My name is Zac Talbott, and I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1983 and was raised – and lived most of my life – 30 minutes south of Knoxville in the affluent southern town of Maryville. I came from an upper middle class, church-going family that prioritized family, faith, and education. I went on to graduate with my Bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville before enrolling in the MSSW program at the UT Knoxville College of Social Work. During my time as a graduate student in the Social Work program, ironically enough, I was prescribed opioid pain medications from my physician for some minor knee and back pains. It was as if I had never lived before. Something almost immediately changed in me, and a dependence turned addiction to opioids began to engulf my life. Not long before I was academically dismissed from the UT College of Social Work I was a regular, daily IV heroin user. I can vividly re-call going into the bathroom in graduate school and shooting up in between classes to ward off withdrawal symptoms. For a long time, prior to my academic dismissal that led to a downward spiral, I was a high functioning addict. I wasn’t “one of them.” I came from a good family from, “good stock” as we said in the south. Talbotts weren’t addicts. We were people of faith, community leaders and role models. But I am writing to tell you today that opioid addiction does not discriminate and knows no boundaries by class or race, by gender or sexual orientation, by religion or level of education. Not even half a decade into the new millennium I was living in a hell that began with an illusion of a pill-induced heaven. I strove day in and day out just to “stay well,” to avoid withdrawals. Any type of “high” was a thing of the past, an illusion that lasts only for the very first romantic parts of this lethal disease. Such is the daily life of someone addicted to opioids – be they prescription pain killers and/or heroin.
But there is hope. Being a graduate student never truly left me, so when I was sick and tired of being sick and tired I researched what would give me the best chance of success. I went to credible sources – something I remember being beaten into me during my time in college – to see what I should do if and when I was ready. I kept coming back over and over to this medication called methadone. But, like so many other people, at the time I was hesitant… thinking I would just be “trading the witch for the devil” or potentially ending up in an even worse addiction. But I was desperate. So, I called the Opioid Treatment Programs closest to me only to find they had long wait lists and could not get me in… so in a moment of desperation I drove two hours in one direction and enrolled in an opioid treatment program in Northwestern Georgia. It was the best decision I ever made. I found that I not only was stabilized with a medication that allowed me to live a normal life again, allowed me to break those chains and that cycle of living to avoid withdrawals, but I found that I was met with compassionate treatment professionals and that counseling was an even more important priority than the medication I was receiving. The “old Zac” quickly came back and I once again started dreaming again and re-evaluating my life’s goals. I stopped living to avoid withdrawals. I was breaking the chains that had bound me. I am one of the many true faces of medication-assisted treatment having become medication-assisted recovery. I did not trade one addiction for another, as I feared, but traded dysfunction for stability and misery for hope. I got my life back. I became involved in patient advocacy and treatment. The Zac that was a graduate student in clinical social work was back. I re-enrolled in a MSW program to get the degree my addiction robbed of me years before. I have since opened two opioid treatment programs myself, serving as the Program Sponsor, writing the policies and procedures manual and assuring regulatory compliance. I have studied and worked to achieve IC&RC certification as an alcohol and drug abuse counselor. I am successful and living the recovery life. And this recovery life – and all the work I am now doing – was made possible because of medication-assisted treatment. Methadone, combined with quality counseling, saved my life.
Since those early days in maintenance treatment I am someone who has been able to slowly taper down my dosage while working on relapse prevention and coping skills in counseling, but I recognize that isn’t possible for everyone. Just like any other chronic disease, such as diabetes or hypertension, different people need different amounts of medication for different periods of time. Many in recovery may need long-term, or even indefinite, medication maintenance. And that is ok. What matters is someone’s LIFE and their QUALITY of life – not whether or not they happen to take a legal medication or for how long they might need to take it. During this opioid crisis, we have a moral obligation to support all options that offer help and hope, be they abstinence-based or include the use of medications, inpatient or outpatient, short term or extending for months or years or even indefinitely. We have to support all the medications at our disposal to combat this opioid crisis: methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. All three medications have their place, and we should not pit any one against the other. We must support the use of naloxone for overdose reversal so people like me can stay alive long enough until we get the help, the evidence-based help, that we need. We have to train first responders, teachers, counselors, and family and friends of those who are at risk for opioid addiction how to administer and use naloxone – and we have to recognize that some people need more than one dose and that for some people it might take more than one overdose before they are ready for treatment. But we have to be ok with that and do what is necessary to keep people alive – while supporting treatments proven by research and science – if we are going to turn this opioid crisis around.
I am living proof there is hope after opioid addiction. I am one of the true faces of this opioid addiction and overdose epidemic, one of the lucky ones who happened to stumble into a treatment center that prioritized science and research over stigma and fear. And because of that – along with my own dedication to the hard work of recovery – I am able to tell my story today. My recovery means everything to me, for without my recovery I likely would not have my life. It will take us all working together despite political affiliation or other backgrounds to turn this epidemic around. #RecoveryHappens!