By Sven Hosford
This is part two of a three-part series that chronicles three mothers in their journey up to and over the edge of opiate addiction. Part one looked at how they were introduced to opiates by their physicians, who created, and then largely ignored, the effects of addiction and withdrawal. This article details how they experienced the “dope sick,” described by those who have survived it as “hell on earth.” Part three will explore how they discovered the effective tools for building an opioid-free life for themselves, both to conquer opiates and to manage the underlying pain that started the opiate use in the first place.
The physical effects of withdrawing from opiates provides a strong incentive to stay addicted.
As an emergency room doctor, Dr. Bryan Doner treats multiple overdoses every day at work. He fully understands the dope sick — the torturous situation that opiate withdrawal creates.
“We know for sure you can die from alcohol withdrawal,” he says in a recent interview. “You can have seizures and die. The majority of the medical establishment says you can get really sick from opiate withdrawal but you’re not going to die.”
Doner says it’s not so clear cut. “People get physically ill. Your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure goes up, you get anxious, sweaty, nauseous, vomiting, diarrhea. These are real physical symptoms — real physical problems that can require acute medical intervention in order to save your life.”
All three of the mothers in this series have experienced the dope sick.
Celeste’s story: Suboxone
After 15 months of heroin addiction, the shame and embarrassment became too much to bear. Celeste agreed to try something different. “Suboxone was a game changer for me,” she says. “I was able to function.”
Her anxiety was the worst part, feeling the ongoing shame over the awful things she did to score heroin — the devastation to her family, both emotionally and financially. “As a holistic person, I felt like a such hypocrite, hooked on heroin and now Suboxone.”
One thing she was unable to quit was illegal marijuana. “You had to pee in a cup. For the first three months, they let it go.” Then, they didn’t. “When I knew I was getting kicked out of the Suboxone clinic, I started to wean down. Coming off Suboxone is almost as bad as coming off opiates.”
It was not easy. After the Suboxone, she still bought pills and drank to amplify the effects. One afternoon, driving very slowly but with kids in the car, she ran into a telephone pole. Surrounded by police, she had a panic attack — shrieking, crying, curled up on the ground, sure she was going to jail.
Mary’s story: Wean off at Home
For several years, Mary thrived on opiates. “It was a great breather to be on pain management for those years. I was pain free and it gave me energy to allow me to function.” She maintained strict adherence to the dosage. “I needed that medicine to function every day! There was no way I was going to abuse it.”
Meanwhile, her sister continued the cycle of addiction, methadone, and relapse. She told Mary that she was off methadone but buying Suboxone on the street. Her last voicemail was that she was doing good and missed her.
“On a lunch break one day, she was rushing home to get her Suboxone fix,” Mary says. “She pulled out in front of a car doing 75 mph. She was instantly killed. She was dope sick, driving, trying to get back home to take Suboxone.”
“When she died, that was it,” Mary says. “I knew I needed to wean off. But it’s a hard decision. You know the hell you are in for. And then what are you going to do about the pain?”
She presented the idea of weaning off to her doctor. “He thought I should stay on opiates for the rest of my life, but he did agree to adjust my prescriptions as I wanted.”
Every 28 days, she reduced her dosage by 20 percent. Each reduction brought days of dope sick, being unable to leave her bed except to hug the toilet. “I remember that first month I was in bed for nine days.”
Six months later, the last step down to zero was the most difficult. “My brain receptors had been opened up to opiates for almost seven years, so to take that away…” She trails off and shakes her head. “That last bit was the worst. I dropped down 20 pounds and was cold all the time. I had to hire a driver if I wanted to go anywhere. I was like that for two weeks.”
When Mary had been clean for over a month, she looked healthy and had gained weight. She was confident and clear-eyed, an amazing demonstration of pure willpower in overcoming a debilitating affliction.
Christine’s story: Dodging the Bullet
Christine’s wean off was quick. Upon waking from minor surgery, she was nauseous and constipated for two days. She was sent home with a morphine drip in her leg. Her husband argued with the doctor’s office on the phone. They were telling him, “She’s not taking enough! She needs to take one pill every four hours to get ahead of the pain.”
When she heard that, Christine says, “I knew I had to get this out of my system. I just pulled the needle out of my leg.”
“It was instant relief.” This surprised her. She’d never taken an opiate in her life and had no idea her agony was from morphine, not post-op pain. “I didn’t have any dependency. I’m not interested in that lifestyle. I don’t want to spend a minute in that lifestyle.”
If Christine had taken all of the pills prescribed by her doctor — almost three months worth — she would have been firmly addicted. “I didn’t take a single one,” she says. She gave them all to a pharmaceutical disposal service.
Only Part of the Problem
Dr. Doner is frustrated by the current system. “There’s no stop gap. Nobody has a good plan. What are we going to do about this? How are we going to stop this? You have to have a special license from the government to prescribe Suboxone, but I can prescribe oral Dilaudid no problem.”
According to its website, Dilaudid has a risk of “serious, life-threatening, or fatal respiratory depression” in addition to being highly addictive.
“It doesn’t make sense in my opinion,” says Doner.
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. March 14, 3-3:50 p.m.
In part three of this series, the three mothers will detail the tools they discovered to live opiate free.