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When I Was Asked, 'How Can You Take Care of Your Kids When You’re on Painkillers?'

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When I first began seeing doctors for my condition they put me on Tylenol-3 with codeine. For the first time in as long as I could remember I felt good. It turned the pain down from an eight to a three. I even remember putting on my running shoes and going outside and taking a short jog around the block. But my joy was short-lived as the judgement quickly began and guilt set in.

The stigma around opioids is growing. People seem to lump illegal drugs and prescription opioids together and equate addiction with responsible patients taking prescribed medications. So it inevitably came, the question that made me question myself as a parent. “How can you take care of your kids when you’re on painkillers?”

What kind of question was that? I felt like my parenting was improving with pain medication. I could actually move my body without excruciating pain which meant I was in a positive mind-state more frequently, which meant I could play and bond with my children.

People don’t realize how much chronic pain can affect your life outside of the physical symptoms. Chronic pain makes you tired, depressed, anxious, angry, grumpy and frustrated. Before pain medication, I was almost always in a bad mood. I would snap at my husband and kids. I could not tolerate loud sounds; even the sound of my kids’ voices could be like nails on a chalkboard. I would literally have a physical reaction like an electric storm to some sounds.

At one point my daughter even asked me, “Mommy, why are you angry all the time?”

But when that person asked me that question, I began to wonder — is it bad parenting to take opioids? Does it affect my parenting? Do people see it as the same as being drunk or high? I began to judge myself and felt guilty when I took a pill in front of my kids. I felt like a drug addict. I felt ashamed for taking my own prescription medication. I would sometimes not take it to see if I was a “better mom” without my meds. And I was completely miserable. I could barely move around and was in the darkest, angriest mood, not because I was a drug addict needing a fix, but because my body depends on a prescription medication to function as close to normally as it can get. It was then that I realized there is a difference between addiction and dependence.

There is an entire “mom culture” centered around drinking wine while parenting which people laugh about and raise their glass to. So why do people feel it is OK to make this judgement on a pain patient? I am prescribed Tramadol for a reason and that reason is to improve my quality of life. I am able to function like a normal, happy, energetic and attentive mother when I take my meds. Without them I am an angry zombie.

When I tried my little no-med experiment, my husband saw the agony I was dealing with — an invisible illness becoming visible. He knew I was trying not to take my opioids to prove the judge and jury wrong. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he gently said, “Joanna, just take your meds. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Your doctor gave them to you for a reason.” I asked him what prompted him to tell me to take my meds and he responded: “Because I can see you’re in pain and struggling… And you’re really hard to be around when you’re in pain.” He added the last bit with a chuckle.

So there I had my “proof.” I am literally a happier, more functional person when I take my opioids regularly. And you know what? It is not open for public comment. No one has the right to judge me based on societal stigmas, especially not someone who doesn’t have chronic pain. You think parenting is hard? Try doing it when your body feels like it’s been sat on by an elephant then set on fire. Then tell me if opioids make you an impaired parent or a better one.

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Originally published: October 13, 2016
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