Drugs in Virginia: Opioid Addiction Part 1: Teen Addiction

Posted: Updated: Dec 20, 2016 06:00 PM
Thomas and Joy Twisdale Thomas and Joy Twisdale
Tom Joyce Tom Joyce
Christopher Ruhm Christopher Ruhm
Andrea Kendall Andrea Kendall

While most think of addicts as adults, children and teenagers are also using prescription painkillers. And the problem doesn't stop with opioids; painkillers can lead users to heroin.

Most treatment options are geared for adults. Even though the number of children and teenagers using opioids is on the rise, there are fewer treatment resources for them.

In part one of our two-part series, 'Drugs in Virginia: Opioid Addiction,’ NBC29’s Nora Neus takes a look at the opioid addiction crisis, which was declared a statewide public health emergency in November 2016.

Joy Twisdale says her son Thomas was a normal kid growing up, a momma's boy with a good group of friends at Stuarts Draft Middle School.

"Video games, skateboarding, basketball, that was his life," she stated.

His first experience with drugs was at age 13, when a friend suggested stealing his mother's leftover prescription medication, klonopin. "There was extra medication, and they took all of it," Twisdale said.

Over the next three years, Thomas progressed to opioids, street drugs, and then IV drug use. Joy Twisdale started to see her son changing. "He was kind of not with it, and he wouldn't look me in the eyes."

Thomas' story is not unique. "There are a lot of young people who are starting off abusing prescriptions," said Tom Joyce of the Thomas Jefferson Emergency Medical Services Council

The Department of Health and Human Services says in 2014 almost half a million adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 were "current non medical users of pain relievers" in the United States.

"They got them from the medicines that you store in your house," Joyce said.

Joyce has spent 30 years as a first responder seeing the human cost of the opioid crisis. He has also organized programs in schools to educate students about the dangers of opioid, heroin, and other drug use. He says addiction among young people has grown so quickly because it's harder for parents to catch the problem early.

"To have a 12, 13-year-old person in your house, your kid, who's actually using opiate meds - you just can't fathom that," he said.

After one of Joyce's school education programs, students came up to him to tell them about their own personal experiences with opioids. "That confirms that you're not talking about [other] people, [or] about something that might happen in your life when you grow up," he said.

Virginia declared the opioid addiction crisis a statewide public health emergency in November 2016. Now, policymakers are struggling with a lack of data on how bad the problem really is.

Christopher Ruhm, an economist and professor at the University of Virginia, is researching the opioid crisis. He discovered most death certificates just say 'drug poisoning' as cause of death, not the actual type of drug.

"If we want to come up with policies we need to understand what's going on," he said. "If we're going to design treatment programs, if we're going to have doctors being aware of risk factors, we need to have an accurate picture."

One danger with opioid abuse is that it often leads to heroin use, which has a similar effect on the brain. “It's cheaper, frankly, to score some heroin than it is to buy pills,” Joyce stated.

Joyce says addicts truly struggle to stop. "Maybe at some point they did enjoy the high, but really now all they're doing is trying to stop themselves being dope sick."

Andrea Kendall, an addiction counselor who treated Twisdale, says treating teenagers is especially hard because they think they're invincible. "Young people who already have that,’ I can handle this, I'm smarter than this,’ they're especially vulnerable," Kendall said.

At age 16, Thomas Twisdale was court ordered to get treatment at the Valley Community Services Board in Staunton, where he met Kendall.

"He said he'd just wake up in the morning, and look at his watch, and say, 'you know, I have this much time before I want to get so high that I can't feel my hands,'" she said.

It soon became clear Thomas needed inpatient rehab, but Kendall couldn't find a single substance abuse rehabilitation center in central Virginia that would take him without a primary mental health diagnosis.

Kendall says she eventually found the only inpatient program for minors in Virginia that specifically targets substance abuse. Thomas spent three months at the Phoenix House in Arlington. But when he got out, he fell back in with the same group of friends and started using again.

"The whole time he was using he'd say 'mom I don't know why I can't stop,'" Twisdale said.

One April night in 2015, Thomas sneaked out of the house at 2 a.m., in a car he wasn't allowed to drive, to buy drugs. Joy Twisdale remembers the moment police officers came to her door and told her Thomas had died in a single-car accident. "I started crying, 'not my baby, please God, not my baby.'"

Drug addiction can spiral out of control extremely fast, but it can also be very easy to hide. Tom Joyce says there are a few steps parents can take, including cleaning out your medicine cabinet of unused prescriptions, and having frank conversations with your children that these drugs can - and probably will - kill you.

Joy Twisdale has one message for other parents: “Don't think it's not your kid - because it very well could be your kid.”

Experts say there are some solutions to the problem that could help.  We'll take a closer look at those in part two of 'Drugs in Virginia: Opioid Addiction,' Friday on NBC29 HD News at 6 and here on NBC29.com.

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