Opioid Addiction: Like a “Silverback Gorilla on Your Back”

Talking Recovery, Stigma on Therapy Thursday

By Hermes Falcon

Paul Moore, like others with substance use disorder, didn’t set out to become addicted to opioids. And like many, he started off experimenting with less addictive drugs. But living with depression led Moore to seek stronger drugs in order to “feel something,” he said. 

Eventually, cocaine ruled his life. 

After several depressive episodes and seemingly no end to his addiction, Moore, now 51 of Coventry, Rhode Island, entered a rehabilitation clinic in Orange County, California, and began to recover.

Moore, an artist who is now a certified peer recovery specialist and speaks publicly on addiction, has achieved three years of sustained sobriety after 30 years in recovery. 

Moore was one of three guests on Urban Health Media Project’s “Therapy Thursday” Instagram Live event on August 26 to discuss the opioid overdose crisis and the stigma surrounding addiction.

Last year, more than 93,000 people died of a drug overdose, a 30% increase from 2019, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the highest number of overdose deaths ever. Of those deaths, 69,710— or 75% —were caused by opioids.

Much of the rise in overdoses can be traced back to a rise in prescribed opioids, where addiction often begins. 

“In the late 1990’s, it was a lot of Caucasian people [who were addicted to opioids]. A lot of the kids that originally got addicted were bright kids who had sports injuries,” explained Lisa Fair, forensic coordinator at The MetroHealth System in Cleveland, Ohio. 

Now the Black community is being hit the hardest by the opioid crisis, with death rates increasing by 103% from 2015 to 2017, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The panelists agreed addiction can happen to anyone.

Orlando Howard, a licensed chemical dependency counselor and peer recovery supporter with Thrive Behavioral Health in Cleveland, compared opioid addiction to “having a silverback gorilla on your back; not a monkey, a silverback.” 

“A lot of people don’t understand addiction or substance use disorder,” he said. “They don’t believe that it’s a disease. Some people believe that it’s a matter of willpower, that you should pull yourself up by the bootstraps and be able to drink or use drugs sociably.”

The panelists agreed that opioid addiction should be viewed in a different way. 

“A lot of stuff posted on my [social media] is more about my recovery than my addiction, and so many people—not just addicts but people with addiction within their families—have reached out and were very thankful for being taught [about opioid addiction],” said Moore. “Children, spouses were thankful because they thought their families didn’t love them [because of their addiction] and it’s just not true.”  

Fair discussed how emergency rooms should practice harm reduction methods while a person is still actively using drugs, such as providing clean needles and other sterile supplies as the individual works towards sobriety. 

Moore said he would have benefited from that approach.

“Every time I would try to reach out to a doctor [to get medications for recovery] they would always say, ‘No you can’t do it, you’re going to go back to opiates,’” said Moore. “I ended up having to work for coverage for medical assistance, and I ended up falling back into a depressive state.”

Howard talked about the importance of recognizing the symptoms of any overdose, knowing how to react, and he recommended carrying the opioid-overdose reversal drug Narcan and a medical kit for those who are likely to encounter a person who has overdosed. 

“Calling 911 should be the quickest thing you do,” if you believe you’re witnessing an overdose, said Howard.

One way to tell if someone has truly overdosed, he said, is to rub your knuckles hard on their breastbone, a method called a “sternal rub”. “This will actually wake you up if you’re not in an overdose,” he said. 

There is always hope for someone to move into recovery, the guests said. 

“As long as people are alive, they have a chance. And so it’s really important that we understand, they may have [overdosed] six times, seven times, eight times… and then they come back around again. But maybe that eighth time is the time that they get better,” said Fair. 

If  you know someone living with opioid addiction, many communities give out free naloxone through community health services. Visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse for locations. Often, pharmacists will distribute naloxone without a prescription, and it is often covered by insurance.