My eyes popped open from a deep sleep. Drenched with sweat, my body weighted to the bed with fear. The smell of smoke filled my nostrils and my heart drummed in my chest. I lay there, panic-stricken and struggled to get my bearings. A thick fog filled the air.
It suddenly hit me, like a lightning bolt to the chest. “The house is on fire! Wake up!” I screamed and shook Steve in a panic. “We’ve got to get out! Get the kids! The house is on fire!” In spite of, or perhaps because of my fear, I made no attempt to move from the bed.
Steve sat up and rubbed his eyes. He turned and looked at me like I was crazy. “What are you talking about? There’s no fire, Karen. You’re dreaming.”
“Dreaming!? What do you mean? Can’t you smell it?”
Alarm bells pounded in my head and every instinct said run but my body failed to connect with my brain so I sat there frozen, staring at Steve with mounting panic and confusion.
As the fog in my head cleared, I realized there was no fire. I sniffed the air for the pungent, smoky odor, but it was gone.
I was hallucinating – a side effect of my opioid dependence.
Last week, the medical examiner’s office revealed the legendary artist Prince died of an accidental overdose of Fentanyl at the age of 57. The dose was self-administered. As I listened to the reports and read the articles that littered the internet, I felt conflicting emotions – grief, at the thought of the pain he must have suffered – indignation, at the assumption he was an addict – anger, that yet another beautiful life was cut short and relief that I didn’t suffer the same fate.
My story started with a twinge.
I worked as a barista in a coffee shop when I first noticed the subtle, nagging pain. It quickly worsened and eventually I received the diagnosis – carpal tunnel syndrome. I endured seemingly endless rounds of doctor’s visits, delay tactics and the deeply rooted incompetence of Worker’s Comp for months on end, as the pain increased. The limits of my disability leave were reached and I lost my job.
Finally, carpal tunnel release surgery was approved. Unfortunately, the light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train. The surgery should have provided relief but ended up causing me further harm. I suffered a posterior shoulder dislocation and torn rotator cuff during the procedure and when I came to and the anesthesia wore off, I felt a searing pain unlike anything before.
The injury went undetected and it was over a month before my shoulder was reset. Several doctors gave me cursory examinations during that period and missed the obvious. My complaints didn’t match my earlier carpal tunnel diagnosis so they ignored the excruciating pain in my left shoulder. Instead of getting to the source of my pain and treating it, they increased the levels of pain medication and added antidepressants, hoping that I would eventually stop complaining. The delays in treatment resulted in years of pain, and a battle with CRPS, as I struggled to recover.
I wasn’t addicted. I was ‘dependent’. That’s what they told me. But I can assure you, there is a razor thin difference between the two.
I walked the tightrope of dependence, unaware that the slightest misstep could send me plummeting into a pit of addiction or lead to an overdose.
There is something incredibly powerful about the fear of pain. Avoid pain at any cost – that is the natural human response and the mantra of modern medicine. But the drugs the doctors gave me masked the underlying cause and sidestepped the issue. Only after years of living in a drug-induced stupor did any doctor encourage me to manage my pain without drugs or give me the tools to learn to live with the pain.
Here’s something they don’t tell you about opioids. After prolonged use, their efficacy decreases and often, as in my case, they cause the pain to increase, through a condition called opioid-induced hyperalgesia. Completely unaware of this effect at the time, my condition worsened as weeks, then months, went by. Phantom, unrelated pains and neuropathy appeared throughout my body.
At times, I twitched like an addict itching for a fix as I rode the daily roller coaster of opioid dependence. Every single nerve and muscle in my body cramped. I doubled over – shaking and rocking for hours on end – finding it impossible to stay still. The constant movement left me exhausted.
At other times, I lay in bed and fell down the rabbit hole, like Alice in Wonderland. My body seemed to expand – bigger and bigger like a human balloon – the pressure so intense, I feared my head would blow right off my body. The bizarre sensation was followed by contraction, as the balloon caved in. I shrank smaller and smaller and prayed I would disappear in a cloud of dust.
I wasn’t an addict. My drug use was under control – or so I told myself.
After all, I received my prescriptions through a physician and always, I mean usually, took only the amount prescribed. I never lied or stole to get my meds. I just asked. My doctor never failed to give me what I
At the beginning, I took Advil and Tylenol. When they were no longer effective, my doctor prescribed high doses of Motrin. When Motrin didn’t cut it, Vicodin did the trick. When Vicodin wasn’t enough, I received Percocet. When the pain became unbearable, OxyContin became my friend. When I couldn’t make it through the day on Oxy alone, my doctor prescribed an amazing miracle drug that would provide relief all day – Fentanyl.
At my lowest point, I wore a daily Fentanyl transdermal patch, with a steady diet of Oxy and a morphine kicker, along with a myriad of antidepressants and other drugs. How on earth I survived and continued to function despite this deadly cocktail is a mystery to me. The fact that I continued to drive is terrifying, to say the least.
Repeatedly, my family expressed their concern at the amount of drugs I consumed. I thought they were overreacting. After all, I trusted my doctor, and any time I questioned the new prescription he provided, he reassured me.
I felt safe in my doctor’s care.
My dependence on opioids dulled the pain in my body for a while but increased the pain in my spirit and created a whole slew of adverse side effects.
Antidepressants were prescribed for the depression that set in, followed by anti-seizure meds for the neuropathy. Anti-nausea medicine was prescribed to combat the constant queasiness and when my bowels rebelled and quit working, they prescribed laxatives and enemas.
I dragged through the days like a freighter in a fog, slow and lumbering, without proper tools of navigation. Sleep eluded me and the little sleep I did get was haunted by nightmares and nameless fears. I existed in a limbo state – not asleep but not fully awake. As my depression deepened, I lost all interest in life, in food, in going outside or being with my children. I had no desire to seek out friends and couldn’t concentrate to read a book. Laying in a stupor, my hand clutched the remote and I channel-surfed my life away.
Modern pain medications provide relief for many who need it. They are essential to the proper and humane management of debilitating and chronic pain. However, we are bombarded with constant messages that pain should be avoided at any cost. Oh, what a cost.
I also believed, at that time, that God wanted me to live a life of abundance and freedom from pain and suffering. But when my faith wasn’t strong enough and my prayers seemed to go unanswered, I was convinced I’d failed God.
In the years since my recovery from opioid dependence and chronic pain, I’ve examined our cultural and religious beliefs about pain, read the Scriptures, and devoured medical information, in an attempt to understand the science behind pain and dependence and why God allows suffering. I do not have all the answers, but I do know this.
The presence of pain is not evidence of a lack of faith or unconfessed sin.
It’s presumptuous and unrealistic to expect that we can circumvent the inevitable, as pain most certainly is a part of every life. The lessons taught through times of anguish are deep and have a purpose in molding our character. They provide insight into suffering, faith and the human spirit in a way that can only be understood by those who have “been there”.
Pain altered me permanently. The scars left behind may be invisible to you, but they became my superpower, enabling me to see the scars in others. They instilled a passion for the hurting. They allowed me to draw closer to Jesus.
I wasn’t sure about sharing this post. Not for the reasons you might think. I’m not worried about how you will judge me but I do worry that some of you may feel judged. If you are in a battle with chronic pain, drug dependence or even addiction, I pray you hear my heart. Nobody understands your pain. Even me.
Your journey is unique and solitary and only God sees the depths of your suffering.
The turning point was when I decided I would rather live in pain than numb all my feelings and emotions with chemicals. I enrolled in a pain management program managed by healthcare professionals and slowly regained my life as I weaned off the medications and dealt with my pain – body, mind and spirit. Incredibly, the pain decreased significantly once I was off the meds.
Today I am opioid free. I am not pain free, but I have the tools to manage the pain for now.
Think about these sobering statistics.
“In 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids, which is more than enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills.”
“The United States is experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose (poisoning) deaths. Since 2000, the rate of deaths from drug overdoses has increased 137%, including a 200% increase in the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids (opioid pain relievers and heroin).”
I shudder when I think of the fate that could have been mine, and really don’t know how I avoided addiction, but thank God that I did. If you, or someone you love, is struggling with pain, dependence or addiction, please get help.
Warning!- Do NOT discontinue any meds without medical supervision. Stopping medication abruptly may not only adversely affect your condition, it can be flat out dangerous! Please consult a medical professional first.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18