The Addict Next Door: Some Call OxyContin Abuse an Epidemic

RedEye / Jimmy Greenfield

"I was a victim" - Oxycontin addict says problems began after back surgery

It wasn't neccessary for Bill Stelcher to wander dimly lighted streets to feed his drug addiction.

All he had to do was call in his prescription.

For three years, Stelcher said he never took more of the opium-based painkillers Oxycontin or Dilaudid than was prescribed by his doctors after he had spinal surgery in May 2000.

That didn't stop him from becoming so addicted that his body "screamed" for more of the medication.

There's a whole voice inside of you that's talking, saying 'Get more, get more,' " said Stelcher, 35, who lives in Barrington.

After trying to quit at least several times, in April, Stelcher took his battle with his three-year addiction to Lincoln Park Hospital's New Hope Recovery Center, a drug rehab clinic. His wife, Michelle, borrowed $16,000 from friends to send him there.

"I felt like I didn't know which way it was going to go," his wife said, "I'll either get him there and he'll be my Bill again, or he'll die." The agony of addiction began when Bill Stelcher, who has been drug-free for six months, suffered unbearable pain after his spinal surgery. It was around this time that he first remembers taking OxyContin.

"It made me a little bit nauseous, I think, at first," he said, "But it was so extremely effective. It went straight to the source of the pain." As effective as the drugs were, Stelcher also found that their effects didn't last forever.

After taking OxyContin for a few weeks, he would develop a tolerance and have to switch to Dilaudid. When he built up a tolerance to Dilaudid, he would turn to a morphine pump, which injects it through the back directly into the spine. Then the cycle would repeat. "Every time the medications would not work, we'd take the next stuff," he said.

On Halloween 2001, Stelcher took his regular dosage of OxyContin and then put some chewing tobacco in his mouth. After swallowing some tobacco, he wasn't able to cough it up, and his breathing stopped. Paramedics called to the house were able to revive him and prevent any long-term brain damage.

"That was something that made me very conscious of keeping my eye on him and how the medication was affecting him," Michelle Stelcher said. "For a long time, I was constantly checking his breathing during the night." She later got into arguments with Bill's doctor who precribed him more medication but didn't allow her to have a say in the matter. "(The doctor) would basically say "He's my patient and he's still in pain," she said. The final straw came this spring when Bill became disoriented and fled the hospital. His wife found him at a nearby clinic. He forced her to let him out of the car, and he began wandering on the Kennedy Expressway. After a few minutes, he returned to the car and agreed to go to the clinic. The fear was that I would lose the one thing that was giving me any comfort in this world," Bill Stelcher said.

Neither Bill not Michelle Stelcher blame the doctors who prescribed him the painkillers, arguing they were working with the tools they had available. What the Stelchers would like to see is drug companies using their profits to find safer tools to help patients who need to manage their pain. "I have been, in my opinion, a victim of this whole situation," said Bill Stelcher, who remains in pain. "I was an unwilling participant and a victim, and I believe that."