Sometimes-controversial medication steers Waukegan woman to recovery

  • Danielle Davis of Waukegan says taking buprenorphine in a medically assisted treatment program at Brightside Clinic in Northbrook is part of her plan to "get serious" about overcoming her heroin addiction.

      Danielle Davis of Waukegan says taking buprenorphine in a medically assisted treatment program at Brightside Clinic in Northbrook is part of her plan to "get serious" about overcoming her heroin addiction. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 9/1/2016 9:37 AM
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the title of Dr. Diane Copeland, clinical psychologist.

Second of two parts.

On Day 122, Danielle Davis feels normal.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

She's living with her grandmother and son in Waukegan and she's heading to a new job at a restaurant in Gurnee.

She's 122 days sober from a 10-year-long heroin addiction and 21 years of opioid use, and thanks to a three-month inpatient treatment stay, monthly psychiatrist visits and a medication called buprenorphine, she feels normal.

It's beyond a relief.

"I always felt like five steps behind," said Davis, 36. "This medication has helped me feel like an even keel."

Davis is one of 160 patients taking buprenorphine prescribed by Brightside Clinic in Northbrook, which uses the medication to relieve opioid withdrawal symptoms and help long-term users recover from addiction. Commonly sold as Suboxone, the medication is a partial opioid tablet or film dissolved under the tongue that won't produce a high, but also won't cause cravings that could lead users to seek the substance that had them hooked, says Dr. Kenji Oyasu, Brightside's founder and executive medical director.

Davis takes 8 milligrams of Suboxone twice a day as part of her plan to "get serious" about overcoming her addiction.

"I know I need to feel this way in order to get better," she said. "I need to feel normal to work on what's been holding me back."

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On Day 122, she's beginning to see why the medication has its proponents. But she's also experiencing some pushback from its critics.

"It gets a really bad rap," she said about Suboxone as an addiction recovery method. "A lot of people, when they find out you're an addict and you're on this, they'll judge you."

Davis has heard other recovering addicts in 12-step programs say it's impossible to be truly "clean" while taking Suboxone, and she struggles to let those words go in one ear and out the other.

"When I go to meetings, I'm judged," she said. "It does get in the way."

But she's relishing every day she's using medication only as prescribed because every moment of normal is a victory.

"I count every day," Davis said. "It feels good. It doesn't feel like so much of a struggle anymore."

Innocent beginning

"Normal" isn't something Danielle Davis of Waukegan felt for the 21 years she was taking opioids, including a 10-year heroin addiction. Davis, 36, now is experiencing normalcy as she takes a medication called buprenorphine to assist in her recovery.
  "Normal" isn't something Danielle Davis of Waukegan felt for the 21 years she was taking opioids, including a 10-year heroin addiction. Davis, 36, now is experiencing normalcy as she takes a medication called buprenorphine to assist in her recovery. - Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Davis' addiction didn't start as an addiction, a bad decision or youthful experimentation. It started as a migraine.

Suffering frequent, painful headaches when she was 15, doctors prescribed Davis some of the most powerful opioid pain medications: Vicodin for her moderate migraines and OxyContin for those that became severe.

For 10 years, she stayed on the medications, taking them because her headaches wouldn't go away and taking them because whenever she didn't, she felt sick. Shortly after her son, Zachary, was born when she was 18, Davis remembers being unable to walk down the hall in the morning to get her pills without feeling the flu-like symptoms of withdrawal.

And opiate withdrawal, she says, feels like death. Doctors say there's nothing deadly about the feelings of nausea and anxiety, sweats and chills, muscle aches and digestive problems that come when the body isn't getting the opioids it's used to. But they acknowledge it sure feels a lousy 10 out of 10 on the discomfort scale.

When Davis began to show symptoms of opioid abuse such as "nodding off" to sleep during everyday activities, her family at first assumed it was her migraine meds. Maybe she just took a little too much.

But it was worse than that. Living for a time in Arizona and taking community college courses toward a human services major, Davis kept up appearances of a "normal" life. But that fog of feeling a few paces behind was beginning to set in and even pills weren't curing it. When her doctors attempted to scale back her migraine pain doses, things only got worse.

Traumatic trigger

The news came with a ring of the phone and a ring of the doorbell, both sounds that triggered anxiety in Davis for years.

Her brother, U.S. Marines Sgt. Edward G. Davis III of Antioch, was dead in Iraq at age 31. It was 2006 and her older brother was gone.

Davis, then 26, had been too high to answer his call only a few days before. Her only consolation was the phone message he'd left her, preserving his voice for the ages.

"That's when I started using heroin," Davis said. "I couldn't keep up with the grief."

Heartbroken for the loss of the man she grew up with and guilt-stricken about missing her last chance to talk with him, Davis developed what has now been identified as post-traumatic stress disorder. Soon she was feeling what she describes as a bad case of stress and anxiety, multiplied by 100, all day every day.

"Your mind is trying to run you into the ground," she said.

Heroin is known for its numbing effects, making users feel pleasant and carefree, wrapped in a warm embrace of nothingness. Davis needed that relief, but the search for it left her always preoccupied, spending every free moment scheming to score drugs and burning through up to $200 a day to avoid the pitfalls of withdrawal.

She spent 10 years in that cycle. Ten years a blur instead of dealing with the pain of her brother's death. Ten years a fog instead of being a true mother for her son's life.

Only now, for the past 122 days and counting, has she begun to uncover what she's masked, to feel what she's numbed.

Coping with normal

Danielle Davis of Waukegan takes her morning dose of Suboxone, a brand of a medication called buprenorphine, which is FDA-approved to treat heroin and opioid addiction.
  Danielle Davis of Waukegan takes her morning dose of Suboxone, a brand of a medication called buprenorphine, which is FDA-approved to treat heroin and opioid addiction. - Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

It comes with feeling normal. Because now, on Suboxone, Davis is beginning to cope.

When she took her first dose of the medication, she felt grateful not to be in withdrawal, which is still the worst physical feeling she's experienced.

"Once you can get past that, I feel like you can get past everything," she said.

She's grateful, too, that her migraines stopped two years ago. Now as she grows in sobriety, she's working to build a routine.

A felony conviction for possession of narcotics on July 8, 2014, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, earned her two years probation and a past that's made several job offers disappear.

But the new restaurant job she landed in early August offers the promise of a chance and Davis is working to take it.

She's arriving early to memorize menu items and prepare to be a stellar server.

She's keeping 12-step meetings on her schedule, books from narcotics anonymous and alcoholics anonymous stacked neatly on a coffee table near her front door.

Suboxone films dissolve under the tongue and absorb into the mouth to deliver medication that helps recovering heroin and opioid addicts avoid withdrawal and feel fewer cravings.
  Suboxone films dissolve under the tongue and absorb into the mouth to deliver medication that helps recovering heroin and opioid addicts avoid withdrawal and feel fewer cravings. - Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

And she's keeping Suboxone as part of her life for at least the next six to nine months while she works through the hurt in her head. The medication isn't exactly pleasant ("It tastes like what I assume Windex would taste like," she says,) but it dissolves quickly and comes in a thin pouch that's discreet to carry.

She pops an orange-tinted film under her tongue each morning between 8 and 10 a.m. and another about 12 hours later to stay stable.

The medication is completely covered on her insurance, but the monthly visits to Brightside to see Oyasu and clinical psychologist Dr. Diane Copeland aren't, and they cost her $200 a pop.

Paying for the counseling adds another challenge to Davis' efforts to cope with normalcy. And there's no guarantee the treatment will work -- not for Davis and not for any other buprenorphine patient.

But she's giving it her best shot with the support of her family -- including her son. Zachary, now 18, has a job at the same restaurant where his mother works.

He's about to start college in Wisconsin.

"They just are so happy that I finally am me," Davis said about the family with whom she's reconnecting, now that she's learning what it means to be normal. "They're waiting to see who I'm becoming."

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