After eight years of having a painkiller addiction, she found comfort at church and knew she was not alone in her journey.
Posted in , Sep 17, 2019
No one ever warned me that addiction could creep into my life. But it did, in 1975, with a headache.
We all have occasional headaches. I come from a family with a history of migraine dating back three generations. I had had headaches as a child. Some were severe, but they always went away. Now in my mid20s, I felt that this one too would eventually disappear.
My husband, Dave, and I were newlyweds living in Denver, Colorado. Like most couples starting out, we survived on a tight budget. Both of us worked, Dave as a policeman, I as an administrative assistant.
Feistiness was part of my makeup. “Feisty-geistiness,” my father used to tease me. I was a fighter, and I believed there was nothing I couldn’t handle, not even this persistent head pain. I was determined to overcome it—to wait it out. Yet day after day my head throbbed. An invisible band tightened across my forehead. Sometimes I felt as though someone were holding a hot poker to my skull. At times my vision blurred. There was no relief. I woke up with pain; I went to work with it. I came home with it; I went to bed with it.
“I’ve just got to see a doctor,” I cried to Dave one day. “I can’t take this any longer.”
For two years I made the rounds of various doctors—a gynecologist who thought my problem might be migraine; an internist who thought it might be stress; a biofeedback specialist whose tests couldn’t even determine that there was a headache; and a psychiatrist who gave me a personality test, then said, “I think you’re angry,” but never recommended treatment. Three different neurologists, who gave me tests ranging from a CAT scan to an electroencephalogram, had no answers.
By this time the common medications for migraine, such as ergotamine, had been prescribed for me, and yet the searing pain continued. The doctors began shrugging me off as a nuisance—an unsolvable case.
Feeling desperate, I begged the last one, “Please, can’t you help me! There must be something that will clear up this pain.”
She was a neurologist, and she devised for me an experimental combination of prescription drugs that included a narcotic painkiller, a tranquilizer, an antidepressant and an anti-inflamatory. After two years of head pain, I was so anxious to be rid of it that I would have taken anything!
Over the next eight years the doctor changed the dosages. Sometimes the combinations made me physically ill, sometimes they knocked me out, but they never totally relieved my headache. Taking pills became an important part of my daily regimen-lining them up, taking them one by one. People soon learned to buy me pillboxes as gifts, and I accumulated quite a collection in my purse. I stashed bottles of pills in my drawer at work; there were more at home in the medicine chest.
The constant pain took an emotional toll. I became anxious, almost frantic to get away from it. I lost my zest for life; when I wasn’t at work I just wanted to lie down, to be quiet. For hours I’d lie in the dark with an ice pack on my head.
Four years into these headaches, I became pregnant, and my doctor advised me to stop taking medication because it can cause birth defects. My body was going through hormonal changes because of pregnancy, and the doctor thought those changes might help alleviate the headaches. So I stopped. And, for the most part, the pain diminished.
But emotionally I still clung to those pills. And when it came time to deliver, I took them with me to the hospital. After I endured hours of excruciatingly painful labor and a difficult birth, the nurse offered a painkiller. “No, thank you,” I said, “I have my own.” And so I reverted to using prescription drugs.
I’d given birth to a beautiful baby, Meghan, and I quit work to take care of her. But that didn’t last. Times were tough; we needed an extra income. We sold our house and purchased a liquor store, where Meghan learned to walk and talk. When she was a year and a half old, we sold the store, and I got another job as an administrative assistant. A foggy, dazed, hung-over administrative assistant. How I managed even one day of work I’ll never know. The headaches had become severe, and to combat them I took a pill about every half hour.
Filling those prescriptions became the most important thing in my life. The neurologist never denied my requests for more pills, and our insurance covered the cost. Sadly, my life slipped into a haze, clouded by the intake of about 200 painkillers every three weeks.
After work each day I’d drag myself home. Sometimes I couldn’t manage to get through the dinner routine. I’d collapse in bed and leave Dave with the care of Meghan, the preparation of dinner, the dishes, everything. I couldn’t face any of it. The pain in my head never let up. Sometimes I thought I would go out of my mind.
Seven years of pain! I was in my early 30s. Was this going to last forever?
Then one morning in 1983, I arrived at work to hear, “Lisa, we’re letting you go.”
“Why?” I asked astonished.
“You’re an addict.”
“What! I take medication for headaches. Ask my doctor!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. We’ve seen the pills. You’re out.”
“I’m under a doctor’s care! How can I possibly be an addict?”
My argument was ignored, and unemployment benefits were denied me because of my so-called addiction.
“This is unjust!” I fought back and requested a hearing.
Meanwhile, I found another job as an administrative assistant with a home-builder. During the first week there I had to appear for my hearing. And I lost.
Devastated over the unfairness, I slammed into the office of my new job. “I can’t believe this is happening,” I muttered to myself. “How dare they accuse me of being addicted!” Tears welled up.
“Can I help, Lisa?” Robin, a lovely young black woman from the office across the hall, stood beside me. She had said hello to me several times. Mine was a small office with a staff of five, and I didn’t know my own coworkers yet.
Sensing in Robin an understanding spirit, I described to her the way I’d been treated by my former employer. “It was really political,” I told her. “They were jealous because the boss gave me information that others didn’t have. They ganged up on me, told him I was an addict, blamed me for mistakes that weren’t my fault… What would you do, Robin, if you were me?”
“I’d pray,” she said simply.
“What?” Astonished, I set her straight: “Oh, I don’t believe in any of that. And, besides, I don’t know how to pray.”
“I’ll be happy to pray for you, Lisa, if you’d like.” She said it so easily, as if it were the normal thing to do.
“Okay.” I felt embarrassed. “I guess it can’t hurt.”
This was not my way of handling a situation. I believed in confrontation, not in hiding behind God. If there was a God.
But in all the years of pain and pills much of the feistiness had drained from me. There was no fight left, so I bowed my head along with Robin and listened to her straightforward prayer about my need for help. Then she asked, “Lisa, would you like to go to church with me on Sunday?”
That was going too far. Me? Go to church? I wasn’t interested. How could I tell that to this nice young woman, though?
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said. I would call her later and tell her I couldn’t make it.
But I did go. I had nowhere else to turn. I was curious, and I was tired—tired of being sick, tired of never having energy, tired of the unfairness of life, tired of being out of control.
What happened then was something I’d considered unthinkable for someone like me. Until that day I wasn’t even sure there was a God, but that Sunday morning I found that it all made sense. God was real, and I had to respond. So I took everything that troubled me, went to the front of the church, and gave all of my pain, and myself, to Christ… just like that! And something mysterious happened. I felt like shouting! The relief of knowing I wasn’t alone in life, that a loving, powerful God walked with me, sent a thrill through me. I felt excited!
My head still ached. Now, though, I could talk with God. He would understand. He would help me.
Six months later I walked into the office of a new doctor. Dave and I had changed to another insurance company, one with better coverage, and this doctor was one listed under the new plan. I was expecting a renewal of my prescriptions, but she told me matter-of-factly, “It is dangerous to take this much medication—for eight years, did you say?”
“But you don’t understand!” I was ready to subdue this doctor’s attempts to interfere with my prescriptions. “I have a headache that won’t go away—”
“You don’t understand,” she told me. “You are addicted to painkillers…Eight years! It’s a wonder you’re still alive.”
My mouth flew open. For the first time I was hearing it from a doctor. I was an addict.
Seeing my stunned look, she reassured me, “It will be a struggle, but I’m going to help you get off these drugs. We’ll work together. You’re not alone.”
The doctor began cutting back the dosages. My life became torture, but she was right: I was not alone. She was there to guide me, to see that I got counseling. My new boss was supportive; he knew I was going through withdrawal. And during those days when I felt as if I couldn’t sit still, when I had to walk and walk and walk, I’d ask God, “Get me through this day, please.” At night, when I’d sometimes be violently ill, I’d pray, “Lord, I feel so weak. Please stay beside me.” Fiercely, I clung to that Bible passage that promised He would take our burdens and give us rest.
It was six months before my burden grew lighter. I knew, though, that the pain in my head was diminishing. And one morning in 1985 I awoke to find it gone. And so was my addiction. I was free at last!
Today I’m feisty once more, with the strength to confront whatever life brings. Because I confront it with God’s help.
This story first appeared in the September 1991 issue of Guideposts magazine.