In the olden days, back when I was a kid, this would’ve been called “airing your dirty laundry.” In today’s age of sharing every detail of our lives on Facebook, most people would call it a status update. I prefer, however, to follow the lead of Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts, and call it, “Making My Mess My Message.” And since I had a really big mess, I also have a really big message.
I am one of the 100 million Americans who have fallen into the trap of chronic pain management. That means, unfortunately, that I am one of the tens of millions of Americans who have fallen into the bottomless pit of dependency on prescription painkillers.
I have battled chronic pain for more than 13 years. I’ve seen 13 specialists, and no one has been able to help me. My only answer has been to try to manage the pain. I did the only thing that even remotely touched it — I took prescription painkillers.
I never took more than the prescribed amount — my doctor made sure of that. I didn’t doctor-shop or pharmacy-hop either. But I took the maximum amount every day for 12 years. I had no idea what I was doing to myself either. Like so many others who were just looking for relief, I became dependent. For the last three years, I have also been working on my first book, so I became a hermit as well. I didn’t want to do anything else. I went out with friends periodically, but went home early, to work on the book and take my next pill. At bedtime, I couldn’t sleep so I took a sleeping pill. I woke up three or four hours later, and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I took another painkiller. I still couldn’t sleep, so I was literally functioning (or trying to function) on three to four hours of sleep a night.
I had gained 90 pounds (yes, you read that right — ninety, not nine), and was lazy and so afraid of hurting myself that I didn’t even try to do anything strenuous. My entire body was puffy and bloated, and I felt terrible all the time.
The worst part, however, was that the painkillers had changed my personality. Instead of being fun and playful, and energetic and outgoing, I had become angry and scared, lazy and lethargic. Most importantly, though, I had started to doubt myself. Instead of being the independent, confident person I had always been, I let people and situations beyond my control damage my self-esteem. I had never done that in my life. My life was spiraling out of control.
A life reboot needed
That was when I realized that I needed to do something to reboot my life. The only place I could start was with the painkillers. I made the decision to do something about it on Tuesday, Oct. 1st, and on Friday, Oct. 5th, I left for an inpatient treatment facility.
Residential treatment centers work for a lot of people, and this particular one has saved countless lives, but it wasn’t a fit for me. I knew going into the situation that I would be as sick as
I had ever been, but I thought that I would be in a medically-monitored situation where I could fight the battle of my life with a modicum of dignity.
I was wrong.
The detox center at the treatment facility was a ward. I was led back to a room with four beds lined up along one wall. The room was freezing (I suppose because everyone in detox has severe sweats), and it smelled like rotten eggs mixed with urine mixed with feces. I shared the room with three strangers — two meth addicts, and an alcoholic who was so addicted that she had walked away from the center the previous Saturday night, and when members of the staff picked her up at a downtown bar, she had a blood alcohol level of .40. Almost dead.
There was one bathroom for all of us.
By midnight the first night, my sickness was horrible. The stomach spasms were like labor pains. I was alternately so cold that I couldn’t pile on enough blankets, and so hot that I felt like I was being microwaved. My body ached. My head pounded.
The mental aspect can only be described as torture. My mind raced. I couldn’t control my thoughts, and felt like I was being held captive and couldn’t get away. I knew I was going to have a heart attack behind that closed door, and no one would know it until the next morning.
The worst part, though, was the extreme anxiety. It ran through my body like the scene in Rambo III where the guard at the P.O.W. camp shocks Sylvester Stallone with zaps of electricity. But the current running through my body was constant. It felt like my fingertips would burst open, and lightning bolts would strike out. I visibly shook.
And still, I had to walk down the hallway to the “nurse’s” station, and ask for help. At various points throughout the night, that was impossible (note to all caregivers, when someone is going through detox, they are sicker than most of them have ever been, or will ever be again, unless stricken with a disease. They should be treated thusly). When I could walk down the hall, one of the nurses then took my blood pressure (standard procedure), and afterward, gave me a pill to help control my skyrocketing blood pressure. That was it. That was the only help that was offered.
On my own
After several trips down the hallway, I knew the place wasn’t right for me. The next afternoon, my husband and daughter came to get me. The counselor at the center released me “against clinical advice,” and told me that, if I tried to “get clean” on my own, I would fail. I told her that she didn’t know me at all. It might take me 12 years to make a decision, but when I make up my mind about something, it’s a done deal.
After a trip to a regional hospital because of dehydration, I came back to Falls City, visited a local doctor for help with the anxiety, then came home. I set my bottle of pills on the counter, and vowed not to take more than one a day for the first five days, and half of one a day for the following five days. Then, I was quitting entirely.
The battle that I fought for the next four weeks, however, was inhumane. The physical part was like influenza A and B at the same time. Dripping sweats followed by unbearable chills. Stomach cramps and diarrhea every day. Extreme vomiting. Pounding headaches right above the eyes. Stuffy, yet running nose. Aches and pains that were so deep I could feel them in my bones.
The mental torture was like a horror movie. At times, I had no idea what was real and what wasn’t. I was alternately euphoric, and the next day, bottom-of-the-barrel depressed. Some days, I was so exhausted that I could barely get to the bathroom across the hall. On those days, I couldn’t even comb my hair, let alone take a shower. Sometimes, the room where I stood or lay down either vibrated — like rat-a-tat-tat — or breathed in and out. There were days when I couldn’t walk straight, and ran into things. Other times, I couldn’t focus enough to read or write. I couldn’t come up with the right words to complete a legible sentence. Some days, I wrote rambling notes that were nothing short of crazy. I lost chunks of time because of memory loss, and had entire conversations that I don’t remember to this day.
‘Anxiety nearly broke me’
But it was the anxiety that nearly broke me. For the first five days, my countdown to one pill a day was hour-by-hour, then minute-by-minute. When I got down to the last 15 minutes, I actually stood by the counter and watched the clock, shaking like I’d had 14 cups of coffee. I hated myself for what I had done to my body and my life, but I wasn’t taking that pill for any reason, until it was time. I had made up my mind that I was doing this, and my will was the only thing of which I was certain.
During one time period the second week, I was awake and pacing for 33 hours, slept for six, then was awake again for 44. I was violently ill for 24 of those, and was certain that I wasn’t going to live through it. My husband would have taken me to the emergency room, but I couldn’t lift my head off of the pillow, and was too humiliated to call for an ambulance. I thought I was going to die, and at that point, prayed for it. Unable to even move my head, I called a doctor and got a prescription for anti-nausea medication. I knew if I didn’t get better, I would need to be rehydrated in the ER. But I continued to gut it out.
After I decided I was done with hydrocodone for good (with six pills still left in the bottle), I gutted my way through feeding time. If left the pills on the counter, and vowed not to take a single one. I sometimes stared them down, just to prove that I was the stronger one. When I wasn’t the stronger one, I got down on my knees.
Throughout the second month, the physical symptoms began to let up, and my mind started slowly circling the track, instead of racing around it. I was able to get out of the house a couple of times, and talked to a counselor who specialized in drug dependency and addiction. His knowledge and support helped me tremendously, but the anxiety continued to test me. It put up a fierce battle.
But I won.
Six months later
It has now been six months since I started this war, and even though symptoms can (and do) pop up periodically, and I can still become extremely agitated or even enraged for no apparent reason (and will for up to a year), I am proud to say that I have triumphed over the most difficult part. My friends and family say I am back to my old self. There’s a light in my eyes again. Heck, my skin and hair even feel different.
I threw the hydrocodone away. There are no more opiates in my bottle, my house, or my life. I fight back pain with exercise, non-narcotic pain medication, and great professional massages. All three help, but I will probably battle chronic pain the rest of my life. I’ve just decided that I would rather fight the pain than fight for my life.
‘I found me’
Now that I’ve fought this battle, though, I can do anything. This was the hardest thing I have ever done, but now, I can set anything on the counter and say, “No.”
I lost two months of my life, but what I found was worth it.
I found me.
My mess my message
If you (or a loved one) need to fight this battle, get help. Don’t do it on your own because it is pure torture, but do it today. Those painkillers aren’t just killing your pain. They are killing you. And that is the only reason that I am willing to make my mess my message.