So today the op-ed page editor of my city’s paper emailed to say the (very personal) essay I sent him a few weeks back will run this weekend. It’s about how addiction is an illness, not a crime, and it tells a bit of the story of how my parents died of the consequences of their addictions and how I got sober.
The timing of this piece’s publication is a little ironic, because yesterday I was prescribed hydrocodone for a cough that has lasted for more than two weeks.
Drugs really do work for the purposes for which they’re intended. At least, some drugs do. Opioids (known by cops as “narcotics”) are very good at two things:
- Dulling some kinds of pain
- Slowing autonomic responses—breathing, gut motility, etc.
For this stuff, opioids work wonders, fast. Twenty minutes after I took my first dose, my cough was 80 percent gone.
I had been coughing so long and persistently that I felt as though I were being stabbed in the solar plexus. Even my butt was killing me because every time a spasm hit, my whole body would tense, and I have trigger points in my glutes. The pain of which I used to try to numb out with huge doses of drugs and which I now treat through yoga and aerobic exercise. But when you can’t breathe, it’s hard to do vinyasas or run three miles.
I saw my doctor last week. I’d been through a course of antibiotics, which hadn’t worked. We were speculating it was a virus after all. She looked at my chart. “So, you were on opioids for a long time, right?” she said. “And remind me—do you think you were dependent, or were you addicted?”
“Oh, I was addicted,” I said mildly.
“So you probably wouldn’t like to take an opioid,” she said doubtfully.
“Is there anything else that might work?” I asked.
She prescribed steroids and told me to take Delsym. Which didn’t work. We had another frank discussion about the possibility of my taking an opioid cough syrup.
Her concern did not make me feel like a criminal. I’ve spent time with doctors in whose presence I felt like a criminal, or like a bad person, or like a plain pain in the ass. It’s to be expected: active addiction leads us to deceive ourselves and others, and people feel betrayed. They take it personally.
But in speaking with my PCP yesterday, I felt as though she were looking after me. It seemed to me that she was weighing the risks of two different illnesses against each other—my respiratory problem, and my addiction—and trying to figure out how to treat one without exacerbating the other.
Imagine what it would be like if most doctors demonstrated that attitude. It would be easier for so many more people to get help.
Just because a person has addiction, does that mean they can never be trusted again? Or that they have to suffer?
On the other hand, I spoke to a friend this afternoon who said that, over the phone today, my voice sounded different from normal.
“You sound HAPPY,” she said. “I don’t mean high. You just sound different. You haven’t sounded very happy lately.”
In fact I haven’t been very happy lately. I haven’t exactly been sad; but I have major problems and big life-questions going on here, I’m holding the rudder with one hand and reading the map with the other, and the seas are throwing a lot of spray on deck. I’ve been squinting against the sea-salt.
I took two prescribed doses of hydrocodone cough syrup today. And even at a prescribed dose, this stuff definitely adds almost like a layer of duck down in my head and body. It makes it hard for me to feel at the depth and complexity to which, over the past two or three years, I’ve become used to feeling my life.
And that’s only at a tiny dose.
Even a small dose makes me not-care to a certain degree. I can see how, at mega-doses, I’d wind up saying, most of the time, just, Fuck It.
Looking back, I can’t believe the enormous amounts of drugs I used to take. It appalls me. How could I have felt anything at all? … I don’t think I did feel much, except fear. I seriously compromised my usefulness in this world.
But: just writing about it in this way, I can now recognize the degree to which I’ve begun to forgive myself. I used to beat the shit out of myself for my mistakes. Now, after some deep inward examination, and after making ongoing reparations for the past four years, I can see that I’m practicing more compassion for the person I was. She wasn’t a criminal. She was pretty ill. She was operating under serious limitations, biological and psychological, and she did the best she could.
I’m still tempted to beat the shit out of myself. Here’s one way I know my new compassionate response is not too lenient: when newcomers sit in front of me and tell me all the mistakes they’ve made, I don’t beat the shit out of them. I show them compassion.
It’s kind of the converse of the Golden Rule. If I’m supposed to love others as I’d love myself, then maybe I can also treat myself with the same compassion I show others.
Look for my op-ed this Sunday in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and let me know what you think.