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Addiction treatment isn't always accessible. Here's what it did for one Wichita man

A photo shows a dose of the medication that helps Tanner combat opioid addiction.
Rose Conlon
/
Kansas News Service
Tanner holds a dose of the physician-prescribed medication that has helped him battle drug use disorder.

Thirty-four-year-old Tanner first tried opioids as a teenager. Since then, he says doctors have helped him by prescribing medications that reduce cravings.

The opioid epidemic and the rise of increasingly potent synthetic versions have fueled a steep increase in drug deaths in Kansas and Missouri.

We talked with Wichita resident Tanner — we’re using his first name only — about his ongoing struggle with opioid addiction and brushes with the especially dangerous fentanyl.

Medications prescribed by doctors to stifle cravings and block the ability to get high have played a particularly important role in his journey.

But such medications, and the counseling that generally comes with them, remain difficult for many people to access. Obstacles range from a shortage of counseling professionals to the reluctance of some physicians to treat drug addiction.

Read more about opioids in Kansas:

Transcript of Tanner's story

(Edited for brevity and clarity.)

My name is Tanner. 34 years old. Most of my life has been here in Wichita.

So, strict parents. Then my freshman year of college, I was given the freedom … Go on your own, you’re going to class doing your thing, you’re responsible for yourself.

Then a friend ended up getting a surgery on his shoulder. And it slowly started to the doctor prescribing medication for him.

We’re 18, 19 getting some hydrocodone pills and having fun on a weekend or whatnot — that eventually turned into us finding them every day.

I wanted to get out of it. Wanted to kind of straighten my act up. And then moved off to KU (the University of Kansas) in the fall of 2009. I still used every now and then.

One of my good friends was really deep into it. He asked if he could come up to Lawrence and visit — and we had a great time on that Friday night. Partying.

Little did I know that morning, when I would wake up, I would find him in the bathroom — overdosed from heroin, passed away.

The PTSD kind of starts in with that. Classes just stopped.

And guess who I decided to hang out with? The guy he came to Lawrence with. I wanted to kind of mask my pain. I knew he could get what I wanted — and that was opiates. And I could never get away from the crowd that was using.

Went to the Iowa State Fair in August. And my dad said, “Hey, do you just want to move to Iowa? Family up there?”

I get up there, I do really good for four, five, six months. I mean, I had gotten a job. It was going great. Going great.

And then I was offered one day — not really even looking, just a guy said “Hey, I can …”

It’s another thing, is you’ll hear me say that “I was offered it.” And I’m the type of person that, if it’s there, I’ll usually say “yes.” So that’s my bad habit that I should say I have.

It was opiates. Started slow and then it just ramped up.

I had a girlfriend up there at the time. I ended up stealing from her parents. I had stole, let’s see, from my cousin that I was living with. Well, then there was a cash register at work. So I slowly started taking from there.

Then the day came that I got called into the office and I was arrested for second degree theft in Iowa.

Called my parents. And part of that strict upbringing, she always said if you end up in jail, you’re going to stay the night there and you’re going to figure out what you did.

One of the worst nights of my life. I mean, just 14 people in one cell. But then as soon as I got out the next morning, went straight to the dealer’s house.

Now we’ve lost girlfriend, lost job, lost my cousin’s house that I’m living at.

So, moved out to the farm at Grandma’s. Went down the road and milked cows at the dairy farm with Grandpa. End up stealing from Grandma.

Well, it turned into my dad basically confronting me at my grandma’s in the pasture. Said “Do you want to move back, get in recovery? There’s a medication we can start and it might be able to get you on the right track.”

That’s when the journey with Suboxone started. Suboxone (a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone) will block your opiate receptors. It’ll let you regain control.

I got a job. Worked second shift. I mean, working 50-60 hours. Taking my medication every day. Lived at my parents’.

Well, one day someone says, “Hey, I got some opiates.” It was hydrocodones, I think. And I took four or five of them. Didn’t feel a thing — I was on the Suboxone, I was still taking the Suboxone.

From then, I knew right away, there’s no sense, no point — don’t waste my money. I was able to take/do the medication to get my life back on track.

And I got a promotion, kind of, and got to move to first shift. And I did really, really well and titrated down from 16 milligrams to eight to four to two. Ended up going to zero milligrams and made it through it.

So that was a three year process.

So after I got moved to first shift is whenever I met my now wife.

Of course, what do two people — young and in love — do? You go out and hang out. You go out with your friends.

Well, me with my type of personality, we would go to dinner and I would have a few too many.

Stayed away from opiates — no opiates — just alcohol every day. As soon as I got off of work.

And I went through six months of just heavy, heavy, heavy drinking.

There was another medication. Vivitrol (naltrexone) is an injection that you get once a month, every 28 days. The cravings go down tremendously.

And I got my injection for nine months. Yeah, 2019 was the last time I drank — and my last Vivitrol shot was January of 2020.

Got my life back on track again. Doing great. Same story, song and dance. Came to my appointments. Did all my steps. So I figured the next step would be engagement.

Got the ring, went to Colorado. She said yes.

There wasn’t, like, cheers and champagne or anything like that — because I wasn’t drinking.

So I don’t know if that’s what led to the next part, which was me having opiates at work offered to me again.

Tried them. Now I’m getting the blue pills that were called Perc 30s. They are fake pills that are filled with fentanyl.

I had to admit to my fiancée on our way to work, like, “I’m struggling. I need help. I’ve been buying these things.” It hit her like a brick wall.

These fentanyl withdrawals have something completely different about them that — it’s just pure hell. Pure, pure hell.

12 milligrams of Suboxone is what I started on this time.

And I went down from 12 to eight to four milligrams. And I’m down to the two milligrams of Suboxone.

And so I haven’t used the fentanyl since May of 2022.

Getting your life back is one thing that a lot of people want. And I think medication, Suboxone, Vivitrol — they help. I mean, I’ve gone through my ups and downs, but I’m a homeowner. I have a wife. I have a dog. I’ve got a steady job now for 10 years.

I have kind of a regimen. I come to my individual (counseling) meetings on Friday, and I have a group on Monday that I go to.

I — for me — at this point, I think recovery is something you got to wake up and work every day. I got to work my recovery every day.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.