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My Experiences With Chronic Pain and the ‘War on Opiates’

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Editor's Note

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

Talking about my past with addiction is a long story that can be uncomfortable to talk about, but sharing experiences can help to help rip down the huge stigma that surrounds anyone who has chronic pain. We reach a point in our journey where we get labeled by the doctors who originally prescribed us the exact medication we take and then vilified for later on when the pain isn’t getting better, but it spreads and continues to get worse. For a while now, there’s been so much conversation about “the war on opiates,” yet the whole story isn’t being shared. The only way to bring more awareness is to open up as much dialogue as we can. I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience, but I can speak about my own.

I’m an anomaly as someone with chronic pain; I have been addicted to opiates in the past. It took me years to unlearn loving the feeling of drugs, and I now can take my medication without fearing I’ll fall back into my past addiction. But the majority of the people I’ve known and met have never had the same problems as me.

I have talked to people who have been on opiates for decades and never taken more than their prescribed dosages. But if you’ve never experienced pain, it’s so easy to point fingers and say that people like me who have been addicted/are addicted take up the majority. If you take anything from this, know that if you think that way, you need to speak to more people and open your eyes to the community of people with chronic illnesses. Having that mindset is similar to when society said marijuana is a gateway drug. We now know that this is untrue.

There is always a reason people end up addicted to something, and it’s not always drugs and/or alcohol. You can be addicted to gambling, sex, food, gaming, self harm or social media, for example. If you are addicted to one thing, there’s a chance you can become addicted to another. Addiction isn’t funny; it isn’t something we should judge people for their behavior and take the time to consider why they turned to whatever their “drug of choice” is. Addiction and trauma are so intertwined; thankfully, this link is slowly being talked about. We need to treat the trauma, which then it turns helps that individual not to feel the need to turn to whatever is helping them hide from the pain.

For me, it began young. I have shared before that I was molested as a child, but unfortunately that wasn’t the beginning of the pain I went through. I was 5 years old the first time something had happened to me and that was the start of me thinking I was useless. When bad things happen to you when you are so little, it makes you think that being treated terribly is normal and you think that behavior is all you deserve. The more it happens, the more you crave any way possible to run away from yourself, but most importantly, you just want to feel in control somehow.

I’m not proud of some of the decisions I made when I was younger when it came to drugs, alcohol and the really dangerous situations I put myself into. But my brain was only just developing and I was being heavily influenced by my older sister who taught me a lot of things that I shouldn’t have known as a child. I began experimenting with drugs and alcohol at 10 years old to cover the pain. It was very sporadic for years, until I dropped out of school at 15, began working full time and met a few people that were very bad for me. They led me down a path of self destruction. I can’t blame them though; I made the choice to say “yes.” I know now that they were also in similar situations to me and running from a lot of emotional pain.

I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older that a lot of people who have similar experiences can become drawn to each other a lot easier than people who are very different to us. Everyone in my life who I care about struggles with something that they feel has damaged them, and we all found different  ways to deal with the aftermath of the war inside of us.

Everything I went through eventually let me to Narcotics Anonymous. Walking into my first NA meeting was anxiety inducing, but it was also eye opening. I was surrounded by an entire room of people who had used their drug(s) of choice to mask their pain, but we had all been led to the same place to be together and support one another. There was no shame in the rooms. I was so hesitant to share the court process I was going through at the time, and especially my abuse, but I met an incredible man, who is now my best friend.

On a very bad day, I needed to speak so badly, but was scared it was maybe too much and he said to me that I should never feel ashamed to talk about anything. The rooms were a safe space and if I had to get something off my chest, I was in the perfect place to do it. I can never thank him enough for that, because now I have the strength to talk about everything. When I shared my truth the first time, I actually had someone approach me and thank me for being so vulnerable.

They went on to share with me that they had gone through trauma as a child as well, but never told a soul. I was the first person they had ever told after decades of silence. I was told later by this person that they went home and told their partner and it had changed everything for them. It was the first time I felt like maybe my experiences could help people. That is the best feeling in the world, not only feeling less alone myself, but realizing that I can help other people feel less alone as well.

I spent a long time being clean. Thankfully, my chronic pain was manageable so I was able to only take over-the-counter pain medication. But I did a lot of things I shouldn’t have done to find anything to help with the emotional pain I went through for a long time, which now in hindsight shows to me how heavily addiction can hold onto you.

I’m now in a place where I have to take opiates in my day to day life to have some semblance of a quality of life. The great thing though is the fact that I can have all of these medications and I don’t feel the need to abuse them. It’s taken a lot of work to get to this place, but I’m damn proud of myself. I’ve unlearned so many behaviors that brought me shame.

My biggest hope is that society will continue to become more aware of the difference between an addict and someone who takes opiates responsibly. We need to stop treating addicts like they are worthless junkies. They aren’t; everyone is deserving of help. But unfortunately, if you’re in very deep, you have to be the one who hits rock bottom and chooses to ask for help. You can’t force someone out of the darkness; you can try and help, but sometimes they may never want to accept it.

People with chronic pain are living in hell. They are damn warriors; waking up in pain and being able to have any kind of life can be difficult, but it’s definitely possible if you have the right support system in place. If you don’t have chronic pain, please take a minute and think about what I’m going to share.

I want you to think of the worst pain you’ve ever experienced — it could be when you broke a bone, or maybe when you were in labor. Remember what that felt like, and take yourself back there for a moment. Whatever that time was, I’m sure you may have even felt like you were dying; you may have been willing to do absolutely anything for the agony to end. Now take a second to remember the relief you felt when the pain started to subside. It felt like a weight was lifted off you, right? Imagine if you never felt that relief, that pain was there constantly. You could take some medication to ease the pain slightly so you could move, but you knew that you could do nothing to make it go away. There’s a glimpse into chronic pain.

Let’s try and stop judging people; even if our situations may be similar, we can’t walk in each other’s shoes. This is why compassion is so important. Chronic pain isn’t something I’d wish on my worst enemy, but it teaches us to be more patient, caring, compassionate and understanding. It gives us armor and strength. Everyone I know with chronic pain has to constantly advocate for themselves to their friends and family and to health professionals.

If you know someone with chronic pain, help them out. It can be as simple as offering to bring them a meal, visit for a cup of tea or even just call them to have a chat. It can be isolating, but the more our community can band together and support each other through the good and the bad, the better the world will become for us all. We all have something bad that has happened to us.

Trauma is not a competition; there is no winner. Please take some time to think about how you can help one person. That’s how we start to make this harsh world a better place. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to get through this thing we call life. Let’s make it the best we possibly can — there’s no such thing as too much love.

Read more of the author’s work here.

Photo by Camille Brodard via Unsplash.
Originally published: March 2, 2020
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