The Suboxone Addict You Never Knew Existed, Chapter 2

By Daniel Mulligan 11/20/15

A year ago the author wrote about his suboxone addiction. Now he's quit. But now what?

The Suboxone Addict You Never Knew Existed, Pt. 2

The pain is absolutely unrelenting. It is so bad, in fact, that at times I actually find myself laughing out loud, nearly unable to believe that the human body is capable of producing sensations that feel like nothing so much as a punishment. I'm roughly two weeks into an opiate withdrawal that will eventually stretch on for three agonizing months. And although I'm not aware of it at the time, the worst of it hasn't even begun.

In fact, if you're struggling with a buprenorphine dependency yourself and you take away just one single useful tip from this essay, it should be this: Methadone is miles easier to get off of than Suboxone. 

If you've experienced opiate withdrawal yourself, you surely know the drill: The most intense lower back pain known to man. Muscles and bones that feel as if they're slowly being crushed. The unmistakable symptoms of the flu, albeit the most uncomfortable flu you've ever experienced. 

But as bad as the physical pain of opiate withdrawal may be—and it truly is an unrelenting and almost indescribable sort of pain—the psychological side effects can, in some instances, be multitudes worse. 

This is absolutely the case with Suboxone, a narcotic medication which, perhaps ironically, is used to treat narcotic addiction.

I spent roughly seven years addicted to Suboxone, but I wasn't using it in an effort to kick heroin or any other narcotic, which is Suboxone's intended use. I was, in fact, entirely opiate naïve when I discovered the drug, which works very much like a traditional opioid if the person ingesting it isn't already a narcotic user.

Back in mid-2014, I wrote an essay for The Fix, "The Suboxone Addict You Never Knew Existed," that told the story of my struggle with buprenorphine, which I found absurdly difficult to quit. That essay appeared a year-and-a-half ago, and I am both pleased and more than a little surprised to report that I've now been Sub-free for just over 15 months. The methods I employed to kick Suboxone certainly didn't involve anything new or unusual. Nevertheless, I feel like my story is one that's worth sharing. After all, while it was anything but easy, I did manage to permanently walk away from Suboxone. And if the multitude of posts about the difficulty of kicking the drug that continue to pop up on website forums can be believed, that's truly saying something. 

* * *

Honestly, I seem to have scraped many of the memories from the three-month period I spent withdrawing from buprenorphine straight out of my subconscious. Quite a few of those days—maybe even the majority of them—are gone forever, and that's definitely for the best. On the other hand, there are details I couldn't forget if I wanted to. So bearing in mind that some of these recollections are already a bit hazy, this is essentially the condensed version of how I managed to beat buprenorphine.

Step One: I spent about six weeks weaning myself down to the lowest dose I could manage, which was somewhere between one and two milligrams a day. (For those of you not in the know, that is an incredibly low dose.)

Step Two: Once the buprenorphine was completely out of my system, I used small doses of methadone to stave off the worst of the withdrawal's physical and mental effects. 

Step Three: I waited. And waited. And waited even more. At some point in month two, I half-seriously weighed the benefits of suicide. I went days without showering, or even changing my clothes. Barely a moment went by when I didn't feel angry, or on edge, or downright spiritless. And then eventually—slowly—I came back to life. 

* * * 

As far as the actual symptoms of buprenorphine withdrawal were concerned, it wasn't until my supply of Suboxone pills eventually ran out that they began in earnest. At first the symptoms were purely physical, but that changed after maybe 10 days. Not only were the psychological effects far worse, they were also much longer lasting. How to describe them? There were long stretches when I didn't feel at all as if I was living in the real world. At times, I felt as if I was a background character in a sitcom about my own life. To put it differently, I felt for weeks at a time like I was living inside a plastic bubble, watching as the world went by without me. And make no mistake: These were incredibly disconcerting experiences, and unlike anything my mind had encountered in the past, whether chemically aided or not. I suspect this is at least somewhat similar to what people suffering from depersonalization disorder go through. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the withdrawal also came with much more standard, garden-variety psychological aches, the most frequent of which I can really only describe as a crushing, almost pulsating sadness. I spent entire days curled up in the fetal position on my bedroom couch, feeling sorry for myself. Sometimes I would cry. Sometimes I would attempt to complete a basic household task—folding the laundry, say, or washing the dishes. But I ended up back on the couch every time, both physically and mentally exhausted, and wondering just how long this trip through my own personal inferno was going to last.    

* * *

I had been clean for 19 days straight when I finally gave in, so to speak. I was in the incredibly fortunate position of having a friend who had access to methadone pills, and he convinced me that my suffering—which, even as I rounded the corner into my first full month of withdrawal didn't seem to be lessening in the slightest—wasn't entirely necessary. Because the methadone was prescribed to him for a chronic pain condition, he was only able to spare small portions of his medication, and yet I'm not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that it made all the difference in the world. Even with just a few milligrams of methadone introduced into my system every other day, the relief was so substantial that I decided to try and gain admittance to a methadone clinic, where I would be able to receive considerably larger doses on a daily basis. 

Unfortunately, the clinic nearest to my house never did admit me. I suspect that had more to do with the fact that at the time, I had no health insurance to speak of, than because I was attempting to kick a buprenorphine addiction, as opposed to a heroin or Percocet habit. In fact, it was during one of the dozens of phone calls I made to the clinic, imploring them to accept me as a patient, that a nurse practitioner filled me in on the clinic's most frequent inquiry. The overwhelming vast majority of the phone calls she took these days, she told me, were from people who couldn't manage to stay off Suboxone and were looking for help. The irony in such a situation would be amusing if it weren't so infuriating. After all, when Reckitt Benckiser first released Suboxone and Subutex in the United States in 2002, the drug was aggressively marketed to prescribing physicians as a non-addictive and more convenient alternative to methadone. Obviously, that hasn't turned out to be the case. 

In fact, if you're struggling with a buprenorphine dependency yourself and you take away just one single useful tip from this essay, it should be this: Methadone is miles easier to get off of than Suboxone. There's simply no comparison. I can't emphasize strongly enough that if I hadn't had access to methadone, I genuinely don't know how, or if, I would have made it through such an unusually lengthy withdrawal. Sure, people have kicked Suboxone in the past with nothing more than sheer willpower, and more will certainly do it in the future. I can only assume that they are much stronger and more tenacious people than myself.  

My advice? Once you're ready to quit Suboxone, your absolute best bet will be to find a methadone clinic that will accept you as an outpatient, and to then simply switch from one drug to the other. Once you've been fully transitioned onto methadone, ask a clinic physician to help you create a tapering plan. Yes, you may very well still experience a bit of withdrawal when the time comes to leave the clinic for good. But it'll last two, three, maybe four days at the most. Take a Friday and a Monday off from work, and by the time Tuesday morning rolls around, you'll be back in business. 

* * *

If I was the person reading this story and not the one writing it, this is the question I would want to have answered: How has your life changed since you got off Suboxone? But that's a hard one to answer. Sure, my life has changed, but it's tough to say whether those changes are the direct result of kicking the drug, or if they simply came about because, well, life tends to change. 

What I can tell you is that after three full months of living with a barely functional brain, my finances were a complete mess. I was self-employed as a freelance writer at the time, so I had the unusual luxury of wallowing in despair for all those weeks and not working. Which is fortunate, because I don't imagine I could have worked much at all, even if I'd wanted to. My savings account had grown so slim over those three months that I ended up taking a full-time office job. And while I was incredibly fortunate to have found a job after only a couple weeks of searching, I hated it desperately. More than ever before, I found myself wanting to escape back into a comforting high after work and on the weekends. I managed to stay sober for maybe six months before I started drinking. At first, it was a six-pack of expensive craft beer that would last me two or three days. But before long, I started looking forward to hitting my local—a depressing dive bar where smoking was still allowed, and where $3 would get you a shot of bottom-shelf whiskey and a can of watery lager—after work. 

Thankfully, those days are now over; I simply found the bar scene too sad for words. But I would be lying if I said that I haven't gone back to experimenting with narcotics, which, given the social anxiety disorder I've struggled with for nearly two decades now, will most likely always be my drug of choice. 

As unfortunate as it may be, I haven't succeeded in finding anything, whether meditation or yoga or physical exercise or good ol' hard work, that makes me feel as safe and comforted—as normal—as a narcotic high. No, I haven't returned to Suboxone. Instead, like scores of other addicts who started off with a legitimate prescription for pain pills and then moved onto something more dangerous but much cheaper, I've slowly found myself being sucked in over the past few months by the pleasures of an opiate that, not unlike buprenorphine, is draining my bank account and proving increasingly difficult to quit. But that, I suppose, is a story best left for chapter 3. 

Daniel Mulligan is the pseudonym of a writer in Philadelphia. He last wrote about being addicted to suboxone.

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