Wendy Liberman Davis didn't look the part. She had a great job. A loving husband. A happy life. But like an estimated 7.4 million women nationwide, she abused prescription medicine. Here is the startling true story of how she lost everything and began a long journey to get clean.

Wendy Liberman Davis
Credit: Dan Winters

I was 17 when I took my first Vicodin. My doctor gave me the prescription for a bottle of 20 pills after removing a painful cyst from my knee. He never mentioned that I could get hooked on Vicodin, an opioid analgesic; he just said to take one every four to six hours. The first pill made me slightly nauseated, but it also dulled the throbbing sensation in my knee. I took another one as instructed. This time a warm, tingly feeling swept through my body. My physical pain disappeared, along with my teenage angst. I felt giddy and light, as if I were floating. That lasted only a few blissful hours—until I took another pill. I was sad when the bottle was empty.

It’s no surprise that I was looking for an escape. My parents split up when I was very young, and at various points I lived with my mother in Atlanta or with my father and stepmom in California. I was often depressed, and by my teen years I was doing poorly in my classes and hanging out with a rough crowd. Concerned, my father sent me to a therapist, but to little avail. I got kicked out of two schools and landed in boarding school in 11th grade. There teachers noticed that I struggled with reading, and I was diagnosed with dyslexia. My parents were relieved to have an explanation for my behavior. I was, too. I got serious about academics and worked with a tutor, who helped me catch up. I graduated with a GPA of 3.8.

I dreamed of being a chef, so after high school, in 1989, I attended culinary school in South Carolina. Like many other students, I drank occasionally—nothing serious. I worried mostly about my weight (though at five feet five and 130 pounds, I wasn’t heavy). When I heard about an appetite suppressant called Fen-Phen, I told my doctor that I wanted it for weight loss, and he handed me a prescription. Easy. The pills made me less hungry and gave me energy. I loved them.

I continued taking Fen-Phen well after I landed my first job, as an assistant manager at an Atlanta restaurant. It helped me get through my long, busy days, but soon that wasn’t enough. I had started stressing out over work and having terrible headaches as a result. When I mentioned this to a friend who was a physician’s assistant, he prescribed me a muscle relaxant called carisoprodol, which seemed to take the pain and the worry away. I downed that with my Fen-Phen daily and loved the way the combination made me feel—energized yet numb. But I kept the pills a secret. By then I had started dating Peter*, a former coworker, who had no idea that I was taking them. I hid them in my purse and in a cabinet under my bathroom sink.

* Some names have been changed.

The pills usually put me in an excellent mood, but now and then they had the opposite effect. At moments I would be so irritable that I would pick fights with Peter. Other times I would lose my inhibitions entirely. That’s the only explanation I have for why, one night after Peter and I had been living together for about a year, I told the truth. “I think I have a pill problem,” I announced. Peter looked at me, utterly confused, and said, “OK.” And that was it. Peter comes from a family of people who don’t talk about their problems. So we never spoke of it again—and I continued to take pills, even though deep down I knew it was wrong.

In retrospect, I wonder if the drugs are the reason that I didn’t want to have kids. Peter didn’t, either. And when he told me so early in our relationship, I was relieved. If we had wanted to get pregnant, I would have had to give up my pills.

Shortly after that conversation in 1998, we got married. I was more nervous than excited; I don’t like to be in the spotlight. I managed to get my hands on some Xanax and took one to calm my nerves. It worked. I put on a silk-organza dress, carried a bouquet of roses, and glided through the day.

The next few years were a blur of moves, new jobs for both me and Peter, and, yes, pills. Because it was linked to heart-valve complications, Fen-Phen was taken off the market by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1997. But in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I was able to find a “diet doctor” to give me an amphetamine that suppressed appetite, with no questions asked. Even after we moved four hours away, I would sometimes drive back to see that doctor to get refills. (I told Peter I was visiting friends.) And things were about to get worse.

In 2001, when I was 29, I had surgery to fix two ruptured disks in my spine. (I still don’t know what caused the injury.) After the operation, the surgeon handed me a prescription for Vicodin. Minutes after taking the first pill, I forgot about the four-inch incision in my neck and my newly fused vertebrae. Again there was the lighter-than-air feeling that I had experienced at 17. Soon I was taking one pill every two hours instead of every four to six hours as prescribed. I wanted to keep floating.

Once I started on Vicodin this time, I couldn’t stop. And the neck surgery gave me the perfect excuse. From that point on, I would march into a doctor’s office and say, “I had neck surgery and am in terrible pain.” I never asked for Vicodin by name; I would wait for the doctor to suggest it, then say, in a worried voice, “I don’t want to get addicted to pills!” Invariably, he would assure me that I would be fine and that this medication would make me feel better.

Both Peter and my parents, whom I was close with and spoke to regularly on the phone, knew that I was on medication following my surgery, but we never talked about what pills I was taking. They were just happy that I had found some relief. The possibility of addiction never entered their minds.

Of course, as I kept taking Vicodin over the next few months, it became less effective. I began to doctor-shop in earnest, looking for anyone who would give me more pills. I would visit 24/7 urgent-care clinics on the weekends and say I had run out or was going on a trip—and walk out with a prescription. Insurance wouldn’t cover all this, and I didn’t want Peter to see any evidence on our credit-card bills, so I often paid in cash for doctors’ appointments and pharmacy refills.

When Peter and I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2003 for his job, I was relieved. A new place meant new doctors. I found a great position as an office manager for an upscale restaurant, where I met my best friend, Mary. She and I started biking and running together. Mary, a believer in healthy living, would never have guessed that I was consuming Vicodin first thing in the morning and every few hours throughout the day, whenever my energy flagged. Nor did she know that I was taking Adderall—a stimulant often prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—a few times a week. Because it can boost energy, Adderall was popular with some restaurant staffers who worked grueling hours. A colleague had offered it to me one day, and since I had stopped taking the appetite suppressant and the muscle relaxant, I was open to trying something new. After one pill, I felt more focused than ever before. I cleaned my entire house in 45 minutes. And it was easy to get more. All I would do was say, “I’m so beat!” to coworkers until someone offered one.

Around this time, I also found a new doctor—a pain specialist—who discovered that three more vertebrae had collapsed in my neck and recommended surgery. I was excited: a steady stream of pills! After this surgery, I was given Oxycontin, an opioid that functions similarly to heroin. The first pill made me so high, I thought I might float off to space and never come back. Everything in my life felt easy and delightful—so much so that when my pain doctor forced me to stop two months later, I freaked out.

I was then taking about eight other pills a day: seven Vicodin and an Adderall. But when I stopped taking Oxycontin, my withdrawal was so intense that I became completely consumed with finding more pills. That’s when I was finally busted.

I was at an appointment with a doctor I had seen frequently, complaining (as usual) about having bad headaches. He opened a folder and said, “That’s interesting, because six days ago you were at this doctor’s office and you got one prescription. And four days ago you were at this doctor’s office and got another one.” Panicked, I said someone must have stolen my insurance card. He was unimpressed. Sternly, he said, “I’m never giving you another painkiller.” I was devastated—not because my illegal behavior had been discovered, but because my pill supply had been cut off.

I was totally obsessive; my head was spinning. I didn’t think about anyone or anything else. I was just angry. In my mind, I blamed everyone else for my troubles. That’s when I started stealing drugs. Every time I visited a friend or a neighbor, I would ask to use the bathroom. Often I would find Vicodin, Xanax, Adderall, or Ambien. By this point, I wasn’t picky. I would slip a few pills from each bottle into my pocket. No one suspected me. I did not look like a drug addict; I had just been promoted to manager of the catering division at work. I wore high heels and silk shirts. I was responsible and efficient. People trusted me, and I stole from them. Years later I met a woman, an addict, who told me that she would go on Facebook to see who had had surgery recently and visit them in order to pocket some of their pills. Another user told me that she went to open houses every weekend so that she could raid the medicine cabinets. I had never thought of that. If I had, I would have done it.

My desire to secure more pills overwhelmed everything in my life, including my marriage. On August 22, 2006, the evening of our eighth wedding anniversary, I told Peter I was leaving him. I was so mean and irrational. Out of the blue, I said, “I don’t want anything to do with you anymore.” He was upset and said, “But I love you. And I stood by you through all your medical troubles.” His words didn’t penetrate. I was too miserable and desperate.

After Peter and I separated, I spiraled downward even faster. Within a two-year span, I moved to Denver, Costa Rica (where my father and stepmother help run a language-immersion school), and Tucson. In each place, I connived to get pills. In Denver I convinced a doctor that I had ADHD so she would give me Adderall. I had researched ADHD symptoms before the appointment, so when she asked me diagnostic questions, I knew what to say. And when she heard my surgical history, she was happy to give me Vicodin, too. I was a great actress.

I even hoodwinked my father and got his California-based physician to write me large prescriptions for Vicodin and Adderall to take to Costa Rica. Dad just thought he was helping.

In August 2008, I landed a job in Tucson. I stayed with Bill, an old friend, and his wife, Anne, until I found my own condo. And, again, I found a pain-management doctor. This one, to my delight, gave me not just Adderall and Vicodin but also Oxycontin.

No one knew. I went to yoga classes and hiked on the weekends. When Mary came to visit, we ran a half-marathon together; I snuck my pills during the run. Meanwhile, Anne and I became close friends. When she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, I was deeply saddened. But I still went into her bathroom and took her pain medications, replacing them with Extra Strength Tylenol. That was my lowest moment.

In those days, I would take a handful of Vicodin, Oxycontin, and Adderall every morning, then wait an hour for that slow, warm, tingling feeling to take hold. It didn’t last long, which made me irritable. I blew up at work twice—so badly that my manager asked me if everything was OK at home. It wasn’t, of course. I couldn’t fall asleep until 3 A.M., and then I would start sweating so much that I would have to get up and change my sheets.

In October 2009, to celebrate my 40th birthday, I visited Austin, Texas, with Mary and Charlie, an old boyfriend. When Charlie hugged me hello, he said with concern, “You’re burning up.” I insisted I was fine. That night I awoke drenched in sweat and thought I had overdosed. In a frenzy, I went to wake up Charlie and said the same thing I had said to Peter more than 10 years earlier: “I think I have a pill problem.” His eyes practically popped out of his head when I told him what I was taking: three Adderall, four Oxycontin, and 12 Vicodin every day. He made me promise that I would get help.

I kept my word. As soon as I got home to Tucson, I e-mailed my parents: “I’m a drug addict. I need help.” Then I told Bill that I had a problem. Later I confessed to Anne. I could barely look at her when I admitted I had stolen her pills. Amazingly, she wasn’t angry. She was just shocked. She kept saying, “I had no idea.” Mary felt terrible that she hadn’t seen the signs. She knew I had mood swings, but she blamed my divorce. She asked, “How could I not have known?” Of course, no one did—it was my biggest, darkest secret.

My dad and stepmom arranged to have me admitted to the Pacific Hills Treatment Centers, in Southern California. Over the phone, a counselor told me to stop taking the pills when I boarded the plane in Tucson, but I couldn’t. During my layover, I swallowed 10 in the bathroom. When I arrived at the detox center that night, I turned in all my pills. There were about 200. Even the intake nurse was stunned. “You should be dead,” she said.

People with pill addictions usually stay in detox for about seven days, but I was there for 12. Withdrawal symptoms often start within eight hours; mine happened in three. I was clammy, nauseated, shaky, and sweaty. The first few days, I mostly lay in bed; my whole body ached. There were 10 other women in detox. Some had been through it before and said, “You’ll be fine.” Others, in denial, said, “Why would you want to stop taking pills? You’re crazy!”

Then I was transferred to a regular in-patient treatment facility, where I threw up frequently for two weeks. When drugs leave your system, they call it “kicking.” It physically hurts. In treatment, I also went to group meetings. They weren’t only for prescription-pill addicts; they were for alcoholics and hard-drug addicts, too. That confused me. I still didn’t understand that my pill-popping was just as bad.

Six weeks later, I moved to a transitional house for a month and later to a sober-living house, where I started looking for what’s called a “get well” job—a low-stress position that you take while you adjust to the real world. For a few months, I worked as a grocery-store bagger. Then I heard that the rehab facility needed an intake counselor at Recovery Options, its corporate office, and I applied for and got the position. I moved into my own apartment. Those first months alone were hard—I would get depressed, raid the refrigerator when I couldn’t sleep, and spend days cooped up in my room and not call anyone. I missed my drugs, literally salivating when I thought of them. Bad habits are hard to break: To this day, if someone makes me angry, I will rip through my bag looking for pills, even though I know none are there.

Until the point I entered rehab, I didn’t think I was a real drug addict. But now I regularly attend a support group for recovered addicts. I’m so fearful of resuming my addiction that I won’t put anything mind-altering into my body. I was sick recently and went to a doctor who wanted to give me cough medicine with codeine. I said, “I can’t—I’m a drug addict.” It was actually a relief to say that.

Temptation is everywhere, though. Recently, after moving in with my new boyfriend, I found an old bottle of Vicodin in the bathroom. He hadn’t even realized the pills were there. He threw them out and doesn’t keep narcotics in the house anymore.

I talk to about 35 people a day—more than half call about prescription-drug abuse. And you hear from every kind of person: stay-at-home moms, high-paid executives, homeless veterans. Many of them don’t understand how a pill prescribed by a physician can be lethal. People who call in say, “But my doctor gave it to me!” And I say, “My doctor gave it to me, too.”

According to some research, 40 to 60 percent of drug addicts are able to get clean. I need to be one of those successes, for the people who love me. When I was in treatment, I called my dad and said, “How am I ever going to repay you?” My treatment was not covered by insurance, so he paid for it. He said, “Wendy, if you needed a hip replacement and didn’t have insurance, I’d pay for that. This is no different.” His support, plus that of my mom and stepmother, gave me the strength to stay the course. I still think about pills every day. But I also think about the people who would be hurt if I turned back to pills. I won’t do it to them, or to myself.

Getting Help for Prescription-Drug Abuse

Wendy’s story is becoming increasingly commonplace. Millions of American women reported using prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes in 2010, according to a 2011 study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. What’s worse: “Negative consequences of this abuse, such as overdoses and deaths, appear to have been on the rise in the past year or two,” says Ruben Baler, Ph.D., a health scientist for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. How do you detect if your loved one has a problem? Since prescription drugs can vary widely in their purposes and side effects, there are no clear-cut signs that prove addiction. Someone who is constantly sleepy or who appears intoxicated could be under the influence of a depressant, such as Valium or Xanax, while hyperactivity could be a sign of dependency on a stimulant, like Ritalin or Adderall. If you think you or someone you know may have a problem, go to DrugAbuse.gov for more information.