October 25th, 2012

It’s the cliché of the modern woman, but it’s true: I want it all. I want to give both 150 percent to my job and 150 percent to my family and friends. I want to cross off 350 items on my to-do list at work, and still have the energy to have a great time with my husband. Unfortunately, there are only 24 hours in a day, and I only have two hands with which to juggle the demands of daily life. Still, I find myself trying to accomplish more than I can reasonably manage, sometimes to the detriment of my own mental and physical wellbeing.

Today, far too many do-it-all women turn to pills for a “quick fix” for their stress and anxiety. Prescription drug abuse has skyrocketed in recent years, now accounting for more overdose deaths than cocaine and heroin combined, says the CDC. And research shows that this problem is especially acute among women. A new study by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime found that across the globe, women are more likely than men to use sedatives and tranquilizers for non-medical purposes. In addition, a recent Journal of the American Medical Association study found that prescription drug use during pregnancy has more than tripled over the last ten years. Sadly, 13,500 American babies are born addicted to opioids each year.

At Phoenix House, we are all too familiar with this problem. Today, women of all ages and walks of life come to our treatment programs because they are hooked on drugs like Oxycontin and Xanax. They include teens, mothers, mothers-to-be, and grandmothers. Yet the one thing they share is this devastating addiction, which, in many cases, has caused them to lose their jobs, families, and homes. So, what can be done? Knowing that women are prone to prescription drug abuse, how can we ensure that we don’t go down this path?

As with all forms of addiction, the answer lies in examining the root causes of substance abuse. High-achieving women today are overwhelmed and we’re searching for ways to cope. Some of us begin taking anti-anxiety prescriptions
and take them more and more frequently, until we cannot function without them. Others become addicted to heavy painkillers. Taking these drugs feels good because they hit the reward centers of the brain. But the pleasure doesn’t last. As they say, you take the pill, the pill takes a pill, and then the pill takes you.

Yes, we need a break from our incessant busyness, but we deserve a break that doesn’t lead to substance abuse. If you find yourself struggling to maintain balance in your life, don’t suffer in silence; reach out to your spouse or a friend for help. Also, remember to prioritize. You may have 100 important tasks on any given day, but you can’t do them all. Pick your top three. If you find yourself (as I sometimes do) answering work emails late at night or on weekends, ask yourself, “Is this really an emergency?” If this answer is no, your response can probably wait.

In addition, make time for the things you love. Whether you enjoy tennis or painting, pick up old hobbies again—or start new ones. Personally, I love riding my motorcycle around Central Park, near my apartment in Manhattan. I get that adrenalin rush I crave—and I typically return home more clear-headed and ready to attack my to-do list.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking prescribed medications; no one should have to suffer grave pain. But be honest with yourself: Are you taking the pills for legitimate medical reasons or simply because they take the edge off? You can avoid this temptation by throwing out unused pills when the pain is gone or asking your doctor to suggest a drug with less abuse liability. If you’re in recovery, you can also give your medications to a non-using friend and ask them to give you the prescribed dosage at a specific time.

The best way to address prescription drug abuse is to stop it before it starts. The frenetic pace of life may make us feel like it’s impossible to slow down. But we must take the time to prevent destructive behavior. It’s time to put our own health at the top of our priority lists.

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