The Unasked Question

Do You Have an Addiction History?

I work for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. I see the headlines and statistics all the time about how opioid addiction has been declared an epidemic, another celebrity died of an overdose, or that drug overdoses now kill more Americans than cars. This year, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Institute for Recovery Advocacy published a survey that showed despite the deadly risk of prescribing pain medications, patients report health care providers often do not ask a critical question that could save lives: Have you or a family member either experienced a substance use disorder or have a history with addiction?

That brings me to my recent experience. I needed minor surgery on my hand and found a professional at a clinic I don't normally visit, which meant I had to go through a whole litany of health-related questions before my visit. Whether I or a family member had a history of addiction was not one of them. I figured they'd ask me later.

I scheduled my procedure at a local hospital. Again, I received a call asking me about my health history, along with some pre-operative instructions. My addiction history wasn't one of those areas of questioning. Maybe it didn't matter; maybe they weren't going to prescribe me any opioid pain medications. That must be why, right?

As I'm lying on the operating table on the day of my surgery, the surgeon stood at the side of the table and explained what was going to happen: I'd get a local anesthesia so I'd feel a brief moment of discomfort, and we'd get started shortly thereafter. Once the surgery was complete, they'd send me home with some medications for the pain.

I asked him, "What kind of pain medication?" He mentioned an opioid derivative along with some acetaminophen.

I said he needed to ask me one very important question before we got started: "Ask me if I have a history of addiction."

"Do you?" he asked.

"I don't," I said, "but it's a question that still needs to be asked."

"But addicts lie about their addiction," he replied.

"Not if they're in healthy addiction recovery, they don't," I responded.

He was flustered, but we got on with the operation.

Two weeks later, I was back in the office to get my stitches removed and check on my healing progress. He said, "You know, you had a huge impact on me. I've asked every single patient since you whether they had a history of addiction."

I was thrilled to hear that, by speaking up; I had potentially impacted many lives.

Whether we're in recovery from addiction or know someone in recovery, we know the devastation of addiction and the impact on those that love them. We need to be advocates and speak up to our health care providers. They need to know if we have an addiction history but they also need to tell us about the potential risks associated with using pain medications.

People assume that if a physician prescribes it, it's safe. That is not the case. We see many "accidental" addicts at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. People go in for a surgical procedure, are prescribed an opioid for pain, and become addicted. We see seniors who go in for a hip replacement, and we see it in the college athlete with a sports-related injury: people who never thought addiction could happen to them.

Addiction doesn't discriminate based on your age, race, income or any other factors. There is no shame in seeking addiction treatment. Addiction is a chronic disease, just as diabetes and heart disease are. There is no cure, but you can achieve healthy, lifelong recovery.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, call us for help today. It's time to get your life back.


Michelle Moracco has worked in the field of behavioral health for more than 20 years and currently works as a marketing director for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

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