Dr. Drew on Jeff Conaway: Opiate Addiction Is Deadlier than Most Cancers

My 13-year-old kid played one of the T-Birds in his middle-school production of “Grease” this week. My husband (a Brit) had never seen the movie, so I rented it and we sat down to watch it last night. I opened IMDB on my iPhone to look up a cast member’s name and saw that Jeff Conaway had died just hours before. Amazing.

Finally.

They’re saying he dosed himself a bit too high one day and aspirated, and the particles of fluid in his lungs became infected, which he didn’t notice because he was too out of it on whatever drugs he was taking, and he slipped into a septic coma before anyone found him.

Which just makes me wonder: did he have anyone in his life? I’ve read studies that show that addicts who have family who care about them are more likely not to go down this path.

I mean, God. Didn’t you just know Conaway’s drug-use was going to kill him?

Dr. Drew Pinsky. (video capture: HLN)

“Jeff was a severe, severe opiate addict with chronic pain—one of the most serious and dangerous combination of problems you can possibly interact with, and one I see all the time,” Dr. Drew Pinsky said on his show last night. Pinsky said he had treated Conaway for years. Conaway also appeared on Pinsky’s show, Celebrity Rehab, in 2008—another unsuccessful stab at rehab for Conaway.

 

“And we live in a time when opioids and opiate pain medication is so available and so readily passed out, that for someone like Jeff, who is a SEVERE drug addict—he never seemed to be able to get away from it,” Pinsky said. “The pain seemed to keep motivating him back to the opiates. I told him for years it was going to kill him.”

Pinsky and his co-host Mike Catherwood chatted about the “plague that is opiate-based painkillers” in American society. They talked about how, 10 years ago, they’d be surprised to see people in a 12-step meeting who were dealing with painkiller addiction—it used to be cocaine, meth and booze, all of which they say are now old-school.

“Now I have to search out people who AREN’T dealing with pill-popping,” Catherwood said. “I can fully understand how someone can convince themselves—as an addict you’re already defensive and you justify your use to begin with. Now you put a doctor’s signature on that and a stamp of approval—it’s Game On.”

How Painkillers Amplify Misery

Then he asks Pinsky whether, after an addict in pain takes painkillers for a while, the addict begins to “invent pain” in order to justify drug-abuse and whether the pain becomes psychosomatic.

Pinsky answers:

It’s not psychosomatic; it’s that the misery of pain is actually amplified by opiates. There’s an affective component of pain that the misery of it that’s deeply amplified by the use of opiates, in the addict brain, and so the drive goes up and up with time.

How extraordinary. I have never heard any professional articulate this interpretation. That was my experience: the longer I took pain medication, the more AFRAID OF PAIN I became. The less tolerant I could be of any pain at all. The misery-factor was multiplied.

By the same token, when I got off drugs, I could tolerate MORE pain.

This is counter-intuitive. You’d think it would be the other way around—that painkillers would help you tolerate more pain. But they actually lowered my pain threshold to nil.

There needs to be more research into how to treat addicts who have pain.

Addiction v. Cancer

Pinsky said something else that, from his position as a highly visible addiction professional, it might be predictable for him to say, but I’ve hardly ever heard anyone say it: that addiction is deadlier than cancer.

I just want people to remember: opiate addiction is a deadly disease, it kills people all the time, we are dealing with a fatal illness more likely to kill you than the vast, vast, vast majority of cancers—that’s a fact.

More than that: addiction CAUSES cancer, man. And the drugs that are killing us are legal. Let’s get that straight. Let’s get past the idea that these illnesses are separate. I watched my mother die of lung cancer, caused by her addiction to the legal drug she bought at the grocery store every week. She lost her hair, she lost her balance, she lost her mind to 30 years of nicotine abuse. She lost her life. We lost our mother; my son lost his grandmother. …

Then seven years later I watched my dad die of massive GI cancer caused by a lifetime of drinking.

BAM: dead within a month of hospitalization.

I press replay on Drew Pinsky’s clip and sit through another ad: this one for Ketel One.

“This is real vodka,” they say.

All this stuff is out there, just waiting to be picked up. And the solution, imo, is not about making drugs illegal. It’s about teaching people about addiction.

  • http://www.soberjulie.com SoberJulie

    This post is so important, those of us who are perscribed these medications are too often unaware of the real dangers. After the car accident I was written scripts which could easily have ended my life. This was with the Doctors knowing I’m an alcoholic. Thank God I had the knowledge, I had watched my Mum become addicted when I was young. I have seen her health suffer because of it and refuse to become a regular user.
    Great post

  • http://fine-anon.blogspot.com Syd

    I think that there is so much abuse of prescription drugs. I see it and hear about it at every meeting. Very deadly and scary stuff.

  • E.

    Yup. You just described what happened to me pretty precisely.

    I took Norco for orthopedic injuries.

    When I decided to stop – my tolerance and need were palpably increasing every day – I was shocked by the power of the thing. It took months to get clean.

    All that I knew, then, was that when my script ran out for any reason, my joints froze and my muscles hurt and I had no idea that the acute exacerbation was being caused by the painkillers. That if I just waited a week, the pain would idle down.

    I became afraid not so much of the pain, which sucked, but running out of the drug. This is addiction, I know.

    But I’ll be goddamned if I’ll die strung out on opiates. I quit alcohol, cocaine and benzos in 1983.

    You described my experience exactly. I can, and do, tolerate more pain now without difficulty. I’m clear emotionally, on the other side so to speak, so I’m not dragged down by the physical.

    And yeah. It’s true. The Norco made everything worse. Everything.

    I won’t take opiates again. It was too hard for me to live this long as it is…

    Love your website.

  • adrm2005

    I am a family physician from the UK who suffered spinal cord
    damage after a failed lumbar fusion, which required revision surgery. I suffer
    now from neuropathic pain and am being treated by a specialist pain consultant.
    I have been on opiates for 9 years along with other pain modifying medicines.

    I am appalled when I read various US forums or comment streams from patients
    who have chronic pain after neurological damage, who are refused effective
    therapy from their primary care physicians who are in fear of having their
    licences revoked after DEA intervention.

    There are roughly 13% of the UK population who have chronic pain, increasing as
    the population ages.

    Would it be right to say that there the 6.2 million USA citizens who are said
    to have an addiction to “prescription drugs” include a large
    proportion who actually are chronic pain patients trying to find appropriate
    treatment.

    I would also caution those who regard patients who require opiate as addicts to
    hope that they don’t end up with pain that is beyond psychological control.

    I will also say that my dose of opiate has remained constant since I needed
    them.

    The US medical establishment needs to address the shortfall in treating
    patients with chronic pain and get the DEA back in their box.