REALITY CHECK: Baldwin County woman tells story of opioid addiction

The state of Alabama leads the nation in opioid prescriptions. Here locally, the number of people addicted to painkillers is sky rocketing.

Baldwin County resident Kristy Wells will be the first to tell you that battling addiction is a daily struggle.

Over time she's learned to manage it. She's been clean for eight years.

But getting to this stage in her life wasn't easy. Wells nearly lost everything to her addiction to opiates, including her life.

"I went from taking 4 to 5 pills a day to 70 a day. 70 Lortab 10's every day of my life. People often don't believe that. But I would have to take 7 or 8 at a time to even notice I was taking them," said Wells.

She started taking prescription pain killers because of legitimate pain from back injuries.

At first addiction wasn't an issue, but over the next decade she found herself spiraling out of control.

"There's a little network. I would go and those doctors were there just for that and we all knew it. They knew it. It just wasn’t talked about. They would do an X-ray, find a reason and stick it in a chart," said Wells, who said there were several doctors in the area that she knew would write her prescriptions for whatever she wanted. She described it as going in with a shopping list.

"I was doctor hopping everywhere. Then I began forging prescriptions," said Wells.

Her now ex-husband is a doctor. So at the time, she said getting access to his partner's prescription pad was easy.

"I had a lot of people who were doctors who were friends of mine and so if i was at their house, I knew where to look. The pads were sitting around everywhere and I would grab them," said Wells.

To keep from going through withdrawals, most of her days were spent frantically driving around the Gulf Coast pill shopping at local doctor's offices. She said one of her stops was at the Physicians' Pain Specialists of Alabama Clinic. Co-owners Patrick Couch and Xiulu Ruan are currently on trial in federal court for allegedly running a pill mill.

"I had a jaguar and a convertible mustang I remember and I sold both of them because I needed drug money," she said. Wells was draining her family's bank accounts. Eventually, her marriage ended.

"Those pills were selling for $7 to $8 a piece on the streets and I would have to buy a thousand at a time," said Wells.

For years she tried quitting. She even attempted suicide.

Eventually she was arrested and convicted on felony charges. While in jail she began going through violent withdrawals. But the memory that haunts her most is the day her children came to visit.

"I looked up and there were my three children standing there, seeing me, you know pale and sick and I'm sure it was unspeakable. I remember the look on their faces and that moment was my rock bottom. I knew then I needed to a get better or I needed to die," said Wells.

Wells spent three months in jail before being given the option of rehab and probation in lieu of a 10 year prison sentence.

It was rehab that finally helped her to turn her life around for good and she hasn't looked back.

"Certainly the opiate addiction problem has increased," said Dr. Richard Whitehurst, who sees some of the results of addiction first hand at USA Children's and Women's Hospital.

"It's not a choice. It's not that they can just quit. There is a disease," said Dr. Whitehurst.

He said doctors are starting to pull back on the number of opiate prescriptions they write.

"But there's been a consequence. We're starting to see an increase use of heroin again. And I think probably because it's cheaper," said Dr. Whitehurst.

As for Wells, her passion now is helping other addicts. She works with the Drug Education Council, speaks to children about addiction and volunteers with a group in Foley called Infinity Counseling where she's working to start a Women's Day Recovery Program. Prior to that, she served as executive director at The Shoulder, which is a faith-based treatment center in Spanish Fort.

“My relationships with my family, children and friends have now become greater than I ever could have imagined those relationships to be. Even if my addiction had not ever occurred. My family openly communicates about every topic under the sun. I went from being a drain on society and my family to being an asset. My life is by no means perfect. I struggle like anyone else does. However, I now am able to live life on life's terms without filling the empty hole in me with opiates,” said Wells.

She believes that if sharing her story saves just one life, it’s all worth it.

"None of us woke up one day and said oh I'd love to be a drug addict. I was sick and I didn't know what to do and I want people to know there are ways to get help," said Wells.

There are signs to look for if you suspect a loved one is suffering from opioid addiction:

You may notice increased secrecy, changes in appearance, inability to concentrate, drowsiness and a lowered interest in social activities.

Wells said her best advice, is never enable an addict. “Never give them money. If they need food, diapers for kids, etc. purchase those things only and give it to them. If they are using in your home, kick them out of your house, as harsh as this seems. It might save their lives. We all have to hit bottom. If you know they are about to leave to go purchase drugs or travel with them, call the police with the tag number, car description and such. Being arrested can save their lives,” said Wells.

Helpful resources:

Infinity Counseling in Foley, AL. For more information, please call 251-948-0260