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How TV Shows are Perpetuating Myths When It Comes to the Opioid Crisis

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My name is Robin Curtin and I’m 47 years old. I have been married to my high school sweetheart for 25 years. We have two beautiful daughters, Hayley and Grace. Hayley is an adult child with special needs. Over the years my husband and I have experienced the ups and downs that most couples do – raising the kids, paying the bills, advocating for Hayley’s needs…and I think we have done a good job. We always worked hard. Sometimes I had two, three, even four jobs at once, to make ends meet. Then one day, out of the blue, illness struck our little family.

In 2011, I was diagnosed with an excruciating nerve pain disease called pudendal neuralgia (PN). I did everything to try and help myself and my pain. I did land therapy, water therapy, trigger point injections, epidurals, nerve blocks, chiropractic, acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, Reiki, and massage. You name it, I tried it. In the end, I went to one of the leading PN specialists in the world and had a bilateral neurectomy to sever some of the painful delayed nerves. He told me it would help, but it wasn’t a fix. He told me this condition is incurable and I would be on pain medication for the rest of my life.

I accepted my fate. I had to quit working and go on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). I had to quit my hobbies and interests. Just taking a shower and going to the market became a victory for me. And when I have an outing such as a party or a concert, I have to rest the day before and for at least 24 hours after. I have to sit on ice packs. I have to sleep with ice packs. The medication does not cure the pain. It gets the pain to a manageable level. Without it, I would be screaming in bed. With it, I can get through the day groaning instead of screaming and crying. And it certainly does not get me high. I never feel high. I feel low. I feel pain. This is my life. I try my best every day to be a wife to my husband, a mother to my daughters.

So why am I telling my story to television writers and producers?

Because I believe you are perpetuating the myth that all opioid use leads to addiction and death. Let’s call this “war on opioids” what it really is  – a war on chronic pain patients. People like me who need these meds, who have been using opioids safely and responsibility for years, are getting their medication suddenly ripped from them. Doctors are taking the CDC guidelines as law, not guidelines. They are afraid and are choosing to compromise their patients’ health rather than prescribe opioids any longer. Patients are losing their lifelines and being set adrift with no alternative, no help with the withdrawal and pain. Some patients, with no other way out the pain, have died by suicide. And the madness has to stop. We are not addicts. We are sick. We are in pain. We need our medication for any semblance of functioning normally. We have done nothing wrong, and we are being punished.

So how is television perpetuating a myth and contributing to our pain?

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I watch TV as a means of escape, to get lost in a story and forget my pain for a moment. But lately I have not been able to escape. TV shows are making my plight as a chronic pain patient in today’s “war on opioids” even worse.

One of my favorite shows is “This Is Us.” It makes me laugh, makes me cry. I never thought it would make me angry. The show decided to give Kevin a storyline where he has surgery, gets a prescription for pain medication, gets addicted, makes horrible choices and has to go to rehab. I know this happens in real life, and it’s terrible. But it tells only one side of opioid use, the harmful side.

Another one of my favorite shows is Grey’s Anatomy. They just introduced a new character – a teenager who had a painful injury, had surgery, got a 10 day prescription for pain medication, got addicted and turned to heroin use. The character, Dr. Amelia Shepherd, said on the show (paraphrasing, although “junkie” was used), “She had surgery and now she’s a junkie because some doctor gave her a prescription she could have done without.”

Could have done without? I had my abdomen cut vertically and then horizontally in surgeries within one week – was I supposed to heal with just Tylenol? How are surgical patients supposed to heal without pain management? Simple answer, they can’t. Pain causes the fight-or-flight response to rise. It puts so much stress on the body. Pain signals that something is wrong. Only pain management with medication can help the body heal.

So please, to the people who make TV shows and who write TV shows – give chronic pain patients a break. We are already struggling with losing our medication due to no fault of our own. Some have died by suicide because the pain is too great and they are left with no help. This is no small matter, and you’re making it worse by broadcasting only one side of the story to the world. Create a character who loses her medication and writhes in bed in pain while her children cry for her. Create a doctor who chooses unfounded fear of losing his license over his patient’s quality of life. Because that is happening too. Not just “junkies.” We are moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas. Legitimate pain patients with documented illnesses. We need you to tell our story too. And if you won’t, then don’t tell the story at all.

Getty Image by Talaj

Originally published: May 25, 2018
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