According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, there are approximately two million people in this country who are addicted to prescription opioid medications.
I was one of them. For almost 3 years, I was caught in a spiraling hell of my own making when I began self-medicating, and finally, flat-out abusing my OxyContin prescription. Now, I have been clean and sober for about the same amount of time, and I deal with my disease one day at a time… sometimes, one hour at a time. During one long, dark period of my life, I was lower than I ever thought it was possible for me to be. Somehow, against the odds, I was fortunate enough to be given another chance and I am now in recovery. Because I have no desire to add to the many, many embarrassments that I have caused my loved ones, I prefer not to give you my name. But I will give you my story. It’s a tale that I’m sure many of you will find familiar.
Just Like Everyone Else
This was never supposed to happen to me. All my life, I tried to do what was expected of me and what I thought was right. I had a decent job, I showed up every day and worked hard, and I paid for all my bills. I had a good relationship with my family, tried to be there for my kids, and even enjoyed going out for a few drinks every once in a while with my friends. Drugs? Sure, I smoked a little weed in high school, and after graduation, I tried recreational partying a few times, but it never became a problem. I was never an addict. When I got married and started a family of my own, even that stopped. I was now a man, and I put away when I thought were childish things. Except for a few beers during the game, the occasional cocktail with friends, and the very rare special occasions when I might drink a little too much, even alcohol didn’t play that big of a part in my life.
Starting at the Beginning
Most of my life, I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy pretty good health. I was never really too keen on going to the doctor, and instead always relied on my own metabolism. Usually, all it took was a couple of aspirin, and I was good to go in short order. That changed when I started experiencing my first “grown-up” injury. It was my back and looking back, it’s sometimes hard to believe that everything started with a few steadily-worsening aches and pains. When my lower back first started bothering me, I tried every home remedy you can think of – aspirin, over-the-counter medicines, heating pads, ice packs, long soaks in the tub, hot showers, cold showers, support pillows for the drive to and from work, different sleeping positions, and even inserts in my shoes. None of them seemed to do much to alleviate my pain. When the agony got so bad that I could barely walk, I finally went to see a doctor. My vaunted recuperative powers had failed me. Although I didn’t really want to admit it at the time, having to go see a doctor for a worsening pain that just wouldn’t go away actually had a profound effect upon me. When I was diagnosed with a “normal” amount of degeneration that was the cause of it all, I felt far older and more vulnerable than I probably had a right to. Back problems? Isn’t that something that old guys have to deal with? With one stroke of his pen, my doctor effectively told me that my youth was over. I would’ve never admitted that out loud.
He’s the One They Call Doctor Feel-Good
I was glad that he was able to find something that he could do something about. He actually recommended surgery at some point, but who has time for that? When I told him that surgery was going to have to be put off for the foreseeable future, he chuckled, said he understood and said he would prescribe something “to ease my discomfort”. Because I had told him that my pain was pretty bad, he told me that he was giving me the strongest dose of painkiller he could – 15 milligram OxyContin immediate-release pills, to be taken orally every 4 to 6 hours. He did this with no hesitation, no questioning about my background, and no attempt to start me out on a lower dose. I want to say this clearly – I do not blame the doctor who first prescribed me such a powerful drug for my addiction and for everything that followed. I am only pointing out that we went from 0 to 60 – or in this case, 0 to 15 milligrams – in about six seconds flat. There was no attempt to try something else first. My doctor took everything I said at complete face value. Even though at the time, I wasn’t lying, I had learned a lesson even without trying to. That lesson was this – find the right doctor, tell the right story, and you can get what you want.
The Good Stuff
Wow, did my pills do the trick! When my family and friends saw me back to normal and moving around without grimacing, everyone seemed happy for me. I heard all the obligatory jokes from my buddies that my doctor must have given me the “good stuff”, and I must admit that I had to agree. Maybe going to the doctor wasn’t so bad, after all. Because although my pills hadn’t fixed anything, per se, I was back to the old me. I was back to doing almost all of my normal activities, with virtually no level of noticeable pain. I could even sleep again. Boy, could I sleep… I learned pretty early to be extra careful when I took my medication. My doctor had warned me that drowsiness could be a side effect, and he wasn’t kidding at all. It didn’t take very long before I learned to adjust my pill schedule to the point that my pain medicine was also being used as a sleep aid. Had a bad day? Stressed out? Fight with the wife? Mad at the boss? Pop a pill and sleep the sleep of the just – no cares, no worries, just lights out. A few months into my new routine, I absentmindedly drank a few beers without taking into account the OxyContin. That first time, nothing really bad happened…but somehow, I managed to lose an entire evening of my life. Luckily, I was at home, so there were no disasters. The next day, I woke up feeling kind of thickheaded, but otherwise okay. At breakfast, my wife dropped a few not-so-subtle hints that I had been kind of out of it the night before, but we both chalked it up to a one-time adverse reaction… a learning experience, if you will.
It’s Okay… I Have a Prescription
There were only a few problems with that rationalization. First, I liked having a few drinks every once in a while. Having a beer or three was never a huge part of my life before, but I didn’t feel like I wanted to completely give up that social ritual. Although I had no respect for alcoholics – after all, my father had been one – I had always felt that people who didn’t drink at all were kind of weird. So it turns out that my first blackout was definitely not my last. Second, so what if I couldn’t remember everything that happened the night before? It wasn’t like it was going to be a regular occurrence. I was still a young guy, and having a “few to many” is what young guys do once in a while, isn’t it? Third – and I wasn’t aware that this was going to be a problem – I was starting to develop a tolerance for my pain medication. The “every 4 to 6 hours” had definitely turned into “no more than every 4 hours”. Sometimes, if I had been especially active during the day, I actually found myself needing an extra half-pill. You see, I had never actually done anything to fix my back. More than a year had passed since my original diagnosis, and I still made every sort of excuse to put off having surgery. Faster than you would’ve thought possible, and extra half of a pill turned into an extra pill or two, and every 4 hours became every 3, and sometimes there was even less time between dosages. Often, I found myself anxiously watching the clock and sweating out every second until I would give myself permission to take my next pill. I would be thinking, “Only an hour and a half… Only 45 minutes… Only half an hour… Oh, that’s close enough!” The “thickheaded” feeling that I mentioned before became my shadow. There were weekends that I must have seemed like a ghost to my family, because I spent nearly the entire weekend in bed. I became an expert in “fake-coughing” as I began to call in sick to work more often. A few times, my wife and I had arguments because she would sometimes have to call in for me, because I was in no condition to even get out of bed. I would wake up, fumble around for my pill bottles, and go back to sleep. The first time that she told me plainly that she thought I had a problem, we had a major blowout. I screamed at her that there was no way I could possibly have a problem – my pills were prescribed by a doctor, after all. Was she a doctor? If not, then maybe she didn’t know what she was talking about.
Obviously, taking more pills than I should have more frequently than I should have meant that I would run out faster. One time, I called my doctor and made some lame excuse about “losing” my pills, and although he wrote me a replacement, he seemed dubious enough that I knew that I had to find another way. So I started employing what I later learned is a very common tactic among people who abuse painkillers – I started looking for other doctors. I had gotten used to hiding my intake from my wife, had gotten good at lying to my boss, and remembered the first lesson that I had learned from my doctor. So I started faking injuries – falls, toothaches, injuries to other parts of my body besides my back – and seeking out different doctors for treatment and new prescriptions. I even learned how to “rotate” different emergency rooms so as not to be suspicious. If they only prescribed me “worthless” drugs like ibuprofen, I usually just tossed the prescription slip. If I got what I was looking for, then I had several pharmacies that I used. No one was the wiser. Not even me. You see, I was in complete denial that I had any sort of problem. Even I thought that everything I was doing was okay, simply because I had a prescription for every pill. I was like the naïve lady in the joke who tells the bank manager that she can’t possibly be overdrawn, because she still has plenty of checks in her checkbook. In my mind, every dishonest action that I was taking was justified, because I had a legitimate need. A doctor had even said so. I had a bad back, and I needed my OxyContin. And if every once in a while there was a little voice in the back of my head that said differently…well, a pill could take care of that sort of discomfort, too.
That’s the way it went on for months. Every day, things got just a little bit worse, but my narrow vision was focused only on the next few hours. Until the crash. Evidently, I miscalculated, didn’t pay enough attention, or just was too out of it to realize that I was in no condition to drive. Looking back, I’m surprised that the accident didn’t happen earlier, because it definitely wasn’t the first time that I had driven impaired. I woke up on the side of the road with the right side of my vehicle scraped up against a guardrail. The front passenger-side tire was flat and the headlight above it was smashed against a post. Even with all of the medication running through my bloodstream, my face hurt, because the airbags had deployed. To this day, I thank God, the angels, and every saint that ever lived that I didn’t die, get seriously hurt, or worst of all, kill someone else. They say that the Lord looks out for drunks (in this case, druggies) and fools, and in this moment, I was both. My injuries were minor. When my wife arrived at the hospital, even in my state I could see in her eyes that she had had enough. She told me that I had a problem and that I needed to do something about it if I wanted to keep my family. Things could have been much worse, but for a person who had always managed to keep his nose clean, a DUI arrest while I was still in the hospital was shocking. I couldn’t believe that no one could understand that it was just an accident and could have happened to anyone. I had a job, I had a home, I had a doctor’s prescription, for heaven’s sake – I couldn’t be junkie! I couldn’t be an addict!
Recovering In Spite Of Myself
In retrospect, I guess I should be grateful that I was arrested while I was still in the hospital. I was allowed to detox with medical assistance. Even though the doctors eased the worst of my symptoms, it was still one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced. I’ve heard the horror stories about people who had to detox cold-turkey, and I can’t imagine going through that without supervision and support. I got a good lawyer, and was convinced by both him and my wife that it was time to get help. As part of the plea agreement that kept me out of jail, I was allowed to enter an inpatient drug rehab facility for treatment. At first, I bitterly resented having to be there. I, who had always wanted to be just like everyone else, thought that I was completely different than all the other patients in attendance. They were drug addicts and drunks who had committed all sorts of crimes and sins. I was just a guy who had a prescription and had made a mistake. But then a funny thing happened. Somewhere between the seemingly-endless counseling sessions, educational classes, and 12-step group meetings, I started to see that maybe I wasn’t so different, after all. If I looked at it objectively, my life had become unmanageable because of my dependence upon my OxyContin painkiller. My DUI arrest was proof of that. Evidently, I was powerless over the drug, because there is no way I would have ever chosen to mess up my life as much as I had. I learned that my personal history – my father’s alcoholism – had put me at a much higher risk for addictive behavior of my own, and because I was ignorant of that fact, I had perpetuated the cycle. I learned that all of my justifications for my lies, deceptions, and manipulations were almost-textbook examples of the behavior of a person with an addiction. I learned that all of my efforts at self-medication and attempts at managing my drug use were doomed to fail from the start, because I was trying to control a disease – addiction – that I was completely ignorant about. I learned that even though I was able to temporarily numb my psychic pain about getting older, turn a blind eye to the anguish suffered by my wife and children, and rationalize all of my misdeeds, each of those offered only temporary relief. Everything still existed when I was sober, which meant that I had to find a more productive way to deal with things. I learned that because I am no different than any other person who suffers from an addiction, there is a large measure of comfort in our common experience. If I know that another person has been where I have been and done what I have done – and even worse – and has still found a way to live a happy, serene life, then I know that there is still hope for me.
A New Beginning
When I got out of drug rehab, I participated in an outpatient treatment program and began regularly attending 12-step meetings. Even when I didn’t understand why I was being told to do something and thought I knew better, I would just “give it up” and trust in the fact that maybe…just maybe, my professional addiction counselors were right. I found a sponsor who took absolutely no bull from me. I was directed to attend the magical “90 meetings in 90 days” that many people in recovery talk about, and my sponsor was there by my side every single day. I found that I had to basically reacquaint myself with my family, and they were glad to have the new, “old” me back. To my surprise, I found out that I had missed me, too. Recovery was not and has not been easy. And although I did the work, I still owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who supported me and were there when I didn’t want to be –
- my family and friends – who never gave up on me and who finally drew a line in the sand.
- my drug rehab counselors – who helped me learn more about myself and my disease than I ever thought possible.
- my fellow addicts who I met in 12-step meetings – who let me share my experiences – each trial and each triumph – and who continue to let me draw strength from the knowledge that I am not alone.
- my sponsor – who saw through all of my excuses and rationalizations, and who instead held me accountable and made me walk the walk.
- my Higher Power – who was able to bear any burden and solve any problem that I offered up.
If there is a single message that I would like anyone who reads my story to get, it is the fact that addiction is a monster, a disease, and a nightmare, all rolled up in one, and it can happen to anyone. There is no getting around the fact that opiate prescription medications are physically and psychologically addictive, and when it becomes necessary to take them, extreme care must be taken every step of the way.