When Sean Higgins became a pharmacist in 1994, opioids were reserved for patients recovering from surgery or broken bones, or those with terminal cancer. By the time the drugs were being recklessly prescribed for back aches and vague symptoms, he was already one of the victims.
Nearly 10 years into his career, Higgins was given Vicodin after a surgery. It helped with the pain immediately, and he didn’t need to finish the prescription. When he went on a fishing trip with buddies, “I threw the bottle in the tackle box,” he said. “I woke up one day with a terrible hangover, so I took some of the Vicodin. I thought, ‘Whoa, that felt good.’ ”
Higgins soon found that he could tweak the books at the pharmacy and steal a couple of pills now and then. At first, it was maybe once a week. The habit grew to several times a week and then several times a day.
“I basically wasn’t even eating any more,” Higgins said. “It got pretty ugly. I got to the point where I had to use to feel normal, so I could get up and get out of bed and go to work. I certainly wasn’t going to do anything about it. I knew I would lose my job.”
Higgins was married with two children. He was also trying to buy the pharmacy where he worked. He was juggling work and family while becoming addicted to drugs. Some might see him as an atypical example of America’s opioid crisis, a successful and admired professional, but Higgins will tell you his story is very common.
“It just goes to show people that addiction hits everyone,” Higgins said. “Doctors, lawyers, police officers, there’s not a profession out there that has not been touched. I just started seeing opiates prescribed for everything under the sun.”
Higgins was finally exposed when he ran out of drugs and went into withdrawal. He woke up violently sick, and tried to tell his wife he had the flu.
“She wasn’t buying it anymore,” he said.
He checked himself into the hospital, then called his boss. As he expected, he lost his job.
Heavy use of drugs permanently damaged his hearing. After getting a hearing aid, Higgins got a job with the hearing aid company and did fine for several years. His wife eventually took a job in north central Minnesota, and Higgins thought he would give his chosen career another shot, and he became a pharmacist at a regional hospital.
“It wasn’t a huge passion, but it fit my science and math background and I knew that being a pharmacist, I would never struggle to pay the bills,” Higgins said. “I thought that if I didn’t try it again I would always wonder if I could have done it.”
The job went well, until it didn’t.
Higgins began stealing drugs again and it quickly spiraled out of control.
“Honestly, how I’m still alive, I have no idea,” he said. “I was given a second chance, and of course I blew it.”
Higgins went to inpatient treatment at Hazelden Betty Ford treatment center. While at Hazelden, Higgins learned of their graduate program in addiction studies. He graduated in April and became licensed over the summer. Higgins now counsels adolescents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol in Baxter, Minn.
Higgins, 48, became a pharmacist largely because of the job security. Sadly, with the upsurge in drug dependency, substance abuse counseling jobs are projected to grow 22 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than most occupations, according to Hazelden. Insurers are more likely to cover addiction than previously, and the criminal justice system has recognized that treatment is preferable to and cheaper than incarceration.
“I like working with adolescents a lot because they aren’t set in their behavioral problems yet,” Higgins said. “I always try to tell them that if treatment doesn’t work the first time, don’t be afraid to come back and ask for help, because you can recover. I should know.”