A motorcycle accident on June 12, 2007, left Eric Jensen in bad shape. His body was covered in deep road rashes, his spine had two herniated discs and he had nerve damage in his left arm. Jensen’s wife, Brittany, felt fortunate her husband was alive. But nothing could prepare either of them for what they would face for the next three years — something far more deadly than a totaled motorcycle and an injured body.
“I remember getting up and leaving the hospital with a few bottles of pain pills and muscle relaxers,” Jensen said. “It was no big deal, just some pills to help with the pain.”
At first, Jensen took the pills as prescribed. They gave him the relief he needed to do every day activities, like holding his newborn son. But he’ll never forget the first time he got high from his pills.
“I woke up one morning and was hurting pretty badly,” Jensen said. “Not only was my body in pain, but all night I had been thinking how angry I was that I had been involved in such a nasty accident. My motorcycle, which I had wanted so badly and waited a long time to get, was gone. No more summer cruising. No more taking my wife for rides. My bike was totaled, and I was upset. I decided I was hurting so much that I took twice as many pills as I was supposed to. I was desperate to kill the pain and find relief. I went back to bed and I noticed that not only was the pain going away, but I began to feel a strong feeling of warmth and euphoria. I felt fantastic, and I did not want that feeling to end.”
Then the lies began. When Jensen’s doctor asked him if he needed more painkillers at his next appointment, he said yes, even though he still had some at home.
“I knew how good those pills made me feel, and I wanted more of them,” Jensen said. “I remember leaving the clinic that day clenching onto the prescription like it was gold — like I needed to keep it close. I drove straight to the pharmacy to have it filled.”
When his wife asked how the appointment went, Jensen was careful not to tell her about the prescription refill in case she got suspicious.
For the next three years, the pills and the lies Jensen told to keep his addiction a secret became part of him.
“The pills controlled who I was and everything I did,” Jensen said. “My conscience was non-existent. The guilty feelings I had when the addiction first started were gone. I did not care whose name was on the bottle or whose pills they were. I did not care if I lied to my wife and lied to the doctors — I just needed my pills.”
A national killer
Unfortunately, Jensen is one of many Utahans who has been addicted to prescription drugs. According to the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health’s annual report for 2013, opioids (think Lortab, Precocet, Vicodin, Morphine, Demerol and OxyContin) are the second most abused substances in Utah – coming second only to alcohol.
A 2013 report by The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says opioid-related overdose deaths now outnumber overdose deaths involving all illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine combined.
The report states that by 2009, “Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. outnumbered deaths due to motor vehicle crashes for the first time. That trend continued in 2010, the latest year for which national data are available.”
It turns out that Jensen’s opioid addiction was much more dangerous than the motorcycle accident that could have easily killed him.
The breaking point
“Those were dark days. I didn’t understand what was happening to my husband and to my marriage. I put a lot of blame on myself that somehow I had caused all of this.” —Brittany Jensen, wife of former addict
As the months passed, Jensen became more enslaved by the pills.
“I remember telling myself that the pills made me a better person,” Jensen said. “I have always been an introvert, and I felt as if the pills helped me to open up. I felt more talkative when I was high on pills. I felt like a better father and husband when I was high on the pills. Things were so much easier to do when I was high. I could just go, go ,go without a worry or care in the world. The world was such a better place when I was on pills. What I did not realize then was after the high, came the low. The low was always way worse, and it seemed to last longer and longer as time went on. It seemed like I began to spend more time being low than high, and I was desperate to chase that initial first high again.”
One day, things took a turn for the worse.
“After being an addict for 18 months, we had our second baby. My poor wife and kids never knew which daddy they would be dealing with — the happy and high dad, or the coming down and angry dad,” Jensen said. “One night, my wife and I were having a serious conversation. We were trying to short-sell our house, and it was about to go into foreclosure. I was coming down from being high, and I was feeling pretty miserable. She said something I did not like, so I threw a glass cup across the dining room at the wall. Part of the cup was lodged into the drywall, and the rest of the cup shattered into a million little pieces. I remember her getting our kids and running to the bedroom. I followed her and found that she had locked the door behind her. I pounded and punched the door so she would open it. She didn’t open it, so in my furious rage of coming down from my high, I kicked the door down. Wood pieces flew everywhere. I continued to yell at her and told her to get out of the house.”
Jensen’s wife, Brittany, says she watched the man she had married 10 years before become someone she didn’t recognize as her once strong, thoughtful husband.
“Those were dark days,” Brittany recalls. “I didn’t understand what was happening to my husband and to my marriage. I put a lot of blame on myself that somehow I had caused all of this. Looking back, the hardest part is that Eric let me feel this way too because it hid his addiction even more. The fights escalated and our respect for one another left. I remember sobbing and thinking, ‘What happened to us? We were not these people! What is going on?’”
Three years into Eric’s addiction, his wife was rummaging through her nightstand and found a bottle of her own prescription pills empty, knowing she hadn’t taken a single pill. She immediately asked if Jensen had taken her pills.
“I started to sob like a baby, and said, ‘yes, and I have a problem.’ I will never forget what happened next,” Eric said. “I thought my wife was going to show me the door and say, ‘Get out!’ But instead, she opened her arms and embraced me. The weight that I felt lift off my shoulders at that moment is a feeling I will never forget.”
“When it finally came out that Eric had been abusing his prescription medication my first reaction was honestly relief,” Brittany said. “Like it was the answer to so many unanswered questions about what our lives together had become. As we started the recovery process, relief is definitely not the word I would always use to describe our journey, but holding on to the man I fell in love with kept me going.”
The road to recovery
“You cannot overcome addiction by yourself. There is no way. I do not care what religion you are, if you are Christian or not. But you better find a higher power and pray your guts out if you want to overcome addiction.” —Eric Jensen, recovered prescription drug addict
At first, Eric told himself and his wife that he could wean himself off of the pills. But it was clear that he needed more help than that. For Jensen, that initial help came through the bishop of his LDS ward.
“The day after my wife found out about my addiction, it was a Sunday,” Eric said. “My wife set us up an appointment with the bishop. I was so embarrassed. Deep down inside, I did not want to go. But we went, and we poured our hearts out. We told the bishop everything.”
The bishop gave the Jensens counsel, including referrals to a marriage counselor and an LDS Family Services 12-step program and encouraged them to go back meet with him twice a week.
“I did what my bishop told me to do,” Eric said. “I prayed. I did not feel worthy to pray, but I still did it. I laid everything out on the altar and I told my Heavenly Father that I could not do it on my own. I truly believe that he helped me — the power of the Atonement helped me. You cannot overcome addiction by yourself. There is no way. I do not care what religion you are, if you are Christian or not. But you better find a higher power and pray your guts out if you want to overcome addiction.”
With the help of his LDS bishop, the 12-step recovery program and the support of his family and friends, Jensen was able to overcome his painful 3-year addiction to opioids. But it wasn’t easy, and the Jensens know they still have struggles ahead of them.
“I have been clean for four years, but we still run into problems,” Eric said. “We are still recovering. I am not perfect. Sure, I am not using, but I still consider myself an addict. I don’t want to let my guard down. We are not completely healed. We may never be completely healed. But we are stronger now, because we chose to fight through it.”
Helping others recover from addiction
“I find relief in helping others,” Eric said. “I have stood up in front of my church, family and social pages and said, ‘Yes, I used to be addicted to meds.’ My addiction was the hardest, most painful thing in my life. I know there are others out there who are in my same shoes. I see how colorful and free life is after addiction, and I want others to taste what I am tasting. I do not want to be diminished by my addiction. I want to grow from it, and I want to help others. As I do that, I find that it also helps me stay clean.”
Benjamin Jones of Eagle Mountain has the same philosophy. After struggling with drug and alcohol abuse from age 12-21, Jones did a complete 180-dgree turn with his life and became a therapist for people who are fighting addiction. He is now the co-founder, clinical program director and primary therapist at Zion Recovery Center, which has an inpatient facility in Eagle Mountain and outpatient services in Orem. Zion Recovery Center takes a faith-based approach to addiction recovery.
“I have always believed the final domain in substance abuse treatment as well as therapy in general is spirituality,” Jones said. “This is a subject that cannot be easily researched. However, after years of working for other substance abuse treatment facilities in both the public and private sector, I realized spirituality is the single most important factor in healing addiction.”
Zion Recovery Center is just one of many clinics in Utah County that provides addiction recovery resources for the recovering addict as well as for his or her family. Jensen’s wife believes getting help for herself and her marriage was essential.
“Don’t brush addiction under the rug. Get help! Not just for the addict, but for yourself,” Brittany said. “I really struggled trying to understand why Eric would do this to me and why he would do this to our family. The sooner I realized it really had nothing to do with me and that it was an internal struggle within him, the sooner I could let go of a lot of anger.”
The most important (and sometimes the hardest) part about the recovery process, the Jensens agreed, is taking that first step towards getting help.
“Help is everything,” Eric said. “Don’t be ashamed. It is OK to be an addict or a recovering addict. It is OK to go to 12-step and other programs. In fact, you will be surrounded by people who are fighting the same battle as you are, and they can offer great advice.”
For a list of common signs and symptoms of addiction to opiates and other helpful information on prescription drug addiction, click here.