Something that only a select few individuals know about me, and something that I have not ever even written about before today, is that I suffer from addiction. I am addicted to prescription painkillers, and I have been for a long time. Unfortunately, I am not in the minority in having this problem, as addiction is an issue that affects nearly everyone’s life in some way. Whether it be alcohol, illegal drugs, or as in my case prescription painkillers, I doubt there is a single person who has not struggled with addiction themselves or knows a loved one who has. The magnitude of this horrible affliction that touches so many lives is what has given me the courage to admit my own struggle publicly and share my experiences, in hopes that by hearing my story you will be better equipped to deal with addiction in your own life. Today is the first article in a four part series on addiction, where I will share with you my own journey through this awful affliction, withdrawal, and recovery.
Before I get into my personal story, I want to make sure to discuss the difference between having an addiction and being an addict. This subtle, but important, distinction is something that I had not thought about until my pain specialist explained it to me several years ago, and it has helped me immensely in managing this lifelong disease. An “addict” is what people typically think of when speaking about this issue. Addicts will do literally anything to get their next fix. They have a hard time holding down a job, steal from friends and family to afford their habit, and will even spend money on drugs and alcohol before paying their bills. Getting their drug completely takes over their life. These individuals also have an addiction obviously, but they are only a small subset of this larger group. People, like myself, who have an addiction but are not “addicts” per se, are quite different. We have the same cravings and urges for our drug of choice, but we are able to keep it from taking over our entire existence. We suffer from the same affliction, but we still go to work, pay our taxes, and have full, meaningful lives. We go about our lives just as if it is any other disease like diabetes or psoriasis.
There are several reasons that people have to live with addiction while making sure to not become an addict, but the most common one is for medical purposes. For example, in my case I need my painkillers in order to function effectively, and the level of pain I have requires a large amount of medication. By taking these powerful narcotics for so long though, my body has gotten hooked just like an addict’s would (your body doesn’t care why you take them). Through a lot of willpower, carefully monitoring and limiting the amount I take, and by taking these drugs exactly as prescribed under the care of my doctor, I am able to walk that tightrope of being addicted without becoming an addict. I will not lie though, this is no easy feat as you will soon see, and I worry constantly about the fine line I am forced to walk.
Like so many stories worth telling, my tale begins with a girl. At the beginning of my fourth semester of graduate school, I met an amazing, beautiful, smart, young woman. Her name was Claire, and she was a year behind me in the clinical psychology program. She was petite with dark facial features, sallow skin, and long brown hair. She also had a dry sense of humor and quick wit similar to my own. Pretty much my perfect woman. We met the first week of the term, and we became close friends almost instantly. It was one of those friendships that comes together easily and without much effort, and while you may have only known each other a few weeks, you feel like you have been lifelong friends. As we spent more time together, our friendship turned into a romantic relationship, and by February we were dating. Our relationship was great, as it was not much work, and we had a great time together. For the first time in my life, I thought that I may have found the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.
One afternoon once we had been dating about a month, Claire had come over to my apartment to have lunch. As Claire, my nurse, and I were eating tuna salad at my kitchen table, and Claire was telling me about her day, something unexpected happened. Out of nowhere, my nurse, who we will call “Beth,” looked at me with a puzzled expression and right in the middle of Claire’s story she said, “Scott, what are you looking at?” I was confused and a little annoyed that she had interrupted Claire, so I responded, “What do you mean? I was listening to Claire.” Beth just stared at me, shook her head, and said, “Who is Claire?” I was really getting irritated now, because I felt she was being pretty rude by acting this way, so I replied, “Beth, that is enough. Come on. Let Claire finish talking.” As I said this I nodded in Claire’s direction, and Beth looked right at her. She then looked back at me as she said, “Scott, there is no one there.” I was getting kind of pissed off now, so I snapped back, “Beth, stop! Let her talk!” At this point, without any warning, Beth kicked the chair that Claire was sitting in out from the table, sending it across my kitchen, and knocking it over. It was at this time that I realized something that completely changed my life. There was no Claire.
Claire was a hallucination. Everything I thought that I knew about her is what my mind had made up to make me believe she was real (which is probably why we got along so well). It turned out that the combination of painkillers that I was on could cause small seizures in your brain that can result in vivid hallucinations. Obviously, this was not good and had to be dealt with fairly quickly, since seizures can cause permanent brain damage, but it was not as if I could just stop taking my pain medications either. Not only would that have been borderline torture given my level of chronic pain, but it can be dangerous to your health to come off of multiple, powerful narcotics too quickly (i.e. stroke, heart attack, death, etc.). At the same time though, I could not just go through life with my imaginary girlfriend either (just imagine taking her home to meet the folks). Even though I knew that I had to fix this issue or risk brain damage, the negative stigma associated with having an addiction kept me from admitting and accepting my problem. It was only after Beth gave me the ultimatum of getting help or finding a new nurse, that I made an appointment with my doctor to discuss my options.
The fact that I was willing to endanger my brain because of the shame and embarrassment I felt about admitting and accepting my addiction is a perfect illustration of how powerful and damaging the public perception of addiction is. This awful stereotype our society has created is extremely detrimental not only because this disease impacts nearly every family, but also because the stereotype actually makes the problem worse. We have formed this image of people with addiction issues being weak and lazy criminal types or mentally deranged lunatics. No one wants to admit to being in either of these wonderful groups (which is completely false anyway as I explained above), and this results in people hiding their problem from the world and letting it get even worse. We need to bring addiction out of hiding and into the spotlight so that people can see that it is a disease like any other. With the right lifestyle changes and medical treatment, addiction can be managed just like having high blood pressure or being anemic. I am sure there are plenty of crazy lowlifes with herpes, and we don’t assume having herpes means you are a criminal, so why should addiction be any different? By taking the stigma out of the equation, people like me would be more inclined to admit that we have a problem and seek help.
I will leave you here and let this idea percolate in your brain for awhile. Think about how you feel about addiction, and what you would think of your sibling, spouse, or friend if they told you they had a problem with addiction. More importantly, if you are, like I was, struggling with addiction privately and hiding your fight from everyone in your life, please know that you have nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of. I repeat. You have nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of. You merely have a disease, and with the right medical care, lifestyle changes, and social support you can overcome your illness and lead a happy, fulfilling life. In the next part in this series, I will discuss the plan my nurses, doctors, and I came up with to help me fight my addiction, and the unforseen issues I faced.