The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported preliminary data showing more than 85,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending in August 2020. That’s 232 people every day.
Despite a public health crisis declaration and billions spent on prevention, treatment and recovery, overdose deaths involving opioids have quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Mainstreet Daily News is devoting the month of April to opioid awareness. We’ll run a series of interviews with addicts, family members of addicts, law enforcement, health professionals and others, culminating in the DEA National Take Back Day on April 24.
First up, an interview with Gainesville radio personality Kyle Baldry. This interview first aired on The Shepherd Radio and has been edited for length and clarity.
MIKE GILLAND: You’re not a person many people would think of that would ever have a drug problem, but like so many people, your story did not begin with an ambition to get high. Tell us your story.
KYLE BALDRY: On May 21, 2006, I was involved in a bad, freak accident involving a can of spray paint, of all things, that blew up underneath me. That caused 45 percent second- and third-degree burns, which put me in the ICU for days, in the hospital for over a month, and then in physical rehab for months and years. That entire time that I was there in the ICU, I was given a shot of fentanyl—a very potent drug that many people are aware of now, but not many people knew of back in 2006 and 2007—every hour on the hour, 24 hours a day.
MG: Oh, my goodness.
KB: When I got out of the ICU, a family friend who is actually a pharmacist at UF came by to see me. And he said, Kyle, you are going to become addicted to narcotics. But you need this as a necessary evil, because you don’t want to go into shock and have your breathing stop and have you possibly pass away. So I knew initially that in the future I would become dependent on narcotics. But I didn’t realize the severity of how difficult it would be to try and get off of them.
After having gone through physical rehabilitation, I was finally able to go home. I had to stay at my parents’ house and basically bed down for almost a year, going into the hospital almost every other month for a skin graft and contraction release. That’s where they cut some of the scar tissue so you can bend your elbows and fingers again. I had keloid and hypertrophic scarring, and only 5 percent of population get both. So it was very painful with thick scar tissue growing beyond the surface area of the burn, which is good for survival, but very uncomfortable.
Of course, every time I’m going into the hospital, they’re giving me heavy narcotics, shooting with the IV there, and then sending me home with pain patches. It was actual fentanyl patches that you put on your skin that leech in—three days worth of medication at a time—as well as oxycodone tablets that I was supposed to take every four hours. And this went on almost a full year, so your tolerance level goes up very, very high.
The first moment I realized that I was truly addicted to narcotics was one night, about 2 in the morning, I thought I had the worst flu of my life. My bones and my jaw started hurting. I was breaking out into a fever, I was nauseous, I went through the toilet. I couldn’t figure out why this was, and my mother came and said maybe the pain patch that you have is faulty. And I said that can’t possibly be it. But we took out a new pain patch exchange it for the one I had on me. And within an hour, I was 100 percent better. Well, again, and that was my first notification that things were not going to go well when I eventually decided to try and quit permanently.
MG: Our bodies are amazing the way they adapt. Your body produces, like you said, flu-like symptoms and sickness that you just wouldn’t think would be associated with a need for a drug. This thing turned nasty on you, didn’t it?
KB: It’s all going on in your brain—your brain becomes addicted to the narcotics. In my experience, knowing people who became addicted as power line workers, sheriff’s deputies after accidents, it’s all mental. You take that drug not to get high but to feel normal again. And most people don’t understand that. It’s not like we’re out there intentionally trying to just get high for the sake of getting high. It’s to get to a level to where you’re not sick every day, to where you’re not feeling extreme anxiety and agoraphobia. When you start taking opiates, especially long term, it messes up your brain chemistry.
A physician told me for every year you’re addicted, it takes about three months for your brain chemistry to correct. So when you quit, there’s a cloud that hangs over your head for months and months and months, up to years, to where you just don’t feel well, you don’t want to be friends and family, you self-isolate, you have suicidal thoughts—all these things are terrible. And you can take one little pill, and all of that goes away, so it’s extremely tempting for addicts to not stop purely because they understand what it’s like to try and get clean. It is a living hell.
If you know anybody going through it, come to them with compassion, because that’s the thing that really will help somebody get well. A major reason people don’t seek help initially is because of shame. They don’t want to admit they have a problem, and don’t want to be stigmatized.
So they go on as if nothing is wrong. I was a full-time student at UF, I was able to graduate, I had a long-term girlfriend, and I was able to work out and hold a full-time job. If you were to look at me, I would look like totally healthy aside from scar tissue. From the outside, you’d never know what’s going on in the inside. This is happening to millions of Americans every day.
MG: Fentanyl did exactly what you said—it works. But few people back then realized just how addictive it was, so by fixing one thing, it created a whole new problem for you. Tell us about the process you went through to get through this.
KB: After the first year I was prescribed a drug called Suboxone to wean myself from regular opioids. It’s a two-pronged approach: It acts as a pain medication help you wean you off the opioids, and it also stops you from being able to take other drugs, otherwise you get violently ill. I tried a number of times to quit both cold turkey, and that is tremendously difficult.
One time I went to the emergency room to see if there was something they could give met to stop the symptoms. I was trying to find something that would alleviate all of the pain and mental anxiety I was going through. But they were not able to help me and said I needed to contact a pain management specialist. I made that appointment, but it takes about a month to a month and a half to get an appointment to see someone. So if you’re trying to change today, you may have to wait six to eight weeks to actually see anyone to make the change. I went back on a pain medication so that I could continue going to school and going to work.
When I got my appointment for the pain management clinic, asked for a blood pressure medication that basically alleviates a lot of the symptoms you have and makes the 72 hours of withdrawal a lot easier. They did not want to give it to me because this was when I was graduating from the University of Florida in 2010, and they said, ‘Well, if we give this to you, and you fall and hit your head on the stage, you’re going to sue us.’
I had no intention of doing that, but a lot of people in the medical community are more worried about the liability of something happening than actually helping people. They said my only alternative was a 30-day in rehab, which I did not have the money for because that cost thousands of dollars.
So it’s very difficult to find treatment, even if you are seeking it out. When I finally quit, I’d actually moved out of state. And by doing so severed all my ties with anyone who could give me medication, and just cold turkey I suffered through for months and months and months. And eventually one day, like magic, all my anxiety, suicidal thoughts, had gone. Unfortunately, I am still in pain 15 years later, but it is far better to deal with a little bit of pain than to suffer the need to have narcotics constantly.
MG: You mentioned it takes three months for every year of addiction. Do you find your body, your mind will still call out for that relief, or is there a way to mitigate that?
KB: Thank God, I’ll say that it has gone away completely. Now it’s been 10 years since I’ve taken anything. But for six or seven years, anytime I would go into the hospital for surgery, they would put a PICC line and would wipe that down with rubbing alcohol. Well, before they would inject it with fentanyl. So the Pavlovian response—for years afterwards, anytime I smelled rubbing alcohol, my pupils will dilate and I would salivate. Even though you are not consciously thinking about narcotics, it is always in your subconscious, reminding you, hey, this one little thing is going to make you feel all better. You’re not going to have any negative thoughts, you’re not going to have any more physical pain, and no more anxiety.
So it’s it creeps back there on people. And unfortunately, people give in to that temptation quickly, not realizing the long-term repercussions. And that’s what’s devastating for people overdosing because when they go back to using narcotics after a trigger like that, their tolerance has gone down so low that when they do take the narcotic again, it can be fatal.
MG: It’s almost like the cure is worse than the original problem. It’s not immediately true, but temporary pain becomes a lifetime of difficulty.
KB: Unfortunately, the medical staff that prescribed me the pain medication would not sit down with me and say, ‘Oh, by the way, this is what you’re going to experience 24 hours after, this is what you can experience 72 hours a week, a month, a year—you don’t get that. The scary part about being on narcotics is you don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.
We had in the burn unit a sheriff’s deputy who was going to a traffic call, and a guy intentionally slammed into the front of his car. The sheriff’s deputy had severe burns from the accident and was in the hospital, and then became an addict for years. He ended up losing a leg.
So these people who are upsetting society, who have never done any kind of narcotics, it is thrust upon them. And that’s what I want to express: A lot of people that you see in this situation do deserve sympathy and empathy, because they are going through something that they did not choose.
This is the first in a series of interviews to bring awareness to the opioid epidemic. To hear more of this conversation and interviews with two other recovering addicts, listen to the full program here.