By People Staff
November 19, 1979 12:00 PM

David Crews’ problem began with physical pain, but in the end it was psychological torment that almost killed him. One day last March, after seven years of using the prescription painkiller Percodan, the Richmond, Calif. printing press operator came home and jammed a gun barrel to his head. “I was angry all the time and didn’t want to be bothered,” says Crews, 38. “I had completely shut out my family. I would come home, just watch TV and let them go their own way.” As he wrapped his finger around the trigger, Crews began to think of his two young children—and the thought led him to put down the Colt .45 and next day seek counseling. “When I came that close, I knew I needed help,” Crews says. “I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t functioning. I really thought I was going crazy.” Instead, as he discovered after an intensive program of detoxification and family therapy, David Crews was the victim of a relatively new and insidious form of drug dependency—Percodan addiction.

Typically, David Crews found himself hooked on Percodan after his doctor prescribed it for relief of pain—in his case caused by an on-the-job back injury. Although Percodan is an opiate similar to morphine and alters a user’s mood while it kills pain, many patients—and even doctors—do not treat it as a narcotic. As a result, patients who take the yellow tablets six to eight times a day for as little as three weeks can find themselves unwittingly addicted.

At first the feeling is not unpleasant. “Percodan is the drug of the upper-middle class, the drug used by nice people, professional people. I call them chemical gourmets,” says Dr. Joseph Pursch, the head of the Navy’s Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Service in Long Beach, Calif., who treated Betty Ford. “The drug takes care of feelings of guilt, anxiety or remorse, along with easing the pain. When the patient stops using the drug, the pains of the psyche return—and that makes him or her go back to the drug.” Many famous victims have been trapped in that vicious cycle. Elvis Presley was a longtime Percodan user; so was the Rev. Jim Jones. Like David Crews, comedian Jerry Lewis reached the verge of suicide after a 13-year addiction that began with treatment for a chipped spinal column.

Ironically, many doctors are themselves addicts. “They take Percodan to reduce pain so they can achieve more,” says Dr. James Cavanaugh of Rusk Medical College in Chicago. “They live a pressurized kind of existence and see pain as impeding their ability to perform.” Among an even more highly pressured group—Hollywood stunt men—the drug is almost epidemic. “When I was doing stunts,” recalls director Hal (Hooper) Needham, “it was the only thing that would kill the pain of a broken rib and let you finish the job you had to do. I could take two Percodans and walk on nails.” In Hooper Burt Reynolds played an aging, scarred stunt man who bucked up his courage with Percodan before dangerous routines.

But the typical Percodan addict is neither daredevil nor doctor—she’s a middle-class, middle-aged woman. Rieck Bennett Hannifin, 54, a retired Latin American expert at the Library of Congress, has suffered from metastasized cancer for 19 years; she began taking Percodan after a 1973 operation. “I found it was not only a painkiller, it was a day stretcher for me,” Hannifin says. “I could sit up and play bridge with 29 stitches in my back for seven hours straight. Except first it was one a day, then two or three, and then it was five a day and I was taking one every four hours.” Getting the drug was no problem: “I’d go to my doctor and—boom—he’d give me 100 Percodans.”

As Hannifin quickly discovered, Percodan can transform an addict’s personality. “I would be suicidal after being euphoric,” she remembers. “A sweet, loving, beloved aunt turned into a banshee. I pinched my beloved dog in anger. The downers are incredible. You’re Jekyll and Hyde.” Often the results are less dramatic—but just as debilitating. “Percodan produces a drowsy euphoria,” says Dr. David Fram, director of the Drug Abuse Rehabilitation Center at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington. “The addict is likely to be asleep or half asleep, feeling very good, not very interested in people, not really motivated to do anything, just enjoying himself.” One user, a writer for Saturday Night Live, puts it this way: “I don’t like being on it because it diminishes your intelligence. If you take too many it will turn you into a handbag.” New York publicist Bobby Zarem took four Percodans a day for three years for migraines before quitting cold turkey last spring. “It is terrific for sex and it makes you feel secure,” he says, but warns: “Coming off was very hard—I’d call the office and if something was wrong I’d act like a madman.”

Percodan—a product of Endo Inc., a Du Pont subsidiary—has been available since the 1950s (and was thought at first to be nonaddictive). Its therapeutic value is beyond question. Since it is taken orally, the drug can be prescribed more conveniently than injected narcotics like morphine. “But remember,” says Dr. Peter Mansky, an Albany, N.Y. authority on opiates, “if a drug can be self-administered, it can also be self-abused.”

In 1964, responding to increased Percodan abuse, the federal government ruled that it could be dispensed only by written prescription, so that physicians could no longer order the drug over the phone for their patients. But Percodan—along with other synthetic narcotics like Dilaudid and Demerol—is still readily available to people whose doctors are sympathetic to their complaints of pain. “I’ve gotten a prescription for 30 Percodans and then renewed the prescription within a week,” says Joe Hamilton Jr., 27, Carol Burnett’s stepson. A former user, cured five months ago, he is now public information officer for the Palmer Drug Abuse Program in Houston, where Burnett’s daughter Carrie was also treated. “I knew a guy who used to get a pharmaceutical bottle of 1,000 Percodans, and he’d be so strung out he wouldn’t part with even one pill.” Atlanta addiction specialist Dr. G. Douglas Talbott explains, “Physicians were not taught about addiction in medical school until recently.”

They were also taught little about treating people with drug habits. When Hannifin checked into a Washington psychiatric hospital to detoxify she found it had no special ward for addicts. “I was forced into groups with psychotics, with crazy, hallucinating patients,” she says. “I was scared stiff.” After six days Hannifin checked herself out and a psychiatrist helped her kick the habit; she now takes two tablets of Tylox, a much weaker narcotic, every day for her chronic pain.

Once addicted, the Percodan user will suffer withdrawal pains if he quits. “I had the sweats, was very shaky and very weak,” says Crews. “Everything was fuzzy for the first 10 days.” Having stopped by himself four days before he arrived at the detoxification clinic at Gladman Memorial Hospital in Oakland, Crews was an unusual patient. Most are weaned off the drug with decreasing doses of methadone. “I just decided I wasn’t going to put anything in my mouth again,” vowed Crews, who has been drug-free for eight months. The sentiment is one all ex-Percodan addicts share. As Rieck Hannifin advises people who ask her about the drug: “Don’t take it. It’s a loaded pistol in your head.”