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When I Asked for Pain Medication and My Doctor Accused Me of 'Drug-Seeking Behavior'

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Although I’ve been a regular at hospitals since I was a kid, I am, and never have been, any good at asking for help. So when I plucked up the courage to ask my doctor for advice about pain medication, the last thing I expected was to be told I was exhibiting drug-seeking behavior and was in danger of becoming addicted.

Life with scleroderma and fibromyalgia has been a rollercoaster and, as anyone with a chronic illness knows, you’re always learning. While I’m often uncertain about whether I’m handling my illnesses correctly, I have always been sure of one thing – I hate using painkillers, especially opiates. They mess with my sleep cycle, make me even more fatigued and exacerbate brain fog. However, sometimes I have no other choice.

When I was first began experiencing chronic pain at age 14, I spent a year just gritting my teeth to get through it. Then, when I hit 15, I couldn’t take it anymore and I began using codeine to manage it; this continued until I was 17. I went cold turkey when I realized I was dangerously close to becoming addicted to it.

After years of being prescribed countless useless medications by clueless doctors, I decided to focus on managing the pain without any assistance. This worked relatively well until five months ago. Within three short months, my whole life got turned upside again. I was hospitalized for another infection and I found myself facing more pain than I thought my body was capable of enduring. I became housebound for weeks as I got used to my new normal.

As a last resort, I began using single doses of tramadol a couple of times a week to help manage the pain. This got me back on my feet and, most importantly, back to work after a two-month leave of absence. Since then, I have been weaning myself off it so I can rely more on physiotherapy and other techniques to manage. I have always been adamant that they were a short-term solution for me.

After my primary doctor messed up my prescription, I asked my pain management consultant about it instead. This turned out to be a grave mistake. I asked if I could get my last prescription from him and, without asking a single question, he launched into a tirade about the perils of opiates.

I was told someone my age should not even consider being on them, that the psychotherapy I had undergone should be enough, that I did not understand the seriousness of being on them and that I would no doubt become addicted. He also informed me that I obviously did not understand the risks and that it would be negligent for him to consider putting me on them so young.

All facts I would have mostly agreed with if he had bothered to ask me a single question about my mental or physical health, levels of pain or medical history.

As this was my third hospital appointment in three days and I was running on about three hours sleep, my eyes sprung a leak. I protested that I fully understood the risks of opiates, especially as I’ve seen what abusing them for decades can do to a person firsthand. I informed him that I did not take being on them lightly. In fact, I despise having to rely on them because, completely irrationally, it makes me feel weak.

I also told him I was terrified of losing my job due to taking so much time off and I was only using the pills on excruciating and immoblizing days to help me manage at work. I tried to explain my history with using pain medication, but he cut me off before I could get another word out.

I was told that if my job was so stressful, I should just quit. As anyone who has to work to support themselves, this is simply not a possibility. It felt like a slap in the face coming from someone whose job is to support his patients.

Still crying, I told him I was at the end of my tether following three of the worst months of my life and that I never wanted to become reliant on opiates to cope.

Just as I was putting on my coat to leave, he wrote a prescription. He then told me he would give me exactly 14 pills and, if I asked for more pain medication in the future, my “drug-seeking behavior” would be registered on my permanent medical records.

Shell-shocked, I mumbled a thank you and left in bits.

Thankfully I have an amazing support system in my partner, family and friends. But I still spent hours in bed unable to move because of the pain flare-up the tension brought on. While I will always continue fighting, I am now plagued by the doubts he has sown with his thoughtless words. The medication has been left untouched – even on immobilizing days – and I am scared of ever asking for help from another pain management consultant.

I am also fearful for other patients who might be met with the same reaction, by him or other unsympathetic doctors. What if that harsh tone is the final straw? What if the stress causes an unbearable flare-up? What if they do not have a support system to pick them up again?

So, I am writing this to remind anyone with chronic pain that it’s OK to ask for help. Painkillers and opiates may not a permanent solution, but that should not invalidate a patient’s plea for help.

A doctor’s job is to listen and assess before making a judgment. They must consider the impact their words can have on a patient – especially one who is chronically ill. They will never know how deep their words can cut us.

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Originally published: February 6, 2018
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