Dose of Reality: America’s opioid epidemic hits Houston

HOUSTON - Now he can smile, but Eric Zimmerman was once on death's doorstep due to opioid abuse.

"Last time I overdosed, I was out for so long they expected me to be brain dead," Zimmerman said while in recovery at the Cenikor Foundation's treatment center in Deer Park.

The 29-year-old from the Greenspoint area is a recovering opioid addict.  Eight years ago while attending Texas State, his problem caught fire.

"I was grilling, and a fire shot up when I was lighting the lighter fluid. I got first and second degree burns over 11 percent of my body," Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman says a doctor prescribed him Percocet, a pain reliever containing Oxycodone.

"I was prescribed a lot more than I needed," Zimmerman recalled. "Within a week I didn't need them anymore, but I was given a month's supply. I liked how they made me feel so, I kept taking them.  I didn't know how serious the addiction possibility was, especially physically."

When he stopped taking the pills, Zimmerman went through physical withdrawals, having body aches and severe nausea among other things.

To feel better, he bought opioid pills from friends and people he knew.

"From there, I was taking a lot of Percocets, Oxycodone and Vicodin. After probably about six months, I learned how much cheaper heroin was. From there, my addiction escalated very quickly."

Related: [Dose of Reality: Mapping the lost loved ones of the opioid epidemic]

In 2017, more heroin has been seen in Houston, according to James Miller of the Houston Forensic Science Center.

Another dangerous element is users who buy on the street may be thinking they're receiving pharmaceutical products, but they could contain heroin and fentanyl.  These powerful drugs are being pressed into pill form, giving the illusion that the drugs are legitimate pharmaceuticals.

"Maybe they contain heroin, maybe they contain fentanyl, the amount of those ingredients in there make it very dangerous for someone to use, because you don't know if it's an amount that can cause an overdose," Miller said.

When it comes to actually prescribing prescription drugs, Dr. Marc Fleming of the University of Houston School of Pharmacy says doctors, pharmacists and patients all have a role to play.

"We have to find a good balance of stemming the epidemic, but also being sure we're taking care of patients when they have pain," Fleming said.

One way of finding that balance could be prescribing "abuse deterrent" opioid formulations.

"They make the drugs change in composition if someone tries to snort them or melt them down," Fleming said. "When they melt it, it becomes more gelatin like, so if they try to pull up through a syringe, they're unable to do that."

As far as helping people in recovery, Texas is receiving $27 million in federal funding, targeted at treatment programs.

For Eric Zimmerman, he never thought he'd need to be rehabilitated, because he never thought he could ever be an addict.

"I had a good life, I was in college, the last thing I expected was to be someone that was addicted to drugs, living on the streets," Zimmerman said.

With the help of Cenikor Foundation, he's 16 months sober.

"I feel like I have hope in life," Zimmerman said. "I don't have a constant urge to go get high. I feel like I'm the person I was before I started using."

For information on Cenikor Foundation, click here.

For a list of treatment centers in the Houston area, click here.