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How Taking Opioids for Chronic Pain for 5 Years Saved My Life

I would be dead without opioids.

Before you write me off as “another addict,” you should know I don’t take opioids anymore. I actually hated those five years of my life but not for the reasons you might expect. I hated myself for taking opioids because I was taught to — I was supposed to.

I believe the stigma surrounding chronic pain patients, especially ones who take opioids, is more evident and more extreme than ever.

I’m going to digress for a moment here to remind everyone that people with addictions are still, in fact, human beings and deserve to be treated as such. Addiction is a legitimate mental condition that needs to be acknowledged. I wish this wasn’t something people need to be reminded of, but some still do. OK, moving on. . .

I never wanted to take opioids. I knew what a lot of people thought about pain medication. I know what I thought about pain medication. . . that’s why I didn’t want to take it! The first two years I lived with chronic pain, I refused to even consider seeing a pain management doctor. But the pain just kept getting worse. When I kept going to the emergency room, I finally agreed to make an appointment.

I believe society portrays pain as something to push through. No pain, no gain, right? People who take pain medications are often made to feel weak. People should be proud when they’re in pain and don’t take anything for it; we as a society applaud people for letting themselves suffer. I never wanted to take opioids. I never wanted to be thought of as “weak.” But I needed them.

A girl standing in between a gate.

Opioids allowed me to survive — and on good days to have some level of functionality. Before meeting my pain doctor, I spent a lot of time in bed crying. I couldn’t do anything else. I could barely breathe. It hurt! Even when I was taking opioids, I was still in pain. But they’re the only thing that gave me enough relief to make it out of bed for the past five years. And trust me, I tried everything. I didn’t just walk into a pain management doctor’s office and have a prescription for opioids thrust into my hand. That’s not how it works. I had to try anything and everything before my doctor and I began to discuss opioids. I tried all kinds of medications: NSAIDs, antidepressants, corticosteroids, muscle relaxers, pills, patches, creams, you name it. I tried braces and kinesio tape. I tried cognitive behavioral therapy, physical therapy, chiropractors, acupuncture, yoga, pilates, water aerobics, working out with a trainer, essential oils, dietary changes, meditation, prayer and more.

I also had every procedure my doctor could think of within reason. We started with the easy stuff like steroid injections, epidurals and nerve blocks — you know just some giant needles repeatedly stabbing my knees, back, ribs and neck. I also tried radio frequency nerve ablations (RFAs). The doctor first “numbs the area” by injecting local anesthetic. The quotation marks are because I don’t go numb because of my Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. They then insert a cannula, which at least when I had them in my neck for occipital neuralgia, got pushed in until it was touching bone. Then an electrode is inserted through the cannula, which heats up and ablates the nerve (a.k.a. destroys by burning). They’re horrible enough when they go smoothly, but I felt the entire procedure the last time I had one, including the burning. I couldn’t speak because of the pain, so my doctor didn’t notice I was crying until he had been burning it for about a minute. Easily the worst pain of my life. Oh, I also had a nerve block through my nose to try to help with migraines (a sphenopalatine ganglion block). Good times!

Do you honestly think I would have put myself through all of that, not just once but each procedure multiple times over the course of five years, if I just wanted drugs? I wanted pain relief, not pain meds. I spent all five years I took opioids trying to find an alternative. I tried everything I mentioned above, and then I tried it all again. Some things were helpful in conjunction with the opioids. None came close to providing comparable relief alone.

I have the best pain management doctor out there. Seriously, I’m so incredibly fortunate to have him. I know so many people with awful pain management doctors, and it hurts my heart. I don’t know what I would have done had I not found him. Even so, while I know I have a doctor who believes and trusts me, I still have panic attacks every time I have an appointment coming up with him. I feel like I’m guilty of something every time I walk into that office. I’ve done nothing wrong, but it doesn’t feel that way. I feel guilty and ashamed. I’m so scared of being thought of as a drug-seeker that I’m rarely honest about how bad my pain is. I rarely take as much medication as I need (and am allowed).

I use CBD oil now, which has been life-changing for me. But I’m not here to sing its praises because unsolicited medical advice is one of my biggest pet peeves. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, and some people can’t take it. When I discovered the CBD oil worked well for me, I was the one to bring up weaning myself off my opioids. I was so happy to not only have significantly more relief but to get off opioids.

Writing that just made me really sad. Opioids kept me alive for five years. I had a deep-seated shame for needing them that only got worse as the opioid crisis/hysteria grew. I should never have felt guilty for doing what I needed to do to survive through responsible, safe means. Seeking relief from pain is not wrong, and it’s not a weakness. I would not have been able to write without opioids. I wouldn’t have been able to work, to graduate, to spend time with family and friends. I wouldn’t have been able to walk, to talk, to laugh, to cry.

I often find myself wondering if I deserve the relief I’m getting now. I spent so much time feeling like I was asking for too much when I sought out pain relief. I felt I didn’t deserve the relief if I had to take opioids to get it. I really felt guilty for my pain and for my existence. That is something no one should ever feel. No one should ever question whether they deserve relief from pain.

Here’s what it boils down to: No one should ever feel guilty for wanting pain relief. No one should ever feel guilty for seeking pain relief through safe means. No one should feel they don’t deserve pain relief, and no one should be denied medication that allows them to survive.

Photo submitted by contributor.