Amy Daeschel is a woman in long-term recovery.
"What that means to me is I haven’t found it necessary to use a drink or a drug since August 23, 2017,” Daeschel said.
Daeschel had a successful life until she had multiple foot surgeries at the age of 37. She was prescribed oxycontin for pain.
“Five of them, 30 milligrams a day, and this went on for a year and a half," Daeschel said. "And I had built a strong dependency upon this medication. It turned into an addiction when I started treating emotional trauma. My mother had committed suicide, I was going through a divorce, had domestic violence, I mean everything just hit me at once.”
Once the doctor found out about her addiction, she was cut off. So, she turned to the streets.
“That first $10 bag of heroin came and it was over. Within two months, I had lost everything."
She says it wasn’t until she hit rock bottom that she was able to turn her life around. A state-run addiction operation offered her treatment. She’s been sober since. Unfortunately, that hasn't the case for a lot of others across the country.
Julie Burns is the CEO of Rize Massachusetts Foundation – a statewide independent nonprofit focused on ending the opioid overdose crisis.
“In recent months, the opioid crisis has definitely taken a turn for the worse," Burns said. "COVID definitely caused an uptick in fatal overdoses, primarily caused by the isolation with stay-at-home orders and people couldn’t get access to treatment. They found themselves using alone or using in places where somebody wasn’t checking on them.”
Once somebody’s addicted, it is ridiculously challenging to stop.
“Addiction is a disease of the brain," Burns said. "Opioids change the receptor patterns in your brain and it’s a clinical diagnosis. It’s recognized by the DSM so it’s not debatable that it’s a disease, it’s definitely a disease, and it can be treated.”
Researchers are hard at work trying to find new ways to treat people, researchers like Dr. David Fisher at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He's the chair of dermatology and the director of the melanoma program.
Knowing that UV radiation from the sun stimulates the production of both vitamin D and endorphins in our bodies, Dr. Fisher wanted to study if there is a relationship between vitamin D and opioid response. Opioids also trigger the release of endorphins.
“There’s something paradoxical about the idea that we would have evolved a response that leads us to seek the exposure to the most common carcinogen in our environment – which is ultraviolet radiation," Dr. Fisher said. "Why would that exist? And we predicted or we hypothesized that vitamin D could be a perfect explanation for this.”
His team took lab mice and made them vitamin D deficient. Then they measured their response to either UV radiation or opiates. Their hypothesis that a vitamin D deficiency may increase the risk for opiate addiction held true.
“The dependency was exaggerated; the withdrawal symptoms were exaggerated," Dr. Fisher said. "Even pain control – lower doses of morphine were producing fourfold the magnitude of benefits. Very, very large differences if there was vitamin D deficiency present. Whereas if we corrected the vitamin D level or had normal vitamin D levels, then the responses were much weaker to the opiates.”
Dr. Fisher says this research is still new and they need to validate their findings in a human clinical trial. If nothing changes, his research could help doctors be more aware as they’re prescribing opiates.
“Some of those patients have trouble getting off and ultimately become addicted," Dr. Fisher said. "Could it be that if we identify those patients if they’re vitamin D deficient and just correct the vitamin D deficiency, perhaps that would lower the risk of becoming addicted in the first place.”
In the meantime, Daeschel says she plans to continue her advocacy work to end the stigmas surrounding addiction.
"I’ve got massive scars on my arm," Daeschel said. "And people ask me all the time ‘what happened?’ I’ll look them straight in the face and I’ll go ‘heroin’ and their face, they’re just shocked and tell me ‘oh I could never see you doing that.’ And I’m like ‘but that’s the reality of it. Addiction is so close to home. Somebody’s mother, somebody’s brother, father, sister, uncle, whatever.’”
She wants people to know that recovery is possible and there are many different pathways to get there.
“You will find a freedom that you never knew existed,” Daeschel said.