Ten years ago, if anyone had asked me what I knew about fighting painkiller addiction, I would have shrugged. I always believed that as an NFL player competing at a high level, and later becoming a husband and father, that it was part of my job to steer clear of drugs. And I held to that, without ever giving the subject a great deal of thought.
In 2009 without my even realizing it, life changed. I was recovering from my fifth back operation after having been diagnosed with a genetic condition called spinal stenosis, in which my spinal cord canal became so narrow that it compressed my nerves. To dull the unbearable and constant pain, my doctor prescribed me high potency pain medication, in the form of Vicodin and Oxycontin. Without my doctor's knowledge and without my even thinking it was a problem, I began washing my pain pills down with Budweiser. Quickly I began spiraling out of control.
The euphoric feeling of mixing alcohol and the prescribed medication led me to down more pills and drink more beer. It reached the point that I began slurring my speech, pushing my family away, struggling to remember things and allowing important business opportunities to slip away.
I had no clue my condition was becoming an issue until one morning in November 2009. My two sons, Tyler and Christian, sat me down and told me they were worried for my life and would be admitting me to a rehabilitation facility. I've had a lot of joyful and painful moments along the way, but hearing those words from my children whom I've always tried to set an example for was by far the lowest point in my life.
Even after I began rehab, I didn’t fully believe I belonged there. In my eyes, I was simply washing down a few pills with a beer -- nothing close to the stories I was hearing from other addicts who were hooked on "hard" drugs like heroin or cocaine. As the days and weeks went on, I began to see myself in the stories I heard in counseling, and soon realized that even though we relied on different drugs, we were all fighting an uphill battle against addiction, struggling to get and stay clean. Literally taking it one day at a time.
Nov. 16, 2013, will mark four years that I will have been sober. I am incredibly fortunate to have my family’s full support and access to the counseling and medical care I received at the addiction treatment center. Those two major blessings were enough to lead me to and keep me on the road to recovery. But many individuals and families battling addiction aren't so lucky. Pick up any local news publication, and more weeks than not you can read at least one story about an untimely death caused by addiction to opioids like OxyContin.
National statistics also confirm that the opioid addiction epidemic is spreading and that too many people aren't getting the help they need. According to the CDC, 2.2 million people in the U.S. currently abuse opioids -- which includes prescription painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone. Between 1999 and 2008, the rate of prescription opioid overdose-related deaths in the U.S. more than quadrupled to the point that the CDC now estimates opioid drugs contribute to three out of four overdose-related deaths.
Even at my lowest point, I didn't believe that addiction could kill or take hold of me. I was a Heisman Trophy winner, All-Pro NFL Hall of Famer who made a living defying the odds, but that did not matter in this fight. My experience has taught me that opioid addiction can literally happen to anyone. It is incumbent upon our schools, government, medical community and advocates who have been there like myself to help America move past the dangerous misperception that addiction is a choice and only impacts the uneducated and down-trodden.
Addiction is a disease that just like any other cannot be cured without the right treatment. In the case of the ballooning opioid addiction epidemic, I'm convinced that more effective treatment options and better access to them is critical to helping more Americans get and stay clean. The longer a person can suppress their cravings for drugs, the greater chance they have for recovery to take hold and last.
For that reason, I was incredibly hopeful when I learned about a new development in the fight against addiction that consists of an implant placed under the skin of a patient's arm that delivers a steady six-month dose of medication to curb cravings. This implant helps ensure the medication is taken as prescribed and prevents it from being misused or sold on the street -- current treatment challenges that have emerged during the past decade.
The implant's active ingredient, buprenorphine, is the same ingredient in existing oral treatments for opioid dependence only it represents a new mode of delivery that addresses the challenges posed by oral forms of buprenorphine. After data confirmed the implant's effectiveness, which led to an FDA expert panel voting in favor of approving the implant, I was disappointed and surprised to learn that the FDA suddenly decided to table approving this life-saving medication.
Especially at a time when an increasing number of our friends and loved ones are or will face opioid addiction, doctors and patients need more treatment options. If you agree, I encourage you to join me in letting the FDA know and ask them to reconsider this important new tool in the fight against one of America’s worst enemies: Addiction.
-- Earl Campbell was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1991, after an eight-year NFL career that included three rushing titles and five Pro Bowl selections. He won the 1977 Heisman Trophy and was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1978 NFL draft by the Houston Oilers.