Pills for Breakfast: My Affair with Opioids

Pills for Breakfast: My Affair with Opioids

I’m at the doctor’s office. It’s the second week of February, 2013.

She thinks the sharp pain in my ribs is from an ulcer. Probably the result of taking 20 to 25 Advil a day for weeks on end when I get one of my headaches.

ADVILI’ve been getting the headaches since I was in college, but all the doctors I’d ever seen had brushed me off when I told them I could put the pain at bay by taking a few simple Advil.

This doctor says they should have asked me a follow-up question: “How many Advil, exactly?”

So, yeah, the Advil is out. At least for now.

“But what if I get another headache?”

“Here. Let me write you a prescription for hydrocodone. Take one of these if it gets really bad.”

***

The headaches come back, but the hydrocodone does nothing for them. I start taking the Advil again and pray I don’t end up with a huge hole in my stomach.

But, the sharp pain in my right ribs just keeps getting sharper, and the Advil doesn’t even touch it. So I try to take the hydrocodone for that. Except they’re only 5 mg pills, so I still get no relief.

I fantasize about throwing the bottle against the wall in anger and frustration.

***

I find a new doctor to help with the rib pain.

It’s so bad I’m starting to seriously consider suicide.

“What’s your pain level?”

“Ten. I’m at a 10. It’s horrible. It hurts too much,” I tell him, with tears streaming down my face.

He writes me prescription for really strong Aleve.

It might as well be Skittles.

***

I’ve been suffering for months, and I start having unhealthy thoughts about chugging a bottle of Drano. Or slitting my wrists in the bathtub.

After a particularly horrific night, I decide to go to immediate care. I beg the doctor for help. She offers hydrocodone.

“I need something stronger. That did nothing for me last time,” I plead.

“Well, I can’t give you anything stronger than that in immediate care!” she balks, as she writes me a prescription for it anyway.

***

A few days later I’m at the pain specialist. I tell him that the hydrocodone doesn’t really help the pain, but it does take the edge off.

He turns and says to his resident, “If she wants hydrocodone, give her hydrocodone.”

Hydrocodonebtibu75200I leave with a prescription for 120 10 mg pills, with instructions to take 1-2 every 4-6 hours as needed.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that the 10 mg pills are twice as good as the 5 mg pills. At first I start slow, taking one at a time and only if I’m in a lot of pain.

But then I pop one if I have a long day to plow through, and I’d like to pretend I’m just not sick.

Soon I’m popping them before work, so I can handle the drive.

Except it’s too early for that. They’re still making me way too high to get behind the wheel.

I end up on I-294 higher than a spaceship, unsure of what to do.

I’m too far away to turn back, too high to concentrate on the road, and still a good hour away from work. The only safe option is to pull over somewhere and let the pills wear off — but that could take hours.

I decided to just go slow and get to work.

By the time I get to the parking lot, I’m sobbing from the meds, the traffic and from being so high. I pull myself together, wipe off my tears and go to work.

By lunch, I’m popping another hydrocodone. I have to get through the day.

***

For too long I try to maintain my two jobs. But it requires handfuls of hydrocodone to do it.

“I can teach the evening class, but I’m going to have to take some hydrocodone first,” I tell my boss. He doesn’t care.

Before I got sick I was so Type A that nobody wanted to accept that I might not be able to do everything for everybody anymore — least of all myself.

bigstock-Out-of-focus-woman-extending--34477478Even with all the pills, I’m still nowhere close to pain free.

Things start to slip. I’m barely showering. And I’m relying way too heavily on dry shampoo.

I’m skipping any extra duties at both jobs that I normally would have done without even being asked.

And I’m barely talking to my boyfriend.

Then, one night, he gets tickets to a Cubs game. I want to go so bad. I want to maintain the life I once had. I want to pretend nothing has changed.

So I take two pills this time. For the first time.

Two 10 mg hydrocodone pills.

I mean, the bottle says I can take 1 to 2, right?

It’s one of the best nights I’ve had in a long time. I can almost remember what it’s like to be healthy.

I want more of that.

***

I’m sitting on the exam table about to be fondled by a man I’ve only just met. They’re trying to rule out breast cancer.

All I have on is my underwear and a flimsy paper hospital gown.

He examines my breasts. “They look healthy,” he says.

I didn’t realize that you could tell if breasts were healthy just by looking at them.

“So, they really don’t know what you have?” he asks.

“Nope. I just woke up one day with horrible pain on right side.”

“Hmm, well either it’s a nerve problem or…”

“Or what?”

“Or you’re a really great actress.”

“Huh?”

“Well, I mean, you could just be acting so you can, you know, get the medications.”

I’ve never even smoked a cigarette in my entire life. And, yet this man I just met is trying to feel me out and see if I’m just another addict.

“Ha. Ha,” I laugh nervously. “I’m not. The pain is real.”

“Oh, yeah, I’m not saying it isn’t.”

Umm, you kind of just did.

***

If two pills worked so great for the Cubs game, maybe it could work well for the other parts of my life.

NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF BOARDS OF PHARMACYSuddenly I’m going through 120 10 mg hydrocodone pills in 17 days.

I’m totally unaware that this could be seen as a problem. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve finally found something that might actually help me live my life.

When I call for a refill the nurse is shocked. And very angry.

“What? You’ve already gone through the whole bottle?”

“It says I can take 1 to 2. So I took 2.”

“Okay, we’ll give you a refill this time. But your next dose has to last the whole 30 days.”

***

Feeling better is addictive in the same way that not being hungry, not throwing up, and not getting hit by a semi-truck is addictive. I want more of it.

The 120 pills don’t last me the whole 30 days. I’m a few days shy. But I can tell from my last encounter with the nurse that I’m not allowed to call for an early refill.

So instead, I figure I’ll just stick it out. How bad could it be to go a few days without hydrocodone?

Except when you go from taking as many eight 10 mg hydrocodone pills a day to zero, you feel like you’re dying.

Then you feel like you won’t die soon enough.

All my bones feel broken and I have insane diarrhea. I can’t think straight and the pain in my ribs is even worse than usual.

I turn to the over-the-counter meds, swallowing handfuls of Tylenol and Advil trying to ease the pain. Eventually I fall asleep.

As soon as I get my refill, I pop two hydrocodone immediately. My body has been through hell in the last 72 hours. I’m craving a sense of peace.

“Thank God for hydrocodone,” I say.

***

The problem with hydrocodone is that it’s a quick-release drug. You get the initial kick of pain relief, and then it completely wears off before your next dose.

Within about four hours you go from getting the precious pain relief you crave to feeling like you should be flown to the closest emergency room.

I figure there has to be a better way. So I go to my new doctor’s office to discuss options. Long term options. Options that come with a drug contract. The kind requiring a blood signature and your first born.

I’d sign over my soul if it meant I could feel better.

The doctor suggests morphine.

It’s a time-release capsule that I can take three times a day, so I won’t have to endure the insane highs and lows that come with hydrocodone.

“It sounds great. Let’s do that.”

***

The first weekend I’m on the morphine is Thanksgiving. It knocks me out cold. I sleep for four days.

Eventually, though, I get into a rhythm with the drug.

But, although I don’t have to endure the lows of hydrocodone, I also don’t get the highs.

So I never quite get back to my favorite place — that place where I can almost remember what it’s like to be healthy.

***

suicideprevention1A few months later, I’m back at the doctor.

I draw him a little chart. On the bottom it says suicidal, and on the top it says functioning.

Then I draw a line right below functioning to show where I can get with the morphine. It helps, but not quite enough.

“I’m still in too much pain to get off the couch most days,” I tell him. “And if I have breakthrough pain, the morphine doesn’t even touch it.”

“Well, how about we give you some hydrocodone. Just some 5 mg pills you can take to supplement the morphine.”

“That’s exactly what I was hoping for.”

***

So why am I telling you all of this? Well, mostly because it’s true and I’m a writer, and there’s this part of me that has to get it out there, because it’s the only way I know how to make sense of things.

But also because it’s true and yet so few people are talking about it. People are in chronic pain, and they are on opioids, and neither of those things are a black and white issue.

Being in obscene chronic pain on a daily basis changes you. It’s like someone is sticking their hand inside of your heart, and ripping apart your very soul and turning you into a different person.

Like most people, I was pretty anti-change, so when I first got sick I made every effort I could to avoid it — mostly by swallowing as many pain pills as I could manage.

In the beginning the doctors handed them to me like they were after-dinner mints. I barely even had to ask for them. And nobody took even a one single minute to explain how addicting they can be, how quickly your tolerance can build up, or how careful I needed to be with them.

I mean really? The doctor was giving me hydrocodone for headaches? There’s so many things wrong with that scenario.

And, I honestly didn’t even realize hydrocodone pills were opioids until about four months after I started taking them.

I’m at the doctor’s office, carrying around a clear Ziploc bag full of all my pill bottles so I can show them exactly what I’m  taking, and the nurse turns to me and says, “Do you have any opioids in there?” And I honestly say, “I don’t know.”

“Well if you do, you should probably put that in your purse. You just never know with some people,” she tells me.

It was only then that I realized I might have some pretty strong stuff on my hands.

The thing is, without the opioids though I truly believe I would be dead by now.

Chronic pain eats away at you, and it takes away all your hope and all your optimism and all the good things you have inside of you. It’s constantly there, asking you why you even bother to keep going when you know you’re just going to have face another day today that was just as awful as yesterday?

Except, sometimes I don’t have to face another day like yesterday. Sometimes, the sky is clear, and I’ve had a solid 16 hours of sleep, and I take just the right mix of morphine and hydrocodone at just the right time, and I can almost remember what it feels like to be healthy.

And it gives me back some of my hope, and a little bit of my optimism and just a tiny bit of good the world has to offer. All the things you need to survive.

On a practical level, opioids have truly given me the ability to keep my job. Without them, I would be in too much pain to even sit up at a computer. They have also allowed me to shower twice a week, visit my best friend and her 1-year-old son, (who is super cute by the way), and even write this very column.

So are opioids dangerous, and easy to abuse? Yes. Do doctors need to be more careful about who they hand them out to? Of course.

But are they also an extremely valuable drug that literally saves people’s lives? Definitely.

Crystal Lindell

Crystal Lindell

Crystal Lindell is journalist who lives in Byron, Illinois. She loves Taco Bell, watching “Burn Notice” episodes on Netflix and Snicker’s Bites. She has had pain in her right ribs since February 2013. It is currently undiagnosed.

Crystal writes about it on her blog, The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.

The information in this column is not intended to be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Only your doctor can do that!  It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s personal experiences and opinions alone. It does not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of National Pain Report or Microcast Media.

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luz lopez

I n have been suffering from multip lo medical ailments with fibro my alia for 13 years and still exhibit lots of abdominal pain still undiag nm osed. I am frustrated with all the DR’so of today because we end u please being accused of being substance seekers when all of the kids in Hollywood are the ones creating the drama..it’s very unfair that what is hoing v on is that the real patients are paying for the others habits and some of the dr’s are also ruining it for others as well by being bought…

Judi

Accurate article every word is truth, you just became my newest best friend!!!!!

mac

You have done some really wonderful writing here that describes exactly what being a “pain patient” is like. I am so desperate to be able to perform at my job, parent, be there for my friends and family. And that requires forgetting what it’s like to be sick, which means lots of meds. I have figured out that if I take care of myself (go to bed early every day, eat right) I can make do with less meds. But that is always a big disappointment to everyone else, and it doesn’t make the pain go away. My biggest fear is that I will lose access to these meds, because that would be the end of being a high-functioning person. I don’t get withdrawals and I have a diagnosis, but the rest could be me. It’s hard to feel optimistic about the future.

BRENDA M. FLIPPEN

I never thought I would see an honest account of this way of living !! It makes me not feel like a criminal,, although my doctor says different. I get the” talk” every 30 days when I go in for my refills, the talk about opiods and addiction. I don’ t know why he does this unless it’s to make me feel bulkier than I already do.I feel like a criminal every time I tell the nurse I’m only here for refills,, and she looks up at me from her laptop and rolls her eyes and sighs, she may as well say you are a dope addict why don’t you go home and let the real sick people come in. I even went thru detox 2 times and stayed off tor months and once for a year. But that made me pray for death, daily. The pain was unbearable, the anxiety of knowing I would never get out of bed, or off the couch ever again was just too much. So I go doctor hunting again, this must be the 30th Dr. I have seen in 3 years. No one wants to give pain meds, no one wants a fibro patient, no one wants a me/cfs patient ,no one wants a Medicare patient(even though I have a supplemental ins.). No doc wants a patient who has been in rehab, RED FLAG that person !!.And the amount of ibuprofen I take has eaten holes in my esophagus, but the docs say that’s better than being addicted to pain meds!!. Where do these docs get their options from?? I now have a pain doc that gives me 5mg. lorcet, 30 a month, lol, (what a joke) and Ultram 50mg.4-6 a day..I think that is a cruel joke to pull on anyone!!. All they do is make me see a glimmer of what I almost remember of being a normal person. Just a glimmer, and rat’s if I take 3 of the lorcet and 2 Ultram at once,, just for about 10 min. with each dose. And now they have changed my muscle relaxers and I only have a b.m. if I take 4pills for constipation. Yes, I also take stool softeners every day, and get plenty of fiber and drink tons of water. Still constipated !! Constipation, pain, anxiety, fatigue and feeling like no one ‘really’ believes me. But the most terrible part of this all is how I let my family down, not being able to visit, go eat, go shopping and not spending tome with my grand kids.( when you are on pain the last thing you need is kids running around screaming and playing. That sounds so cold, but it’s true. I have tried and it almost killed me. My daughter has almost given up on me and I understand. Mom lives 8hrs away and I haven’t been home for 3 years. She doesn’t understand either, she is 89. And God bless my husband,, he still loves me and… Read more »

I have to say that this is one of the most honest accounts of what it used to be like to be a pain patient in the state of Kentucky. Since the advent of House Bill 1, there is nothing that even slightly resembles this, to be honest, and to my knowledge, anywhere in the state.

I know that this is an extremely honest and well documented account of what Crystal Lindell went through to obtain her pain medication,and she should consider herself lucky to have doctors willing to prescribe opioids, long acting and immediate release.

The pain specialist I see will prescribe one or the other, but there seems to be some law they pretend exists, that will not allow you to have the popular combination of long acting (which NEVER lasts the entire 12 hours mostly due to the abuse-deterrent properties which have greatly detracted from the efficacy of the medications) along with an immediate release “rescue” medication.

It is impossible to make the three 4-hour pills I get to last 24 hours, so, I just sleep as late as I can each day, so I have less time to try to cover the pitiful amount of medication I receive.

Thanks for another great article, Crystal Lindell.

amanda

Did you ever find out what caused your rib pain in the first place?