What I Learned from Taking Opioids
A therapist's personal experience with an opioid prescription.
Posted Mar 29, 2018
Someone I respect recently asked me if I was going to share my experience about my recent back surgery in a Psychology Today post. I thought it was a funny question and pondered if I share too much of my personal information in these posts. This person has also been a university professor, so I found it rather “teacher-esque” of him to ask. Perhaps he realized there was something fitting about my experience for Psychology Today readers.
An obvious connection is the fear of death one confronts when undergoing major surgery. I’m sure that was there. I also felt a little powerless as I sought to understand if I was somehow causing the illness (remember Freud himself suggested that we subconsciously cause the conditions when we get a broken leg). Yet, it was receiving an opioid prescription that scared me the most.
Regular readers may recall a recent post I wrote about the opioid crisis and how addiction is now one of the leading cause of deaths for people under age 50 (double cause for that death fear). On top of that, I have witnessed the horrors of addiction—it completely transforms the addict, leaving little recognition of their true self; and it rips families apart, creating such deep wounds in children that the addiction cycle to calm the trauma often repeats itself through successive generations.
So, what is the addiction cycle?
It’s not really anything different than what I experienced. I was in pain and I took something to calm it. But there’s something more that happens in addiction. Pain pills, alcohol, other drugs (and technically a slew of other self-soothing activities like eating, exercising and even working) are fantastic at treating the pain AND giving the added benefit of numbing us from a host of other pains in the form of uncomfortable feelings, memories, and fears. Sometimes they even produce elated and uplifting feelings. Over time, however, they wear off. Worse pain sets in and the backlog of discontents has grown, requiring a greater amount to alleviate (fix) it.
Addiction feeds addiction. The problems created under the influence exacerbates shame and fear to the point that the person has more self-induced pain to soothe. Denial is powerful after a certain amount of investment. Like someone rigidly tied to one casino slot machine in the desperate attempt to get their money back, an addict also becomes rigid and cannot see any other solution than the one they have chosen (or succumbed to). To do so would mean they have erred and that they have somehow given the control of their life to something else. The great lie of addiction is that they are in control and can stop whenever they want. It’s a trap and a lie.
Sometimes an addict becomes desperate and wants outs and tries to stop. They may even cry to others and seek outside help. Behavior is hard to change when it’s a deeply reinforced habit like addiction. Soon a withdrawal stage will happen—making the addict even more irritable and unhappy than ever until they create enough misery in their life that they feel they must feed the pain with their chosen and/or new and greater addiction (like moving to a higher dose or more lethal drug).
For me, I am grateful for having had my surgery and then rather quickly getting switched to an anti-inflammatory instead of the pain pills. The upside was that the pills made me nauseous after the surgery. Prior to the surgery, I had steady breakthrough pain. The pain consumed me. I was a mess. I was in so much pain that I wasn’t as accessible to others around me. Some of the medications really messed with me. I feel like that time period was a chunk of life of missing gaps that I can’t get back—and which leaves me completely humbled, more empathetic to others’ pain and extremely grateful for new realizations of things I’ve taken for granted.
I was lucky to have the majority of my pain removed via a simple surgery (well, simpler than others). While we therapists try to do a type of psychic surgery with clients to remove psychological pains, I understand there are people out there suffering from serious traumas, mental illness, distressed nervous and regulatory systems, and a boatload of bad advice and poor coping tools. Sometimes people don’t know what they don’t know. Sometimes people fear they’ve messed up so terribly that they don’t deserve a second or third (or 100th) chance, so they remain in a prison.
My mother used to say to walk a mile in someone’s shoes before judging. I don’t know the different pains people feel who are suffering with addiction. I do now know what it’s like to be in so much pain and the relief that comes from taking some of the same narcotic substances that are killing so many at early ages. I do know that I couldn’t have come through the other side without the help of loved ones and medical professionals.
For anyone struggling, I urge you to enlist help. Please call 911 if you have an emergency.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline's 24 hour toll-free crisis hotline, 1.800.273.TALK (1.800.273.8255) can put you into contact with your local crisis center that can tell you where to seek immediate help in your area.
Those who are uncomfortable with speaking on the phone can text "MHA" to 741-741 to speak with a trained crisis counselor at Crisis Text Line.
The Child-Help USA 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453) crisis line assists both child and adult survivors of abuse, including sexual abuse. The hotline, staffed by mental health professionals, also provides treatment referrals.
In areas where 211 is available, dialing this number can connect you with mental health crisis services in your area or help you find where to seek immediate help in your area.
The SAMHSA Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator and the SAMHSA 24/7 Treatment and Referral line at 1.800.662.4357 provide referrals to alcohol, substance abuse and dual diagnosis treatment facilities, including facilities that offer sliding scale fees and other special payment arrangements. Dual diagnosis services provide integrated treatment for individuals who have both an alcohol or substance abuse problem and a mental illness. Use the detailed search option on the left-hand side of the page to find the facilities that most closely match your needs.
There are also a host of 12-step addiction recovery meetings that can be accessed here. There are also a growing number of treatment centers.
These resources will help you recover while developing new healthier behaviors, assist you in finding solutions for working through pain, fear and other triggers, along with teaching you how to heal relationships.