By Sven Hosford

The news is full of horrifying statistics about the opioid crisis in America: the number of overdose deaths, the number of pills sold, the number of people in pain who need opioids to function. But people are not statistics. To fully understand this crisis, we need to understand what people are going through, not just how many of them are going through it. Only then can we find the compassion to eliminate the stigma of addiction and work towards honest solutions.

This three-part series chronicles three mothers in their journey up to and over the edge of opiate addiction. Each was introduced to opiates by her physician, who created, and then largely ignored, the effects of addiction and withdrawal. Each experienced “dope sick,” described by those who have survived it as “hell on earth.” And all of them had to discover for themselves the effective tools for building an opioid-free life, both to conquer opiates and to manage the underlying pain that started the opiate use in the first place.

The Pushers

For most Americans, the introduction to opiates begins with a prescription and little or no warning of the addiction possibilities.

The front line of the addiction crisis is the emergency room. As an attending emergency physician, Dr. Bryan Doner treats multiple cases of opiate overdose every shift. He prescribes opiate pain prescriptions in small amounts as he treats acute situations.

“The key thing is to only take those as needed,” he explains in a recent interview. “Do not take those on a regular, consistent basis. The problem is the medicine they send you home with, that you take every day, day after day, consistently. Then, one day, you wake up and your body is addicted, and you had no idea this was coming.”

Celeste’s story: Surviving the needle

The word she uses to describe her story is “horrifying.” Celeste is professional, well-educated, well-traveled, and from a wealthy family — a mother of two. “If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”

It started with a hysterectomy. She believes she was hooked with the very first needle of pain medicine. She was craving pills by the time an artery burst 30 days later, “I literally died,” she says. “I wouldn’t be here without blood donations.” The ongoing pain was excruciating, debilitating.

“The prescriptions were very, very generous, for more many many months,” she says.

Gradually, her behavior changed. She became “mean as a snake.” She lied and made up stories to get more prescriptions. She found a local physician, who was also very generous with his scripts.

“My tolerance became so high, the doctors caught on and lowered the dosages.” She met another mother at Whole Foods around then. “We just started talking about pain. She was on painkillers and had a great connection. I did business with her until she introduced me to her dealer.”

“He had anything I wanted. It started with pills, then one day he said, ‘Have you ever tried heroin?’ That became a daily habit that wound up costing us tens of thousands of dollars — all of our savings.” She is deeply embarrassed and ashamed to
speak about it.

“I hated my life. I hated my husband. I hated my children. All I cared about was getting more drugs.” The physicians who got her addicted shut her off. No help and no more prescriptions.

Mary’s story: At the hard edge

Mary knew all about opioids before she got hooked. She had watched her sister sink deeper into opioid madness for over 15 years. “It was a constant cycle of abuse, rehab, then relapse when she found a new source. She lost her kids when she set the house on fire too many times from cigarette burns.”

Seven years ago, Mary was living in rural PA with a small child and her husband. “One day, I fell to the ground and was unable to get up,” she says. A childhood of too much ballet and gymnastics finally took its toll on a knee. “My doctor prescribed Vicodin for pain. I took them for a few days. No problems.”

Six months later, she fell to the ground again, this time with back pain. “The doctor convinced me to take opioids for a couple weeks or months and two Valium a day for muscle relaxing.” They were essential for pain management, he told her.

“I think I was addicted in two weeks. Once I could get up and walk again, I felt great. Having relief from the pain was wonderful.” Watching her sister’s addiction problems left Mary with a firm determination not to take more than prescribed.

Christine’s story: Pushing back

For Christine, it began with knee surgery as a teenager. “I’ve been in chronic pain since I was 14,” she says, “and I have dealt with it since then — naturally, by myself, non-pharmaceutically. If I’m on opioids, the odds are I’m going to feel good, and if I feel good, the odds are I’m going to hurt myself more. I want to ride the pain and get better.”

Six follow-up surgeries did little but give her ample experience riding the pain. As a ballet dancer and competitive runner, she has always been fit and athletic. She now practices yoga regularly and is still in top physical shape, despite the constant pain.

Eight years ago, she chose to have some simple foot surgery. “My kids were in 3rd and 5th grade. I had a husband and a business. The last thing I needed was to be out of it.” She left explicit written instructions that she was not to have any pain medication of any kind.

So it was a shock for her to wake up from the surgery with a morphine drip in her leg. She was nauseous and not thinking straight. “The invasiveness of the morphine was traumatic. I was throwing up the whole time and had severe constipation. I was thrashing around in
severe agony.”

For two days.

Finally, her husband called the doctor’s office. “They said, ‘You need to get ahead of the pain.’ That I should take one of the 50 oxycontin or 20 blue morphine pills they sent home with me. It was explicitly to stay ahead of the pain.”

Only as needed

Dr. Doner asserts that physicians today are supposed to tell patients to take these pills only “as needed in cases of intolerable pain.”

“Doctors probably aren’t stressing that enough,” he says. “On the other hand, we take most medicine the same time every day or twice a day. That’s how you get better. Then we give them this pain medication. They see every six hours and think ‘if i take this every six hours, it’s going to help me get better.’ In fact, it’s not helping you get better at all. It’s just masking the symptoms of pain.”

Sven Hosford will host a panel discussion based on this series at the 2018 World Medical Cannabis Conference & Expo in Pittsburgh at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. “Strategies for Opioid Free Living” will cover the effective tools for building an opioid-free life, both to conquer opiates and to manage the underlying pain which caused the need for opiates. Date/Time: 4/14/18, 3:00-3:50 pm

In Part Two, we’ll follow the three mothers as they experience the Dope Sick — the physical effects of opiate withdrawal.

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