The Slippery Slope of Pain Medication

By Colin Broderick 05/13/16

It's easy to lose sight of whether the pills are relieving your physical or spiritual pain.

Image: 
Prince; and the Slippery Slope of Pain Medication
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In my early twenties, I walked into a New York street and got hit by a car. I crushed two vertebrae and wound up in a body brace for about a year. I was sober at the time. And by sober, I mean that at the time of the accident, I had been actively involved in a recovery program for over a year.

I liked being sober. I also liked the pain meds they gave me at the hospital.

They started with Demerol, and after a few days, they switched me to Vicodin. I was in excruciating pain, so I was able to justify the opioid medication as a temporary necessity.

After I was discharged from the hospital, I was completely incapacitated and housebound for a few months. My sober friends brought a weekly meeting to my apartment. They brought food, lit candles—it became a thing. Pretty soon, we had between fifteen to twenty people crowding into my living room for that Wednesday night meeting. It was understood that I was on the pain meds. I had it under control. I was keeping it out in the open...sort of.

Pain doesn’t feel like what you think pain will feel like. Instead, it feels like boredom, or hunger, or rage, or frustration.

When it started, I was on about five or six Vicodin pills a day. Again, what was I to do! I was in pain. I deserved to feel relief. Right? But in retrospect, I can admit that right from the very get-go, I was already loving the buzz. The dream-like opiate euphoria. It was a new high for me. I’d been a drinker primarily. I’d also smoked lots of weed and used my fair share of cocaine. But this new drug, as the kids like to say, “This was my jam, baby.” But let’s not call it a drug, that sounds too seedy. My new “medication” was wonderfully effective.

What started out as regulated pain management quickly evolved into a full-blown opioid addiction. I was a pill popper, a pharmaceutical junkie. Only now, I wasn’t copping in some burnt out building in the south Bronx. Now, I could show up at my doctor's office and say, “Hey Doc, my back is killing me,” and he’d write me a prescription for thirty pills with the bonus of a refill thrown in for good measure.

Within a year of popping Vicodin, I had three doctors that I hit regularly. One in Larchmont, one in the Bronx, one in Inwood. I’d hit them all in the same day and then visit three different pharmacies and load up on my pills. I’d stay high for a couple of weeks and then detox myself before starting all over again. I lived in this cycle of madness for over six years.

All this time, I was “sober” and attending meetings. I was married. I put myself through college. On the outside, it was business as usual. On the inside, it was a war zone...until I got my pills.

The reason opioid pills are so effective as a pain medication is the same reason that heroin is so addictive. It’s because they are basically the same drug: opium. Opium is the greatest painkiller known to man. But opium doesn’t just kill physical pain, opium kills all pain: physical, emotional, psychic, and spiritual. Opium not only kills all pain, but it replaces it with a feeling of warm, loving, euphoria. On its best days, it can make you feel like you are being hugged by God.

Opium is harvested from the poppy plant. If it hits the street, it’s heroin. But when the pharmaceutical companies get their hands on it, they can clean it up, process it, bleach it, make respectable looking little pills out of it. The kind of pills you could hand to your child, or your parent—the kind of pill you could pop into your mouth in a crowded restaurant.

There’s just one problem with the pills: they can kill you.

In 2014, 18,893 people died in the United States from prescription pain medication (a rate three times higher than in 2000). Heroin killed 10,574 for that same year. That’s almost twice as many dead by pills made legally and prescribed by trustworthy medical professionals.

When I hear of someone like Prince dying, my internal “pill bell” rings. It rang when Michael Jackson died, and Heath Ledger and Brittany Murphy and Corey Haim. But those are only the celebrity deaths. What about the other 20,000 or so we don’t read about in the glossy magazines? They are sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers. They slip through the cracks, and only those who love them can see, in retrospect, that maybe things had been a little strange just before they died. Invariably, their doctors knew too.

No one is to blame here. I was an addict and managed to hide it from everyone. Until eventually I drank again, that is. In the years I was drinking again, I had a couple of close calls where I almost OD’d. Opioid pills and alcohol are a lethal combination. It’s easy to take too many when you’re drinking. When you’re drunk, it’s easy to fall asleep and not have the energy to fight against an overdose as it’s happening. The drug slows everything down. You become incapacitated. The body struggles to breathe. It feels like you’re drowning, only you are drowning in fresh air. It’s a horrible way to go. Your mind is conscious enough to know that you are going under, but you can’t move your body to do anything about it.

It took me another eight years after I added booze to the equation before I finally had another moment of clarity and found the strength to get sober again at the age of 38.

It took me a few years of sobriety before I understood that I had spent my entire adult life self-medicating in one form or another. It took me another few years to get to the heart of my own psychic pain and confront it. But this time, I stayed with it. I stayed with the pain, the discomfort of being alive in my own skin.

Here’s something I discovered along the way: pain doesn’t feel like what you think pain will feel like. Instead, it feels like boredom, or hunger, or rage, or frustration. It feels like, “I don’t want to be alive for another second inside this body without a drink or a drug in my hand.”

So much of addiction is based in self-medicating against psychic pain and childhood trauma. For the active addict, it is practically impossible to discern whether he’s taking that pill for a sore back, or to relieve some other much older, more elusive ache at the center of his being. Either way, the medication feels like it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. It stops the pain.

If you’re reading this and you’re popping pills for pleasure, stop now, while that alternative is still on the table. Life can get good again on the other side. I know. I got sober nine years ago. I now have two beautiful children, a trusting and loving wife, I’ve managed to publish a couple of memoirs in that time and recently shot my first feature movie. I experience joy in my life again, something that never happened when I was active.

The only way to a life beyond your wildest dreams comes through the process of understanding your pain, not running from it. The only way out is through.

Colin Broderick is the author of the addiction memoirs Orangutan and That's That

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