Hospitalized after a serious car accident, she had to face withdrawal from the painkillers she was prescribed
Posted in , May 24, 2018
My husband, Mike, and I sat in the office of a pain management doctor. I felt worse than I’d ever felt in my entire life. There was only one thing I wanted from the doctor.
Permission to stop taking my pain medication.
I had been in a terrible accident. A car going highway speed had run a red light and T-boned me. I’d suffered devastating internal injuries. My pelvis was shattered. I was in the hospital for a month, undergoing multiple surgeries. I came home in a wheelchair.
I also came home with a physical dependence on the array of opioid pain meds I’d been given in the hospital. I knew right away something was wrong. I was lethargic, depressed, nauseous, disoriented. I could barely sit up. Sometimes I didn’t even respond when Mike came into the room or my grown kids brought grandkids to visit.
Physically I was getting better, but emotionally, spiritually, I was a wreck. It was after Christmas. My daughter McKynzie was due to give birth in February. Her sister Brittany was engaged to be married in June. I wanted to be there for them, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything. I could hardly pray.
Any amount of pain, I thought, would be better than this. At first my surgeons argued I had to stay on the medication to allow my body to heal. I agreed—but why did I have to depend so much on these powerful drugs? It felt dangerous. At last they agreed I could wean off. They were as perplexed by my urgency as by my insistence. Most patients want more medication, not less.
The problem, they said, is that I couldn’t just stop taking the drugs. I’d go through severe withdrawal.
“You mean I’m addicted?” I said.
The surgeons explained that most postoperative pain medications are opioids. If taken long enough, they cause physical dependency that’s hard to break. I had been on my meds for less than two months, but that was enough.
“What do I do?” I asked.
“You need to see a pain management doctor,” the surgeons said.
So here I was, in an examining room at a local pain clinic. The doctor came in. I explained what I wanted.
The doctor gazed at me, as if sizing up my strength. “You will be in a lot of pain,” he warned. “The withdrawal symptoms will be even worse than the pain. You’re sure you’re up for this? You don’t want to wait a while?”
“I want to be off these things by the time my daughter gets married in June,” I said. I tried to sound confident, determined. Inside, all I felt was fear. Never in a million years would I have imagined myself addicted to drugs. Mike and I were high school sweethearts. We didn’t even experiment with alcohol back then. We were in our fifties now. We had four grown children and two grandchildren. Our family was close, active and in good health. I avoided medication whenever I could, even ibuprofen.
In the hospital, I’d been put on a morphine drip. I’d worn a fentanyl patch and taken oral pain meds. The hospital had gotten me ready for life back home, showing me how to perform basic tasks while my body healed. I’d been discharged with a storehouse of pills and instructions for taking them. No one mentioned addiction. No one gave me a timetable for tapering off.
The pain doctor gave us a timetable. I was eager to start that day. And yet when Mike replaced my fentanyl patch with the lower-dose patch the pain doctor had given us, I almost told him to put the old one back. Something deep inside me reared up at the sight of that smaller dose. No! it cried. Give me my medicine!
“Maybe we should start tomorrow,” I said tentatively.
Mike shook his head. “Tomorrow won’t be any different,” he said. He put on the new patch.
Mike was a self-employed real estate investor. He’d put work on hold and asked our sons-in-law for help so he could take care of me full time. Suddenly I realized just how much I needed him. On my own I would have gone back to the old dose.
It didn’t take long for me to understand why my body demanded the drug. As the day wore on, I felt worse and worse. The pain grew intense. The nausea worsened. The anxiety was overpowering. I began talking gibberish. I felt as if an evil spirit had seized control of my mind.
“I can’t stand it!” I cried out. Mike rushed in.
“No, get away from me!” I shouted. Mike retreated.
“Wait, don’t leave!”
Never had I felt so awful. The misery wouldn’t let up. Days passed. At last, after about a week, I began to feel a little more normal.
“It’s time for the next step-down,” Mike said.
And so the cycle began again. Gradually I tapered off the fentanyl. Next were the oral medications. Mike shaved off portions of each pill. He set a timer between doses, lengthening each interval by a few minutes. I lived and died by those minutes.
Every time the dose went down, I plunged back into withdrawal.
McKynzie’s baby was born. I wasn’t able to be there. Brittany was deep into wedding planning. I missed that too. I was standing and doing some walking by this point, but I was too sick and weak to leave the house. On the streets, they call it “dope sick.” And yet here I was going through the exact same thing. I never actually wanted these drugs. Now it seemed impossible not to take them.
I barely noticed when spring arrived. The pain doctor warned us that withdrawal would get worse as the dosages fell. The body, he said, believes it needs the drug to survive. It fights to stay medicated, to stay alive.
A few months in, I was ready to give up. I had no more strength. My throat was raw from vomiting. It had been so long since I’d felt normal, I was beginning to forget who I was.
One day I was kneeling by the bathroom, waiting to get sick again. I glanced over and noticed the closet in my bedroom. The door was ajar. Inside was a shelf with a few candles, an image of the Virgin Mary, a cross and several books.
My prayer closet.
I’d forgotten all about it. It was a small space where I used to say my devotions. Now I crawled over to it and pulled myself up to gaze at the objects on the shelf. They seemed like fragments from a former life. I picked up a book of prayers. One page was dog-eared. I opened to it.
“For Suffering,” read the title above a prayer. Something inside me flickered to life. I devoured that prayer. All of a sudden it came back to me that I was a person who used to pray. All the time. I used to talk to God throughout the day. What happened to that person?
“Where are you, God?” I whispered. “Please help me bear this suffering. I can’t do it on my own.”
My pain didn’t go away. The misery of withdrawal didn’t go away. But I felt a momentary peace. Almost as if another force, stronger and more full of life, was pushing back against my dependence on the drugs.
After that I went to my prayer closet every day. When too weak to stand, I’d sit on the floor. No matter how overwhelmed I felt, no matter how wracked by pain, God was always there. Sometimes I just waited in his presence.
Spring advanced. The wedding was a little more than a month away. I was getting down to the last doses. Just a few portions of a pill a day. At last, in May, Mike’s timer went off and he came to me with a small piece of a pill.
“No,” I said. “I’m done.”
Mike searched my face as the pain doctor had done. He looked down at the pill. Then he put it back in the bottle and smiled. “I love you,” he said. “You’re amazing.”
“God is amazing.”
I had just one more bout of withdrawal. I spent a lot of time in the prayer closet. By the end of the month, I felt almost normal. I could even walk without a cane. At my last appointment with the pain doctor, I gave him a box of chocolates and a hug.
I called Brittany. “I’m going to see you get married,” I said.
The wedding was beautiful. Brittany was beautiful.
As she walked down the aisle, I held Mike’s hand and cried. I looked back on my struggle to kick drugs, drugs I’d never wanted, and thought about all the suffering people who use drugs to kill pain they may not even be able to name. I said a prayer for them. In so many ways, we are more alike than not.
How did I make it through all those months of agony? How does anyone get off drugs? I wondered.
With help from loved ones and professionals. With determination not to give in to despair. And with prayer.
Brittany said her vows, and she and her husband turned to face their friends and families. She was starting a new life.
So was I.
For more inspiring stories, subscribe to Guideposts magazine.