JOHN David Ball lives in excruciating pain every day.
He’s a designer who holds three degrees and used to make a six-figure salary, but these days he can’t go to work because he can’t think through the pain.
Some days, the 60-year-old can’t even walk to the front door.
He depends on powerful painkillers like morphine, and even sometimes fentanyl — a medication more commonly known as the “zombie drug”.
In August this year, news.com.au reported America is in the grips of an opioid epidemic, with thousands of people dying from overdoses across the country.
Arguably, the drug epidemic is a symptom of a health system run as an industry instead of a service, where pharmaceutical companies wield enormous power over regulators, hospitals and medical staff alike.
In fact, Louis Theroux’s new documentary, Heroin Town, reveals one in four adults in the city of Huntington in Virginia is addicted to heroin or some form of opiate.
Almost all of them started the same way: they started with legitimate pain, went to the doctor, got legal prescriptions, and became addicted.
However, legal prescriptions can’t continue indefinitely, and he reported many eventually turn to heroin — which is both cheaper, and more readily available.
The issue has evoked a powerful response from news.com.au readers, with a number of people getting in touch from the United States to explain their perspective.
They insist there’s another side to the story.
People like Mr Ball, for example, just want a normal life.
He has a long list of chronic medical issues, but he told news.com.au it can be extremely difficult to get hold of the right drugs.
“People don’t get that (for) pain patients, the high feeling is normal,” he said. “I can deal with my life, if I get help with the pain.”
Mr Ball has severe back issues, to the point where his ribs ride on his hip bones, and he also had a colostomy for three years.
He said once he went to his local hospital, desperately seeking help, but was turned away because “the doctor said he thought I was just looking for drugs”.
The pain was so bad he succumbed to a coma for five weeks, Mr Ball claimed.
“It’s ironic I was accused of seeking opiates, almost died for the accusation, and now I need the drug I was accused of seeking,” he said sadly.
He spent six years on pain management, taking morphine every day.
“That gave me the ability to be a number one Macintosh sales man and raise two toddlers at the same time,” he told news.com.au.
Eventually, however, his doctor told him enough was enough, and cut his dose.
“I went from a viable, intelligent human being to a man who fights for pain relief. That’s my whole life. I’m in too much pain to do anything. Except exist.”
Connie Bell, from Florida, has had a similar experience.
She was prescribed opiates in 2011 when she found herself unable to get out of bed due to severe pain from her arthritis.
“What I pay for my meds is outrageous and I do everything I need to do be legal. But pharmacies treat me like a second-hand citizen when the country cracks down on prescriptions due to the people in the street that abuse,” she told news.com.au.
“It’s all about the money,” said a woman called Pam, from New Jersey, who chose to withhold her surname.
“There is no help for those of us suffering from debilitating incurable diseases that cause severe pain — we are being abused, degraded, stigmatised, discriminated against and treated like criminals.”
Pam has spent the past decade urgently seeking relief from her myriad conditions.
She describes her symptoms like someone continuously beating her back with a bat, ice picks chipping away at her hips, electric shocks running down her legs, and burning ropes being tied around her ankles to the point where her circulation is cut off.
“Opioids were my last resort and I was given a quality of life,” she said.
However, in April, her doctor cut back her dose and sent her on her way.
“I am existing in a tortuous hell,” she told news.com.au. “We treat animals better.”
Mr Ball said he knows opioids are claiming the lives of hundreds of his fellow Americans, but he thinks the country’s Drug Enforcement Administration has a lot to answer for when it comes to medical patients legitimately battling chronic pain.
“To be frank with you, if a drug abuser dies, too bad,” he said.
“When a person in pain has to live with that pain to save the life of a scum bucket? See where I’m coming from? The good suffer so the bad can live.”
The trouble is that while safe and legitimate options do need to be made available for people with chronic pain, the issue escalates with alarming speed.
According to data from America’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost two million Americans abuse or are dependant on prescription opioids.
Every day, more than 1000 people are treated for misusing these drugs.
Heroin use has more than quadrupled since 2010, and like the people in Louis Theroux’s documentary, nearly three out of four users report abusing prescription opioids prior to using.
Fentanyl — a synthetic drug 1000 times stronger than morphine — is also a worry.
According to the CDC, fentanyl encounters more than doubled across the country between 2014 and 2015, with New England and the Midwest hardest hit.
Most of the deaths involve illegally-made fentanyl being sold as heroin or counterfeit prescription pills.
“The current fentanyl crisis continues to expand in size and scope across the United States,” the CDC warned on its website.
However, there’s clearly no simple way to stem the tide.