While the notion of the traditional suburban “housewife” sometimes seems to be a thing of the past, there are still plenty of woman who serve as full-time housewives or retain that role while holding down part or full-time jobs outside of the home. The challenges faced by maintaining a home and family can be daunting, sometimes causing what feels like extreme physical and emotional stress. Historically women have sought medical means of alleviating their symptoms and since the late 1800s, physicians have readily prescribed pills for women to take, mostly anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications, all aimed at calming their “nerves.”
The middle of the 20th century saw a dramatic uptick in the drug-based treatment of women and their perceived anxiety. Often referred to tongue-in-cheek as “Mother’s Little Helper,” benzodiazepine drugs (or benzos) like Prozac, Librium, Valium, and Miltown were dispensed for the simplest of complaints.
The tranquilizer, Miltown (meprobamate in generic form), is an anxiety-relieving drug known for its marked effect, was made commercially available in 1954 and was once one of the most popular prescribed medications. By 1956, “doctors had written 36 million prescriptions for it. At the height of its popularity, one out of every three prescriptions called for this drug.”1
Women’s Lives Have Changed – So Have Their Drugs
As women began to develop lifestyles that were greatly different than those of previous generations, so has their level of activity.
Women are on the go more than ever, pushing their bodies for all kinds of reasons – just getting their normal daily chores done, tending and transporting children, exercising to stay fit, competing in sports, doing what was once considered physical “man’s work” and the like.
Beyond anxiety and fatigue, this extra exertion can lead to painful injuries, sometimes requiring strong medications so women can continue to function through their normal routine.
The Power and Perils of Opioids
The drugs most commonly prescribed by physicians today are opioid-based drugs that resemble opium in its physiological effects. Demerol, OxyContin,Percocet, Kadian, Actiq, and Vicodin are just some, typically designed to be taken on an “as-needed” basis and for a short duration. Hand in hand with their effectiveness is their potential to leave the user highly susceptible to drug misuse and addiction.
For many, drug use invariably increases as tolerance to the opioid pain killer quickly builds up. For others, the injury requiring medication may last longer than first anticipated or become chronic. More of the drug is taken or it may be taken more frequently than prescribed. This leads the user to seek out even more of the drug to achieve the satisfactory effect. If they cannot get a prescription refilled, a crisis results. The “addict-in-progress” may start to look for other ways to alleviate pain, leading from use to misuse of stronger substances or medications used in conjunction other substances such as alcohol, the once-familiar benzos from the past, or something even worse.
Currently, abuse of prescription painkillers by suburban housewives is greatly on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “about 18 women die every day of a prescription painkiller overdose in the US, more than 6,600 deaths in 2010. Prescription painkiller overdoses are an under-recognized and growing problem for women. Although men are still more likely to die of prescription painkiller overdoses (more than 10,000 deaths in 2010), the gap between men and women is closing. Deaths from prescription painkiller overdose among women have risen more sharply than among men; since 1999 the percentage increase in deaths was more than 400% among women compared to 265% in men.”2
Notwithstanding a more active lifestyle bringing greater risk for pain, “everyday” pain stemming from things as commonplace as dental procedures or childbirth see’s physicians actively prescribing very strong and potentially addictive drugs. When women can no longer acquire pain medications from their physician, their need leads them to find an alternative source on the street, a “fix” both for pain reduction but also for the euphoric high that comes with this type of drug.
Typically, this fix is found in heroin, a stronger and cheaper alternative to the pills they were once prescribed. A recent article in Marie Claire illustrates the story of one such woman, “Donna.”
Donna started on the road to addiction by borrowing some of her husband’s Percocet pills to help with an old back injury. At $25 per pill, Percocet was pretty expensive for them. She found that she could purchase heroin on the street for much less. According to Donna, she realized that “she and her husband could split the $10 bag and feel the same euphoria as with two $25 pills. That’s $50 or $10—what would you spend?”3
Published on AmericanAddictionCenters.com