At least one of the artists featured in the “Bitter Pill” exhibition at the Billings Public Library deals with the problems of prescription drug abuse practically every day.
Vanessa Ready is a nurse who works for RiverStone Health at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility. Many of the medical cases she deals with involve drug abuse in some way.
“Sometimes when I work too much,” she said, “I wonder, is there any good left in the world?”
Ready’s contribution to the exhibit, which runs in the library’s Community Room through May 15, is a watercolor called “The Game of Life vs. the ‘Life’ of Rx Abuse.” It depicts a game board similar to Milton Bradley’s the Game of Life, but it shows one life path leading to drug abuse, unemployment, “go to jail” spaces and eventual death.
It is one of nearly 40 works of art in an exhibition whose full title is “Bitter Pill: Montana Lives Affected by Rx Abuse.” The exhibition, which showcases the work of both amateur and professional Montana artists, is presented by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the District of Montana U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Montana Attorney General’s Resolve Montana initiative.
The exhibition opened with a reception during ArtWalk on Friday and includes a Lunch ’n’ Learn session at noon Wednesday, May 11. It was preceded on Friday by a panel discussion that included DEA representatives, doctors, Rimrock Foundation staff, a police officer and a recovering drug addict.
According to materials prepared for the exhibition, prescription drug overdoses were responsible for at least 369 deaths in Montana between 2011 and 2013. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 14,000 people nationwide have died from overdoses involving prescription opioids since 2014.
DEA agent John Partridge said during the panel discussion that prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic in the last four to five years. At least part of the reason, panel members said, is that prescription drugs don’t carry the same stigma as other abused drugs, such as methamphetamine.
Physicians also bear part of the blame, said retired DEA agent Dan Dunlap. Some “pill mills” in Montana write prescriptions all day long without regard for the best interests of their patients, he said.
“There are some bad people out there that take advantage of people’s weaknesses,” he said.
The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, Dunlap said, but uses 80 percent of the world’s drugs.
“Americans are intolerant of pain,” he said. “We want instant gratification.”
Kaelyn Kelly, prescription drug abuse prevention coordinator at the Montana Attorney General’s Office, said the United States and New Zealand are the only two countries that allow pharmaceutical companies to market their products to the public. Meth is a bad drug, she said, but at least it isn’t manufactured by major companies, as prescription drugs are.
“They’re very dangerous,” she said. “They’re very addictive.”
Recovering addict Molly Sheehan testified about the power of addiction. She said she used opiates and meth for seven years before spending 28 days in treatment at the Rimrock Foundation. She became an outpatient but then relapsed and is now in treatment at Michelle’s House, a Rimrock Foundation home for women in treatment with children under the age of 12.
When she was in the midst of her addiction, her mother would sometimes ask her, why didn’t she just stop?
“I used to tell myself that: Why can’t I just stop?” she said. But she also said her parents helped enable her drug use.
“I didn’t have a lot of consequences,” she said, “and I kept using and using and using, and finally I hit rock bottom.”
One reason it’s so hard to quit is that drugs over time “hijack” the brain in ways that lead to obsessions about and cravings for drugs, said Mike Metzger, medical director for the Rimrock Foundation.
“People think of it as just people wanting to get high,” he said. But it is the hijacked brain, not conscious decision making, that drives the behavior, he said.
The results of that hijacked decision making often show up in the Yellowstone County jail, where Ready regularly deals with the consequences. Not only do people come in with overdoses but also with infections, abscesses, cold sweats and hepatitis.
Some patients melt prescription drugs over a spoon, filter it through cotton and then inject it with a needle, she said. Others show up in jail just days after being released from a hospital intensive-care unit.
“They’re dealing with their demons and pains and aches, and we’re outnumbered,” she said.
Jail is a revolving door for many inmates, she said, and while most of us would be badly shaken by a jail term, some drug addicts just accept it as part of their lifestyle.
“It’s not rock bottom for people anymore,” Ready said.
Ready majored in art history at the University of Colorado before becoming a registered nurse. She has filled her condominium with original art, so it felt natural to enter a piece in the juried “Bitter Pill” exhibition.
In her artist’s statement, she wrote, “I wanted my piece to demonstrate that a life of prescription drug abuse is not really a ‘life’ at all. It’s a constant unraveling of one grim situation after another.”
When her work is done, Ready can take some comfort in commiserating with her fiancé, Billings police officer Caleb Schultz, who sees similar problems. He said that the overwhelming number of calls he goes on involve drugs in some fashion or another.
Matt Lennick, a downtown resource officer for the Billings Police Department, concurred. Very few shifts over the last 12 years have passed without at least one call involving pills, he said.
“We see it absolutely every single day,” he said.
Other works in the “Bitter Pill”” exhibition are by artists who know people who have been addicted to prescription drugs or who have themselves been addicted. A maintenance technician identified only as Natalie W. of Billings said in her artist’s statement, “To addiction, I lost the desire to live. I lost the essence of my very soul. And what’s worse is that I could not have cared less.”
She said she served a 100-month sentence in federal prison for fraudulently obtaining OxyContin, but now has a promising future in front of her. Sheehan said at the panel discussion said she is better, too, but she knows that the fight against addiction will be a lifelong struggle.
“Everything is inspiring and motivational,” she said, “but I do have my overwhelming days.”
Metzger said that part of dealing with the problem is identifying the 15 percent of the population that is especially vulnerable to addiction.
Chris Baumert, a doctor at RiverStone Health, said that identifying such underlying factors as childhood abuse, trauma and stress also is important.
“Recovery is a lifelong process,” he said.
Joel Simpson, resource outreach coordinator and a licensed addiction counselor for Rimrock Foundation, said more than half of those in treatment have problems other than addiction.
“Look at the bigger picture,” he said. “What else is going on in their life?”
Kelly said that half of addicts get their drugs for free from family or friends. Partridge warned, “If there’s something missing out of your medicine cabinet, usually there’s a problem.”
Baumert said that the CDC advises against using opioids to treat chronic pain. In some cases, surgery or steroid injections might deal better with the pain.
But Baumert rejected the use of medical marijuana, which he said may dull chronic pain but does not help with the primary medical goal, which is to improve function. He called “medical marijuana” an oxymoron.
“We’re never going to take away all pain,” he said.
Dunlap, the retired DEA agent, said that both the pharmaceutical business and medical marijuana are multi-billion dollar industries.
“There’s a lot of money behind this,” he said.