From Prescription Drug Addict to New START

At his worst, Ken Start popped 100 painkillers a day, and still craved more. It was nothing for him to down 20 Percocet at a time -- a powerful narcotic, mixing it with alcohol to counter his chronic back pain, and feed his growing addiction to prescription drugs. Nothing was enough. Not an internal pump that automatically shot morphine into his system on regular intervals. Not heavy doses prescribed of Halcyon, Lithium, Demerol, Darvocet, Vicodin or Methadone. Not even Oxycontin. Start was hooked.
 
Start, now 46, severely injured his back in a car accident in 1991. He underwent 17 or 18 surgeries.
But within six months of his injury, his own physician in Muskegon wouldn't refill his prescriptions. Start began to "doctor-shop" in West Michigan and even in Florida, resolutely going to emergency rooms, consulting other doctors, determined to get more drugs.
Dr. W. Michael Hooten, who runs the pain department at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., calls Start the "poster child" of someone addicted to prescription painkillers. "People think of celebrities and politicians ... they think high-profile," Hooten says, "but the majority of people dying (from prescription painkillers) are the guy next door, like Ken."
 
On Aug. 12, Start celebrated three years of uninterrupted sobriety begun at Mayo's pain rehabilitation clinic and culminating in a four-month stay at the chemical dependency clinic. "I really think they thought: 'This guy is going to die if we don't do something'," Start says. It was his eighth time in a drug rehabilitation program.
 
"Addiction to prescription painkillers is the fastest growing disorder in the United States today," Hooten says. This is Start's second time, giving personal testimony to the doctors and medical staff he says saved his life. In March, he also spoke at a conference at Mayo's. He hopes it is the start of a new phase in his life. "I want to tell people," Start says. "I want to talk about where I've been, what I've done ... to groups, at churches, anywhere. My focus is to help others."
 
Equally dramatic as the story of his "long, sad road" toward recovery is the fact that Start, once on full disability for his back injuries, works full-time as a claim representative for the Social Security Administration in Muskegon. "Kind of funny, huh?" he says. "I work with the people like I once was. I know what they're talking about. I know what pain is."
 
Start now manages his pain by exercising every day, regular counseling and acupuncture sessions, and going to at least three times a week to 12-step programs like Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous -- although which ones he attends changes from week to week. He is a man in perpetual motion, always going somewhere, hard to pin down for appointments. "I hate to be committed to be somewhere," he says. "If I feel like I need to go to a meeting, I'll get up and go."
 
One meeting he never misses is the 6:30 p.m. Thursday night weekly sessions of the Celebrate Recovery group at his church, Kainay Community Church, 3387 Heights-Ravenna Rd., Muskegon. "I need to know I mean something to somebody," he says. "I'm always looking for that sense of self-worth. That's what I'm addicted to now, searching for self-worth."