In-Depth: Out of the Darkness of Prescription Drug Abuse

Jan 17, 2012

LEXINGTON, Ky. – The epidemic of prescription drug abuse affects millions of Americans, and the power of addiction is easy to see in Kentucky. This is the first of a three-part series exploring the problem of prescription drug abuse and what medical experts and public policy makers are doing to try and stop it. Brenna Angel has the story of one woman who nearly lost her life to pain killers. This report contains strong language that may not be appropriate for all audiences.

This month marks four years of sobriety for Dana Caldwell. Four years since she last took a pill to get high. To really understand the significance of the anniversary, you have to look at Dana's life, starting when she grew up in the eastern Kentucky community of Harlan.

"I started doing drugs when I was 11-years-old, smoking marijuana, and then drinking. I was full blown alcoholic by 12 years old," she says.

Drugs were easy to come by in Dana's world. She says they made her feel normal, like she good do anything. As a teenager Dana was heavy into cocaine, then a family member introduced her to prescription drugs.

"They're chopping up this pill and doing it," Dana recalls. "I was like 'What are you all doing?' And he's like, 'OxyContin! Haven't you heard about OxyContin?'"

"Often I hear, 'Once I took that first pill, I knew this was it. This was what I wanted,'" says Van Ingram, head of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. As painful as Dana's story is, Ingram says it's not that uncommon.

"You know the opioids don't just work on fixing your pain problem. They release dopamine and endorphins in your brain that help you with emotional pain as well and emotional issues."

According to preliminary data from the Kentucky Department for Public Health, 818 people died from drug overdoses in 2010. Dana nearly lost her own life after a night of partying. She remembers waking up in the ICU.

"This is how the disease is so insane. I go to the bathroom and I feel like something is inside of me. And I reach up in there and pull out the baggy of methadone. I had hid those methadone up inside of me. So I do another line of methadone right there at the hospital."

By her mid 20s, Dana was a mother to two little girls and had been through several tumultuous relationships. Drugs were always a part of her life, but Dana considered herself a responsible addict.

"In my hometown there is a lot of junkies who are IV drug users. I said to myself  that I would never be one of those. I would never be someone who prostitutes themselves out. Lo and behold I had already done it, I was just in denial," Dana says.

OxyContin became the only thing Dana lived for. She gave up custody of her kids and was on the run from police.

But eventually, Dana got tired of the game. She turned herself in and pled guilty to charges of escape and drug trafficking. She spent over three years in substance abuse programs and prison. Now at age 30, Dana has a job and is getting ready to transition to independent living through Chrysalis House, a non-profit treatment program in Lexington.

"It's going to be tough, but I know that no matter what I don't have to use."

Dana Caldwell is lucky. She's taking classes and re-building her relationship with her daughters. And although she will likely encounter problems on the way, Dana knows that she doesn't need drugs to deal with them.