A Life -- ‘Spiraled Viciously’

Courtney Lovell lived to tell her story on May 14 during National Women's Health Week
Courtney Lovell lived to tell her story on May 14 during National Women's Health Week.

 

Courtney Lovell was at the end of her rope – a fugitive from the law in four counties – when she pulled her car over on the side of a country road on a bitterly cold night in 2008 and decided to end her life with an overdose of cocaine and heroin.

Just nineteen years old, she defied every stereotype of the TV police drama drug user.

She had been an honor student and three-sport, high school varsity athlete, from a small town in the bucolic lakes region north of New York City. Like nearly all of her classmates, she was white, "privileged" and college-bound.

But that was before her first encounter with the "warm blanket" sensation of pain pills at a party thrown by a friend: "In the span of a year … my life spiraled viciously. I started using opioids every single day."

Her voice at times fragile, Lovell spoke in a May 14 webcast co-hosted by HRSA's Office of Women's Health (OWH) and sister agencies about her near-death experience with opioids, her five months in jail and the 21 days she spent in solitary confinement, detoxing from the drugs.

Federal and state experts concur that while the national opioid epidemic is perhaps the greatest public health crisis since the dawn of HIV/AIDS, it's hardest on women. 

Between 2005 and 2014, the national rate of opioid-related hospitalizations increased faster for women than men, according to findings (PDF - 344 KB) from the Agency for Health Research and Quality (AHRQ). Though the rate for males was higher in 2005, women caught up by 2014 and are now on track to surpass them, said AHRQ's Camille Fabiyi.

From left, OWH Director Sabrina Matoff-Stepp;  Camille Fabiyi, AHRQ Senior Advisor; Folashade Osibanjo, OWH, public health analyst.
From left, OWH Director Sabrina Matoff-Stepp; Camille Fabiyi, AHRQ Senior Advisor; Folashade Osibanjo, OWH, public health analyst.

 

Moreover, for every woman who dies from an overdose of prescription opioids, "30 other women end up in an emergency department for pain killer misuse or abuse," reported Folashade Osibanjo of OWH. "Opioids affect women in different ways than men."

Women face a higher risk of addiction, and some studies suggest that they become dependent more readily than men – perhaps because of physiological differences.

And they are disproportionately affected by trauma and domestic violence; more likely to experience chronic pain; and more apt to be prescribed medications, in higher doses, for longer durations than men, Osibanjo said.

Today, greater numbers of women are likely to start using opioids than men, and while the number of prescription opioid-related deaths remains higher among men, the gap is narrowing, said Suzette Tucker of the Maryland Department of Health. Opioid misuse now far outstrips all other drugs combined as the reason patients seek rehab in her state, more even than crack cocaine.

From 1999 to 2010, she noted, the overdose death rate increased by 400 percent among women, compared to 237 percent among men, according to the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

Lovell movingly recounted her near-cataclysmic relationship with the drugs -- until the morning she woke up in her car on the side of a country road, groggy and stiff with cold after trying to kill herself. She managed to drive to her mother's house that morning, and later turned herself in to police to answer for her multiple arrest warrants.

She is now a certified peer counselor and the founder of WRise, a consulting firm that provides addiction, mental health and recovery services. She's also "a homeowner, a taxpayer and a business owner" who has traveled the world extolling the possibilities of life after opioids.

See: Courtney Lovell talks about recovery and harm reduction.

Read the HHS/Office on Women's Health Final Report: Opioid Use, Misuse, and Overdose in Women (PDF - 1.5 MB).

Date Last Reviewed:  June 2018