In West Virginia, Prestera Center’s Suboxone program is helping people overcome addiction to opioid painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin by combining Suboxone treatment with intensive therapy.
Until recently, opioid-addicted people only had the option of using methadone to help control their cravings, but methadone itself is addictive, and is responsible for more overdose deaths in West Virginia than any other single drug.
Suboxone works like methadone in dulling cravings and preventing withdrawal symptoms, but it isn’t addictive and is impossible to overdose on. In addition, it’s impossible to feel a euphoric high while taking Suboxone.
Prestera, a mental health clinic in Huntington and Charleston, has been operating a Suboxone program for almost two years, which now serves more than 200 people. Patients receiving Suboxone must also undergo intensive group and individual therapy.
According to Josh Parker, coordinator of Suboxone program, as well as the program participants, it’s helping most people stay clean.
Anji Barney had a difficult pregnancy at age 19, and was being given morphine and Percocet for the three months she was in the hospital. She continued taking both painkillers when she returned home.
“I had a very generous doctor, and I would call and say I lost the pills and she would re-prescribe them, and that’s how it all got started,” Barney told Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
Melissa Burns of Huntington said she started experimenting with drugs when she was 17. When she was 20, she says her then-husband held her down and shot her up with an intravenous drug.
“And after that, you either do it, or go without anything, because he had control of all the money,” Burns said.
Dodie Williamson was “a late bloomer” who did not start popping pills until she was 36 and was prescribed painkillers for her kidney problems, high blood pressure, and other medical conditions.
She said it was easy to trick doctors into prescribing her more than she needed. She would sometimes sell pills on the street, and sometimes buy them on the street.
Burns said her mother had to hold her diapers and infant formula, or else she or her husband would sell them for drugs. “That’s how we lived,” she said.
Barney said she knew she needed help when she started stealing from her family, including her father, who is a preacher.
“I don’t even want to get into things I’ve pawned and sold—beautiful diamond rings from my grandmother the pawn shop got. And then it got worse, stealing from my family, taking guns from my dad,” Barney said.
Williamson said her children gave her an ultimatum: get clean or stop seeing her grandchildren. “I’m getting too old for this, running the streets,” she said.
For Burns, her mother’s death led her addiction to spiral out of control. She began neglecting her children, unable to help them with schoolwork or keep the house clean. That’s when she turned to Prestera’s Suboxone program for help.
Barney couldn’t afford the Suboxone program, so she filed a report with Child Protective Services on herself. She said she found out about the possibility from a friend who works for CPS. “They will issue you a special Medicaid card just for your treatment, and it pays for your therapy and your doctor, and your Suboxone.”
The program is tough, Barney said, including group meetings and regular therapy on top of the Suboxone. But it works.
All three women agree that Suboxone is a tool, but that the therapy is what helps them stay clean.
The intense therapy makes this program different from methadone maintenance programs, Burns and Williamson said.
Burns said she failed several drug screens at the methadone clinic, but was never sanctioned and was still given methadone.
She also said patients at the methadone clinic would approach her in the parking lot and ask if she would sell them a take-home dose of methadone.
“The pills not a magic fix,” Barney said. “It buys you time to get yourself together, and it makes you okay for long enough to work through some of your issues with a therapist.”
Williamson agreed: “And if it wasn’t for the therapy, the counseling, the group meetings, I would be lost.”