Sometimes Betsy Barry, who lived in an affluent suburb outside Boston, would take baby Liam along, asking the real estate agent to keep an eye on him while she ducked into a room to snoop. To explain her real estate obsession to her husband, Betsy said she wanted to become an agent herself. She even signed up for a class as a cover story.
The truth was that Betsy was addicted to opioids, and stealing them from open houses was just one of the ways she got her fix. At the time, about 15 years ago, she was taking around 250 hydrocodone pills a week, most obtained from mail-order pharmacies. Her problem had been growing worse for years, after a dentist gave her the painkiller Percocet in 1984 when she was 19. "It was crazy," says Betsy, now 52, "but no matter how many pills I got, it was never enough."
Betsy might not seem like a typical narcotics abuser, but statistics suggest she is — or was. The faces of addiction and overdose are increasingly female, according to a handful of recent studies, and the reasons are many: Women are more likely to have chronic pain and visit the doctor than men, and a woman stands a better chance of walking out of a doctor's office with a prescription than a man, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. What's more, women tend to metabolize the meds more slowly. And we may be more likely to become dependent in a shorter period of time, according to the CDC. The consequences are devastating — nearly 48,000 women died of prescription painkiller overdoses between 1999 and 2010, a 400% increase since 1999. Among women, those between 45 and 54 are the most likely to die of an overdose. For each woman who dies, 30 wind up in the hospital emergency room.
Betsy, who was taking some 30 pills a day at the height of her addiction, knows how lucky she is to be alive now. "Every other week I'm hearing about someone who OD'd," she says. "I am so grateful — so many things could have happened to me that didn't, thank God."
HIDING FROM HERSELF
Betsy grew up in tony Westwood, MA, where her ADHD made school a constant struggle. "I couldn't do what everyone else was doing — sit and do my work," she says. These were the days before children were frequently prescribed Ritalin for the condition. Instead, kids like Betsy were often given Benadryl in an attempt to calm them. But the drug merely made Betsy fall asleep in class, so she stopped taking it and acted out, earning a reputation as a troublemaker.
Betsy felt like an outsider, and later, in high school, she fell in with the party kids, drinking and smoking pot in what she now recognizes was an effort to stop the pain of feeling so bad about herself. "Immediately I felt like it was my excuse for being the way I was — if I did something stupid, I could say 'I was high,' " she says. Betsy hung out with her friends, partying before, during and after school. "I've never been good at moderation," she says.
The summer after her freshman year of college, Betsy had her wisdom teeth out and was given her first opioid prescription. "I was instantly in love," she says. "My breath didn't smell from alcohol, there was no hangover, I wasn't hungry — it kind of filled all those needs." She convinced the dentist to prescribe more. Betsy worked as a babysitter, and when that supply of Percocet ran out, she began scavenging in her employers' medicine cabinets — a behavior she rationalized because some of her friends did it: "I knew I wasn't doing the right thing, but that was why I needed the drugs — so I could numb those horrible feelings of shame and guilt. It became a total vicious cycle."
By this point Betsy was using drugs weekly, but after she graduated from college, she learned the tricks heavier users know: lying to doctors about having migraines so they would prescribe Fioricet with codeine, for example. But even as Betsy's drug habit picked up its pace, she remained her usual funny, cheerful, functional self, holding various jobs and keeping her habit a secret. In 1990, Betsy worked as a childcare counselor at a local psychiatric hospital, where she helped kids with severe behavioral problems learn life skills. She loved working with children and the sense of purpose it gave her, but "it was emotionally draining, and I always thought I could do a better job if I had something in my system," she says.
And the job gave Betsy easy access to drugs — she'd steal pills from other hospital staffers (many had their own issues). Gradually, the pursuit of drugs began to take over her life, and she used them almost every day. Betsy saw it as a last hurrah: "I'd tell myself, When I get pregnant, I'll have to stop."
In 1989, when she was 24, Betsy met the man she'd later marry; he didn't know anything about her dependence on painkillers. They married in 1992, and two years later they had their daughter, Michaela. Betsy felt proud that she stopped using during her pregnancy.
But perversely, the fact that she was able to stop when she was pregnant with Michaela made her believe she could control the problem. And when Betsy was given Demerol and then a morphine drip after her C-section, she immediately wanted more. With a lipliner, Betsy marked her scar to make it look more inflamed. The ruse worked, and once again Betsy began ramping up her painkiller abuse.
A PHYSICAL PRISON
As a new mom, Betsy was consumed with anxiety about doing the wrong thing with Michaela, and she believed that the painkillers (which she got from doctor-shopping with fabricated complaints) made her much more patient and less anxious. She managed to quit again before her first son, Shain, was born in 1995, but after that became "worse than I ever was," she remembers.
Even more anxious and unable to deal with the strain of two children, the second of whom had behavioral problems, she told herself her drug use was no big deal. "I thought of the drugs as mother's helpers — I could have more energy and more patience with them, all this stuff I know now is completely not the case," she says. At the same time, her marriage was strained, her husband was often away and she felt trapped. She took more and more pills, and by about 1999, she couldn't get out of bed without taking one. She was painfully thin.
Betsy was becoming afraid of how dependent she was on the drugs and saw that her life was disintegrating. She thought she might have an answer: Because she had been able to get clean during her pregnancies, she says, "Part of my reasoning for getting pregnant the third time was, This will be a way for me to stop the drugs." But with her third baby, she couldn't stop using. Her fear escalated to terror: "If I couldn't stop for Liam, how was I going to stop?" After Liam was born in 2000, she says, "The drugs were my everything."
At the height of her addiction, taking some 30 pills a day, raiding open houses and ordering pills online, Betsy could no longer keep up the fiction with which she justified her drug use — that she was a better wife and mother on drugs than off them. Now she needed such a high dose to feel the effects of the painkillers that she couldn't function and stayed in bed while her mother and husband took care of the kids. "I knew that I was no kind of mother at that point. I knew," she explains. "It was the most terrible remorse and shame. And I couldn't handle it, so I just needed more drugs to be numb." The diagnosis and treatment of two painful autoimmune diseases around this time sent many more painkillers Betsy's way and allowed her to keep using without her husband catching on. But her mother, who was practically living with them then to help with the kids, saw that her daughter was in big trouble.
In the first years of her painkiller abuse, Betsy craved the high — she felt good when she was on them. But by the time Liam was born, if her body tried to function without the opiates it was used to, it reacted with an array of symptoms such as nausea, sweating and fever. "It was like I had the worst flu in the entire world," she says.
Many painkiller abusers turn to heroin, an opioid derived from the poppy plant, at some point during their dependency. Betsy didn't cross that line — in her view, it was one thing to take a pill a doctor might prescribe and another to progress to black-market drugs and needles. But these days, with the crackdown on prescription narcotics that began in force in 2010, heroin can be cheaper and easier to get than pills — 40% of injectable drug users abused prescription opioids prior to starting heroin, according to a study published in the journal Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation in 2011.
I CAN'T DO THIS ANYMORE
Betsy didn't hit a single rock bottom, ending up in jail or a hospital and being forced to confront the wreckage of her past, as do many drug abusers. Instead, she had a gradual realization that things had to change. In March 2006, Betsy drove her daughter and a handful of friends to Cape Cod for Michaela's 12th birthday and had an overwhelming feeling: I can't do this anymore. "No matter how many pills I took, I couldn't feel good. I wanted to kill myself, but I didn't have the guts to do it," she says. She was 41.
After that trip, she broke down and tearfully confessed the extent of her problem to her mother, who is a sister of Kitty Dukakis, wife of former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Kitty, who had battled addiction to diet pills and alcohol, helped find Betsy a place in the detox unit at Brigham & Women's Faulkner Hospital in Boston. On April 13, Betsy took every drug she had and cried on the way to the hospital, thinking, Maybe they'll get me off this stuff, but I'm never going to be happy again.
That very night, a group of male addicts in their 80s, all of whom were in recovery, came to speak. Betsy initially thought their stories could be nothing like hers, but they recalled feeling as she did: that there was no way to live without drugs. "I couldn't believe they weren't on any substance and they were so happy," she says, "and that gave me hope. That opened the door for me."
After five days at Faulkner, during which she was given the medication Suboxone to ease her cravings, Betsy moved on to three to four hours of counseling, group therapy and 12-step meetings several days a week. Ten years after giving up drugs, Betsy still attends at least three weekly meetings. And she quickly began to see the gifts of being sober. When she was three months clean, Michaela went to sleepaway camp and was so homesick that she got physically ill. Betsy drove the three hours to fetch her, thinking, I wouldn't be able to do this if I were still using. I'm finally able to be there for her. Her relationships with her sons have improved as well.
Betsy and her husband are now separated, but they get along so well that he lives in an apartment in her house so as to be with their children. And she took Amy Whittaker, one of her oldest friends, with whom she used to party, to a 12-step meeting nine years ago; Amy has been sober ever since. "I've often felt that even if the only thing to come from my sobriety had been my best friend getting sober, then anything else would have been an added blessing," she says. The pair belong to a sober bowling league, and they're closer than ever.
Not long ago Betsy needed surgery for scleroderma, one of her autoimmune conditions, but she refused to take anything stronger than Advil afterward. It wasn't worth risking her sobriety, she says: "At my absolute bottom, I didn't see a way out of this. I'll go to any length not to back there."
Editor's Note: If someone in your home takes opioids, consider asking your physician for a dose of naloxone — an overdose antidote previously available only to first responders — to keep on hand. "It's like a fire extinguisher: You hope you don't need it, but it's good to have," says Dr. Weaver of the University of Texas. Sold as Narcan nasal spray, naloxone (there are generic versions, as well as an injectable one) is usually administered by a family member or a friend and immediately reverses an opioid overdose, which buys you time to call 911. The drug (available by prescription, though some states allow pharmacists to dispense it directly) is effective for only around 20 minutes, at which time the opioids kick in again, so medical treatment is critical, he says. "The thing to remember is that it's not a cure-all," says Dr. Weaver. "It is a bystander stopgap — just like after receiving CPR, the person would still need to go to the hospital."
This story originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of GolfHr.