Kyle Stark has “4-19-16” tattooed across his left hand – the date marks an important milestone in the Chandler man’s life.
It was the last day he considered himself a drug addict.
The following day, April 20, his family staged an intervention and confronted Stark about his addiction to prescription painkillers.
By this point in his life, Stark was medicating himself with at least 12 pills a day. He lost his job, was burning through his bank account and started buying drugs off the street.
Stark spent more than a decade trying to keep his addiction a secret; secretly hoping none of his friends or coworkers would find out he could no longer go more than a few hours without popping some OxyContin.
Something changed in Stark when his family intervened that fateful spring day in 2016: He realized how his addiction severely anguished his children.
“We were not in a good place,” Stark recalled. “It was all because of me.”
He decided right there, it was time to stop taking pills.
His body and mind endured weeks of miserable agony as he experienced withdrawals, but he stuck to his promise.
More than three years later, Stark is sober and on a mission to keep others from falling under the spell of opioids.
“There’s a pure anger in my soul with these things: Now I know what they are and what they do,” Stark said. “They almost ruined me.”
Stark is one of the estimated 10 million Americans who annually misuse prescription opioids. More than 47,000 people in the U.S. died in 2017, from opioid-related overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Public health officials described the situation as a rampant epidemic plaguing communities across the country.
Pharmaceutical companies have to reckon with their culpability in creating the crisis, as states and cities take them to court and accuse them of putting profits over patients.
Stark feels like he was duped into believing the pills he was prescribed were safe to take. Doctors never warned him how addictive they are, he said.
It was not until his own research, years later, did Stark understand just how sinister and orchestrated the whole epidemic seemed to be.
“When you start diving into it, you just realize how evil this whole thing is from top to bottom,” Stark said. “I kind of just want to shed a light on what’s a really dark area.”
Once upon a time, Stark was a healthy young man who never saw himself as someone who would abuse drugs.
He was raised in Tucson by parents who instilled in him a fear of destructive substances. This strategy seemed to work, as Stark was quick to distance himself from other people his own age who were experimenting with drugs.
But by his early 20s, Stark began sustaining a number of critical injuries. He was into lifting weights and martial arts – two sports did some damage to his muscles.
A doctor gave him a prescription for 5-milligram tablets of Oxycontin. Stark took the pills when he was in pain and they made him feel better.
It didn’t start to become a problem until his dosage started to increase; the higher the milligrams, the higher the drug’s potency.
It became a slippery slope, Stark said, where he’d find ways to justify to himself his need to take more pills.
“It’s a sick little game you play with yourself,” he said.
When he went to a doctor to get a 30-milligram prescription, Stark said the physician suspiciously only accepted payment in cash and questioned whether he was an undercover narcotics agent.
“There were so many warning signs back then but at the time I was chasing it,” Stark said.
Stark developed a routine he thought was fooling people around him. He would take three pills in the morning, three at lunch, three more after work and three to get through the night.
Stark said he was a “high-functioning addict;” capable of managing his job and family while simultaneously hooked on opioids.
Then Stark began figuring out how to be more deceptive. He even lied to his wife about where the money was going, after she caught him withdrawing large amounts of cash - to buy more pills.
He felt so much shame and embarrassment attached to his addiction. Stark said he felt like the world’s biggest loser.
By early 2016, his addiction was becoming more noticeable and Stark began experimenting with other kinds of pills. His supply quickly become a 50-50 split, he said, with half coming from doctors and the other half from dealers.
It was getting tougher to find people selling pills, he recalled, because more public attention was steered to the increasing prevalence of the opioid epidemic.
That was a particularly deadly year for opioid-related deaths, according to federal data, with more than 42,000 Americans overdosing on the narcotic in 2016. By comparison, 1999 saw fewer than 10,000 opioid deaths.
Opioid consumption ballooned throughout the 2000s, as annual prescriptions for OxyContin escalated from 670,000 to 6.2 million.
Purdue Pharma ramped up its marketing of OxyContin in the 1990s, convincing doctors it was safe and effective to prescribe the addictive drug. The company recently sought bankruptcy protections as it shells out billions to settle lawsuits for contributing to the opioid epidemic.
Stark said he’s thankful he was able to stop taking pills when he did. There were several times when he could have overdosed or advanced to more dangerous drugs, he said.
He’s now focused on being an advocate for other addicts and helping them overcome their illness. Stark feels obligated to share his experiences publicly in order to decrease the stigma still associated with addiction.
There’s been a lot of attention paid to this epidemic, he said, but it’s still a rampant problem needing a cure.
Stark’s confident he won’t ever relapse because he’s more aware of how toxic opioids are. He’s found a healthy regimen that keeps him from craving the narcotics and he’s honest about the mistakes he made in his past – mistakes he hopes not to make again.
“For the first time in my life, I like myself,” Stark said.
More information on Stark and his advocacy work can be found at poweroverpills.com.