Opioids and Me – A Story of Drug Dependence

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.

pain-medications, 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.

 

drug capsule eat me drink me

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 needed wanted.

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

You may also like

28 comments

  1. Excellent, Karen. Such a clear insightful sharing of not only your own struggle, but the deceptions that are holding countless others in the prison of searching for the collusive pain-free life! Keep writing!

  2. Karen thank you for sharing your journey. We have all had different experiences with pain some physical and some internal. May God use your story to encourage many! Keep writing!

  3. Great piece, Karen. I was an addict as a young teen having eclipsed about a year of my life. I remember how it started (I had fun) and how it ended (not so fun). But in between, for a period of a year I know nothing. Even at the time, I was oblivious. Then the change. I was confronted by God. I made a commitment and proceeded with the Christian life. For the next 20+ years I dealt with low self esteem, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts. Alone, there was no one to speak with. I thought no one love me. They said it not because they meant it, but it was somehow a social or Christian requirement. Because of those early drug experiences I had made a decision not to take meds even when prescribed, though a few times I did, and the things I experienced superseded known side affects. So, I know pain, not as a friend but I know his presence means a greater enemy is at work. I dove into scripture and prayer, ignoring the trite responses of clergy and well meaning individuals. If God was really there, he would have answers. I have not always behaved as his best friend but he has been mine. He never failed me. I continue to overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of my testimony. His word in my mouth is sharp and my foes fear the word. Now, depression (et al) seldom speaks and when it does I am quicker to respond. Keep writing. Your thoughts today are strength to me.

    1. Bruce, Thanks for your transparency and for sharing your heart. We’ve sure been through a lot since our days at school, haven’t we? Depression is still a struggle for me as well, although not to the extent it once was. Praying peace and wholeness for you, my friend.

  4. Wow, Karen. A brave and vulnerable post and I applaud you. I think your story can help and encourage a lot of people. I have seen friends suffer chronic pain, and it is so worrying. Thank for you sharing. Keep writing, you are wonderful.

  5. Ditto to all who have commented. I pray that God will use your story to bring hope to others. I pray also that God will bring healing to your heart as you share your struggles. This life is not for the faint in heart. Without the love of God and saving grace of Jesus, there go I. You have a beautiful heart. Bless you!

  6. Wow, Karen. A very powerful personal post. Praying that as you share your experience that others will be encouraged and realize there is hope for the pain and struggles they are going through. Can’t wait to read your next post.

  7. Thanks Karen for sharing. I often wonder about my pain, it’s no where near what you have gone through but i look ahead and the progression of my pain i find it hard to believe i will be able to handle it, as i age. This is encouraging for me about pain management and living and fulfilling life despite the internal feelings of pain and doubt.

    1. Rob, I’m so sorry you’re dealing with pain. It is scary to think of it’s progression, for sure. Praying for your complete healing and for peace and hope in your life. Much love to you and your family.

  8. Thanks for sharing and giving hope, Karen. You are brave & I love you. Continuing the journey together…Lori

    1. Thank you my sweet friend. It is so nice to have friends to share the journey, no matter how difficult. It somehow makes it a it more bearable. Love you.

  9. Gusty, transparent, desperately needed and beautifully written. “And with the comfort that have received, you will comfort others” And you have Karen. Xo

  10. You and Steve are heroes to me Karen. Your kindness and concern for others, in spite of your pain and suffering is truly Christ-like. I applaud you for your beautiful, honest, vulnerable and encouraging words here. And I pray Gods healing touch on your family

  11. Karen,

    Karen you should write a book. You have a terrific writing style and so many people could benefit from hearing about your journey. This month is my 5 year anniversary of chronic pain and it’s always worse in June as I remember a life before chronic pain and mourn that I am no longer that person. To say, “I miss it so”, is spectacularly redundant. However reading what you wrote helps so much. Years ago I would have been very judgemental of anyone who tried meditation or mindfulness but I have found them both helpful. Thank you Karen for being so strong to write about such a vulnerable time. Your strength through pain gives us strength. You are helping a lot of people through your writing.

    1. Geri, I am in the process of writing a book, in no small part because of your encouragement. I hear the grief in your voice and can relate. I still grieve over the years I lost but am hoping to somehow redeem them and make them count by sharing my story. I’m sorry that you are still so deep in your pain journey and am humbled to hear that my story has helped in some small way. Sending love and prayers your way for a complete healing. Love you, dear friend.

  12. My dear Karen / you have been through so much, and so much more than I was aware of. It makes me sad that I was not there for you as a friend, but understand that it was your struggle,that only you and God were going to handle. Praise Him for his grace mercy and healing power. Your writing is beautifully done and just as I expect. You have always been a beautiful sharer of truth. Love you.

  13. You are so brave – raw transparency requires such risk. The greatest lessons we learn are those we are most afraid to share because they have taken us to the edge of faith, sanity and the broken dark-sides we work so hard to hide. Your story breaks my heart. I wish you and everyone who suffers could be shielded from pain. This world is dark and messy. Yet I have benefited from the grace your journey brings you. When darkness knocked on our door, you showed up and knew how to be there. Thanks for sharing your super power with our family. I don’t know where our journey will lead but it helps to see others as they navigate theirs. Love you and your family!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *