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Fentanyl addiction: A future beyond the dark days

Colorado woman in recovery after a decade of fentanyl addiction
Fentanyl addiction: A future beyond the dark days
Posted at 7:30 AM, Mar 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-25 09:30:01-04

LOVELAND, Colo. — On the same day Colorado lawmakers unveiled a bill aiming to address fentanyl distribution in the state, a woman who overcame fentanyl addiction shared her story, hoping to inspire anyone still living in the vicious cycle that is a substance use disorder.

There's no shortage of laughter when spending time with Laura Beth Burkhalter. However, at only 35 years old, she has already lived through more than most lifetimes experience.

“I was addicted to fentanyl for a decade," Burkhalter said. “I was prescribed fentanyl for injuries at a very young age. And once I had used it, I couldn't use anything else because it's so strong."

Burkhalter became an entirely different person during her addiction.

“Soulless, very dark, very lonely. I often describe it as I was a shell of a human being that simply wanted to sit alone in a room. I was the least like myself that I'd ever been," Burkhalter remembered. “At the end, I was injecting fentanyl, wearing the patches, and eating them. Like, it was very heavy.”

In recovery, she found herself again. However, that took time and lots of painful work.

“You can't expect people to trust you overnight. You can't expect to repair a relationship overnight when you didn't damage those relationships overnight. Some conversations were too painful to be had. So, we had to wait. Sometimes it took years. Trust had to be earned, and that's okay," Burkhalter explained.

During the hardest of times, there was one question that rang through her mind.

“What do you have to lose? I was already dying every single day. So, what more is there to lose?”

Jean Thomas is a physician assistant who specializes in addiction psychiatry at Magnolia Medical Group in Denver. Thomas said when drugs are consumed, especially opiates, there is a rush of dopamine to the brain. When that happens repeatedly, the brain begins making more receptors, which are filled by the opiate. Then, when the opiates are not there and the receptors are not full, a person can become ill because the brain is not functioning in the way it has been.

“The longer you're using an opiate, the higher your tolerance for the opiate would be," said Thomas. “Because fentanyl is stronger, it's cheaper, and so, you can pay less and use less to satisfy your opiate need.”

Thomas said most of her patients struggle with a fentanyl addiction. She said the intensity of the addiction is escalated when compared with heroin, and the withdrawals are worse.

“A lot of times, seasoned addicts are overdosing when they normally wouldn't with other substances," Thomas said. "Because fentanyl is unpredictable. It is made in various places. And you don't know how much you're consuming in every single pill that you get, or every single time you use. It's a different combination and strength factor.”

Plus, Thomas said fentanyl overdoses happen much quicker than other opiates.

“Treatment availability to the general population, especially in Denver, is very, very low. The burden to getting into treatment is is huge," said Thomas. "In reading over this legislation, I think it's fairly apparent that the knowledge about the disorder, there's a deficit there in the policymakers. And I think that getting on the frontlines and seeing what the disorder is and who it's affecting is necessary prior to implementing these rules.”

Thomas' solution would be more education on addiction treatment for legislators, by showing them what recovery centers and people fighting addiction urgently need.

It's a need close to Burkhalter's heart, who understands the pain of losing friends and loved ones to addiction.

“I loose so many people on a monthly basis, I can't even tell you. It is so serious," said Burkhalter, with tears in her eyes. “It is absolutely heartbreaking, because it feels like there's nothing I can do. So, I'm doing as much as I possibly can.”

By day, Burkhalter works at Red Rock Recovery Center in Lakewood, and runs a women's sober living home in Loveland in the evening. She will help open another sober living home in June.

“Frequently people ask me, they're like, 'you must work 120 hours a week'" Burkhalter said. "Wouldn't you? If you survived what I had, and you lost all your friends and so many people, wouldn't you do absolutely anything you possibly could? Of course you would.”

Burkhalter said any conversation about a substance use disorder must include a reflection on underlying mental health issues.

“If you just take the substance out of the person and don't address the rest of the situation, the rest of the underlying trauma, the obsession of the mind that's happening with the substance, they go back and relapse. So often, they die instantly, because the substance is so strong," said Burkhalter. “We have to have honest conversations. If these conversations aren't being held at the dinner table casually, with no judgment, we don't stand a chance. We don't. If stigma is not ripped out of the scene, we don't stand a chance.”

Burkhalter has dedicated her life to helping others find sobriety. She said the work is humbling, because she has been there too. At the same time, it is comforting for the person struggling with addiction, because she has gone through it already.

For Burkhalter, it's not work. It's saving lives.