FOX40 Special Report: Prescription for Addiction

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SACRAMENTO -- Ashleigh Wise has always been a person driven to succeed. Growing up, the Roseville native was well-behaved, got good grades and played every sport she possibly could.

Her personal favorite is water polo.

When she was 20, she was a college student, studying kinesiology and psychology. Her whole life stretched ahead of her, full of possibilities. But in one moment, everything fell apart.

"When I took that very first pill, it was from that moment on, I just liked it," Ashleigh remembers.

For 10 years, a compulsive need to find her next fix took over her mind. But Ashleigh wasn't buying drugs from a dealer, or on the street. Her journey into addiction began innocently, with a trip to the doctor's office.

"I was working out, and I had a friend who was kind of pushing me to lift weights. I was too tired at the time, my shoulder gave out," she said.

She had torn her rotator cuff. But that wasn't the only pain Ashleigh had. The recent deaths of her aunt and her best friend left her vulnerable. For her shoulder, she was prescribed a bottle of Vicodin.

"I remember taking it, and just instantly feeling like, 'Oh. That helps the emotional pain I'm feeling, too,'" Ashleigh explains.

By "doctor shopping", which is going to different doctors for the same medical issue, one prescription turned into many. Vicodin, Oxycontin, Norco, and Tramadol -- all opiate painkillers, highly addictive and completely legal. For Ashleigh, getting more pills wasn't hard.

"I became a very good actress" Ashleigh admits. "Even to the point of looking up symptoms online, to be able to go to the doctor and when they asked me questions about what I was feeling, to be able to answer them effectively".

Eventually, one of Ashleigh's doctors suspected she was hooked, and cut her off. She realized she needed help, and found it in Bayside Church's "Celebrate Recovery" program. She's now two years sober, and going back to school. Not everyone is so lucky.

"It actually ends in death. In a lot of cases, it ends in death" explains Dr. Christine Bell. She runs a medical clinic for opiate addicts in downtown Sacramento.

"We are very busy. Unfortunately," Dr. Bell tells FOX40.

She's not alone. Opiate addiction is at a record high across the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says in 2015, more than 33,000 people died from an opiate overdose. That's almost 91 people a day. And as many as one in four people given opiates by a doctor will become addicted to them.

For many, it doesn't stop there. Prescription pills are often a gateway drug for heroin, the most destructive opiate of all.

"I can only think of one patient who ever started with heroin. No, it's usually something else", Dr. Bell explains. "Anything from their doctor, or their friend, or their grandma's medicine cabinet."

But she says, things are changing. Physicians are getting smarter about opiate addiction, and they're not giving out pills as much as they used to. And an online database for doctors, known as "CURES," is helping to stop patients from doctor shopping like Ashleigh did. But with millions of Americans already addicted to opiates, Ashleigh and Dr. Bell agree that more change is needed.

"We could take on the European model for pain," Dr. Bell suggests. "So the first thing we write isn't a pain medication. So let's go to physical therapy, let's work with an NSAID, which is like Motrin."

Ashleigh knows the extent addicts may go through to steal drugs from friends or family, and encourages everyone who has prescriptions to keep a close eye on them.

"I would even go to the extreme of finding a medication over the counter that looked like the pills I took, and just replace it. So just be really aware of what's in your medicine cabinet", Ashleigh warns.

The pills are powerful. But Ashleigh hopes her message will be stronger than the painkillers.

In 2015 Sacramento County launched an Opioid Task Force to fight addiction and stop overdoses. To learn more about how they are preventing opiate addiction, contact the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human services.

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