"Had my son. C-section. I was given a prescription for pain pills. They did the trick. They helped with the physical pain, as well as the emotional pain because everything is better when you take opioids. Or so it seems."
Tara Wilder is a mother of two who lives in Moab.
"When you use substances that are dangerous like cocaine or meth or things like that, you kind of go into it thinking, 'These are really dangerous. These are really bad for me,' all of these things. And pills seem different," she said. "They’re regulated and coming from a doctor, maybe not your doctor, but there is a safety component and the reality is, is that safety component really doesn't exist."
Tara’s story is fairly typical, in that she began taking opioids after a surgical procedure. She needed pain relief after her C-section and was prescribed Percocet. Similar actions happen every day, so what makes someone who is recovering from surgery or an injury prone to getting addicted to opioids?
Most people prescribed opioids take them as directed. However, some individuals are at a higher risk for becoming addicted to the medications. These include individuals with prior mental health or substance abuse issues, persons who have suffered trauma in their lives, or people with genetic predispositions for dependence.
For Tara, there was trauma in her adult life and when she ran out of her Percocet prescription, she was still in pain and wanted relief.
"At one stage of my addiction there was 29 people that I was regularly buying prescriptions from every month," she said. "Then I got introduced to heroin and it's a lot cheaper. It's a lot quicker and it's a lot more effective and it's also a lot more dangerous."
Tara never overdoses but only by a miracle, she said. To avoid the withdrawals of her sickness, Tara did what was needed. She describes her need to take opioids as reaching a state of homeostasis – where you’re functioning and not in pain.
"Without pills, I felt way down below that and then when pills would get in my system, or eventually heroin, I would feel like I was at my homeostasis, and then depending on how much of either that I had, I would be high," she said. "There's this weird thing that happens with people that use substances, and I've heard it from hundreds and hundreds of people, that it's like almost an impossible feat to get up and care for yourself. It's like, 'I can't get up and do my dishes, but I can get up and get in my car and drive to the source,' right?
“My dependency got to the point that you can’t really sleep but you can’t really be awake either. Like, everything is like this big paradox – I’m squirmy but I can’t move. I’m tired but I can’t sleep.”
Tara found herself in handcuffs and was given the choice to do drug court or a lengthy jail sentence. Because of her diligence in drug court, she’s been clean for over six years.
Tara’s currently a case manager and peer supporter at Four Corners Behavioral Health in Moab helping others and their families with issues such as addiction. This is where she met Molly McGann - a woman trying to manage a chronic illness with opioids.
“If you don't have criminal charges or you don't have insurance, there's nothing," Molly said. "You can't get treatment. You can't get help. I think that was the scariest part of my journey, was deciding I wanted to do something about it and hitting brick wall after brick wall after brick wall. Thank God for Tara, there's no way I would have made it through."
At a young age, Molly was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. Through decades of treatment and her own traumatic experiences, Molly found herself dependent on the medicine prescribed to her by her doctor. She was in a place in her life that managing the symptoms was all she was able to do.
“I didn’t have insurance so I couldn’t see a rheumatologist," she said. "And part of me has sympathy for doctors in rural communities that they have these patients - I mean, I’m a single mom with three kids – understandable wanted to make sure I still had a livelihood. I was waiting tables and there’s no way I could have done that with arthritis and not having a prescription for opiates. It was just a perfect storm basically and I never had any reason to look at the dependency or the addition or any of that because they told me it was going to be something I was going to be on for the rest of my life anyway."
The perfect storm she refers to is the combination of her dependency on her prescribed medicine, coupled with struggling to care for her family while still dealing with past toxic relationships. And in addition to all of this, Molly’s specific arthritis is stress induced, meaning when she had extra stress in her life, she would require more treatment so she could function.
“I didn’t have to look at my own issues because I was so busy dealing with whatever fire I was putting out at the moment," she said, "so in my mind that just justified me taking them even more.”
This was Molly’s battle – treating her arthritis with prescription drugs so she could live her life. But it wasn’t until Molly sought help for her current boyfriend, a good man who struggles with drinking, that she realized she needed to focus on her own wellbeing so she could help those around her. She joined a program called “Getting Your Loved One Sober,” which was run by Tara.
“In working about her boyfriend," Tara said, "we were inevitably working on her, right? And so it just brought something else to the table that needed to be addressed. She was able to kind of pause and step back and, like, be aware of her own needs rather than, you know, facilitating [and] managing all of his [crises] all the time.”
“I wouldn’t have admitted it to any but Tara that I needed it," Molly said. "Like, I already had my excuse. Whether I was aware or not – which I was, I was very aware. I mean the anxiety was there that I was at risk for a substance-use disorder – I wouldn’t have confided in anybody but Tara because of the stigma around it. I didn’t have time and I couldn’t afford to have people in a small town judging me. Like, it’s so hard to find help or to find someone with compassion and understanding. It was too risky for me to talk to anybody but Tara about what I was experiencing because I was all my kids had.”
She struggled with worrying about her kids and boyfriend, the reputation of her family, or herself. Tara had Molly realize, with her professional expertise and her own experiences with drug addiction, that it’s all interconnected. This realization was vital for Molly’s recovery.
“It’s my son. It’s my oldest son. It’s my husband. It’s my dog. It’s my friends," Tara said. "So now Molly’s better. Her partner is better. Her children are better.”
Molly currently works at Allies With Families in Moab as a peer supporter. She was able to recovery from her opioid addiction with Sabaxtone - a medicated-assisted treatment, which she successfully took with the help of her friend Tara.
“There’s multiple pathways to recovery and it’s super individualized," Tara said. "Because I’m looking at Molly and she’s recovered. You can’t see her on the radio but she’s pretty beautiful.”
Molly had someone fighting for her and now both women are fighting for others.
“Part of the glory of about having this pain in our lives is utilizing our shared lived experience to help somebody else that’s still in that struggle," Tara said. "And maybe they have a completely different path than we do but that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we are walking this journey together and we don’t, we do not, have to live in the agony of opiate addiction ever again.”
This series is brought to you in part by the Association for Utah Community Health, providing training and technical assistance to health centers and affiliates across Utah. More information available here.
A list of resources:
- Mountainlands Community Health Center, Inc.
- Northeastern Counseling Center
- Allegiance Addiction Recovery Center
Carbon County area
- Four Corners Behavioral Health
- Green River Medical Center
- Utah Navajo Health System
- San Juan Counseling
Wasatch Front (and surrounding) area
- Heber Valley Counseling
- Davis Behavioral Health
- Weber Human Services
- Institute for Cognitive Therapy, Inc.
- Addiction and Psychological Services
- Odyssey House
- Sandy Counseling Centers
- Tranquility Place
- Change Counseling
Utah in general
- Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health
- Association for Utah Community Health
- Behavioral Health Associates of Utah
- Rivermend Health - Dan Workman is the Regional Recovery Executive for Utah, Idaho and Wyoming.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration