease Control tell the grim story: The number of painkiller prescriptions written by doctors almost tripled in the last 20 years to 210 million.

And in the last 10 years, overdose deaths from prescription painkillers quadrupled to almost 15,000 a year — a death toll larger than from heroin and cocaine combined.

In South Carolina, health officials track distribution of controlled drugs by pharmacies and health care providers, looking for indications of drug abuse, such as doctors issuing out-of-the-ordinary numbers of prescriptions for painkillers. The 12 field agents who focus on narcotic violations average about 500 arrests annually.

In Charleston, Jonas Coatsworth is administrator of a drug-abuse treatment program at Charleston Center. He said about 400 people seek treatment in his program each year for painkiller abuse.

“The numbers have definitely increased over the past decade,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that this is pretty close to an epidemic.”

The explosion in narcotic prescriptions shows that some doctors are fast and loose with prescribing painkillers, Coatsworth said.

And, he said, he has seen many with legitimate pain issues become addicted to painkillers even when they’ve had no prior history of alcohol or drug abuse. “Then once they get on the opioids they get an itch they can scratch,” he said.

Such was the case with Overstreet’s daughter. Jaycie had no history of substance abuse when a doctor prescribed her Percocet pills to help with pain from shingles she contracted after giving birth to her son.

“Before you knew it, she was on her second bottle and it became apparent to me she was an addict,” Overstreet said.

Jaycie cycled through stints in detox, rehab and halfway houses. She also spent time in prison after her mother reported on a parole violation just to keep her away from drugs.

The measures worked for a time, but the pull of painkillers remained strong.

She relapsed again last May after leaving Overstreet’s home to attend a 12-step meeting. “I never saw her again.”

Jaycie ended up a drug house in the Florence area and started using morphine pills. The people there beat her up, stole her cash and threw her out of the house.

She stumbled to a restaurant for help and ended up in an emergency room. There, a doctor prescribed her painkillers for her injuries from the beating, despite the fact that she already had morphine in her system, Overstreet said.

The next morning, some kind-hearted workers from the restaurant took Jaycie in and offered her a place to sleep. A short time later, she died from a drug overdose, her mother said.

Overstreet wants to make a documentary about her daughter’s story in hopes of warning others about the danger of prescription drugs. She also wants to petition legislators to pass a law requiring doctors to drug-test people with known narcotics histories before writing prescriptions for drugs like painkillers.

“Somewhere, somehow, there has to be some control over this,” she said.

Her new friend, Armstrong, agrees. She believes community leaders and elected officials need to do more to warn the public and limit access to painkillers.

Armstrong’s mother had long battled addiction and mental health issues, struggling for years with a heavy drinking problem. Hodge put down the bottle in her later years, but she fell into drug addiction after being prescribed painkillers to cope with a chronic spinal condition.

Hodge became despondent after the death of her mother last year, and upped her intake of pills to dangerous levels, telling family members that she was contemplating suicide, Armstrong said.

Armstrong told her mother that she needed help, that she took too many drugs. “I told her to get help, but she refused to do it,” she said. “The last conversation she had with me, she said, ‘I never want to talk to you again.’?”

In her video, Armstrong displays a photo of her mother from happier days as a young woman, along with a quilt Hodge knitted by hand. Nearby sits a brass urn with her ashes.

Armstrong said she did the video in one take because she didn’t think she could endure a second try. It’s painful to talk about. But she has no intention of stopping.

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.