October 17, 2019

Watertown woman speaks about her opioid addiction - Daily Leader Extra : Top Stories

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Watertown woman speaks about her opioid addiction

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Posted: Friday, October 11, 2019 2:36 pm

When Melanie Weiss describes her efforts to gain an education to work as an eye doctor and build her optometry practice, she speaks about how her force of will allowed her to obtain her medical degree and not only own her health-care practice but expand it.

However, the same perseverance didn't keep her from growing addicted to prescription painkillers and getting arrested.

Weiss, who continues to practice optometry in Watertown, spoke to hundreds of teenagers on Wednesday morning in the Madison High School gym. She currently spends part of her time traveling across the state and speaking about her addiction at public gatherings held for younger and older South Dakotans.

As a high school student, Weiss had decided she wanted a career as an optometrist. However, when she told her career counselors about that goal, they tried to steer toward another field due to her lack of achievement as a student. During high school, Weiss participated in athletics, such as track and field, gymnastics, and softball, and was a cheerleader.

After her high school graduation, Weiss enrolled at Northern State University and immersed herself in studies with the goal of becoming an eye doctor. She graduated from NSU, entered an optometry school, and earned her degree. Weiss settled in Watertown and built an optometry business. She believed that if she set a goal, she would accomplish it.

"If I set my mind to something, I was going to accomplish this," Weiss said.

During the succeeding years, Weiss and her husband raised three daughters, she expended her business, she gained a reputation in "...a community that respected me."

Weiss said the road to her pain-medication addiction started after she had an operation for an emergency appendectomy and two more operations between 2007 and 2010. Her physicians prescribed opioid painkillers to help her recovery. According to Weiss, she knew how the opioid medication could affect her brain, but Weiss thought she would know when to stop taking the pills.

"I would know if I was taking them too much," she said.

At a certain point early in her addiction, her doctors would no longer prescribe any more refills for pain medication. Weiss started stealing by taking her mother's prescription pills. Weiss cleaned out her parents' medicine cabinet, then her sister's, brother's and grandparents' stores of painkillers.

When those painkillers ran out, Weiss talked family members, employees and neighbors into having prescriptions filled and turning the pills over to her. Weiss said she never approached the same relative twice, and everyone who she asked to fill a prescription did so.

Weiss' deceptions worked until 2012 when her brother-in-law turned her in to the Watertown police. She was interviewed by the police and later by officials with the South Dakota Board of Examiners in Optometry. The state board decided to place Weiss on 12 months of probation and random drug testing. The Drug Enforcement Agency also questioned Weiss and took away her DEA license to write prescriptions.

During her probation, Weiss continued to abuse painkillers and made it through the year of monitoring through some luck, excuses and lies. While speaking to the Madison students, Weiss said she could not quit abusing the pain pills, but she told herself, "I'll quit when I feel I need to quit."

After her probation was over, Weiss used every medical professional that she knew to write pain medication prescriptions for her, saying she had back pains or migraine headaches. Weiss kept using other doctors until South Dakota adopted a prescription-drug monitoring program that recorded which persons received certain types of drugs.

She knew the state optometry board would eventually find out she was abusing painkillers. When they did learn that Weiss was an addict, she also knew that would take away her medical license. Weiss did not want to lose her profession.

"I absolutely loved what I did," she said.

According to Weiss, she tried kicking the drug addiction with exercise, vitamins, alternative medicine and other methods. She wasn't able to quit despite raising three teenage daughters, and Weiss didn't ask for help from others.

Weiss couldn't quit drugs and she couldn't write prescriptions, so she started going into neighbors', friends' and other peoples' homes to steal their pain pills. She would steal pills from her daughters' friends and would break into homes when she knew the residents were at church or athletic events.

While she was feeding her addiction, Weiss believed regarding the pain medications that "...these are the best things in the world." She said getting arrested "...was never even a thought in my mind."

In September 2016, she had a 15-minute break between patients so she broke into a person's house and stole their pain medication. When Weiss came out of the house, the police were waiting to arrest her. Weiss said her arrest almost immediately appeared on social media and statewide TV news broadcasts.

In the school gym, Weiss showed the Madison students a video recording of a news report announcing her arrest. After her arrest and before her sentencing, Weiss completed three months of treatment. She was later found guilty of burglary and two counts of criminal trespass, and part of her sentence included incarceration.

After her arrest, Weiss' husband stayed with her and sought help for her. She was estranged from her oldest daughter due to the publicity but people in the community helped her and her family.

The state optometry board suspended her license to practice for 18 months, but the suspension ended in January 2019. Weiss also needs to complete a five-year monitoring term sponsored by the Health Professionals Assistance Program and pass all drug screenings. She also needs to complete all recommended therapy.

As part of her recovery, Weiss continues to attend addiction meetings several times each week. She also participates in counseling twice each month.

Weiss said one of her greatest errors was thinking that she could control her addiction.

"The people who told on me saved my life," Weiss said.

She told the students that her friends and neighbors have helped her recovery. Weiss advised the teenagers to "...reach out and ask for help -- be there for other people."

Weiss added that forgiveness can heal many mistakes and offer second chances.

"The past does not define who you are or what you will be," Weiss said.

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