Wednesday, April 19, 2017

did your heart break? / does your heart break now?

My sister, Jess, has a theory: bad things happen in April. Remembering all of the friends we've lost to accidents and illnesses during this month each year, the girl has a point. But each year, I also think about how it is God's love for me that the trees and flowers bloom this month. The world turns vivid green and clear blue. It gives me a break -- a respite in a time when my heart aches for a different place, a life free of loss and pain.

I admitted myself to the hospital, voluntarily, last week. I thought it would be for 3-5 days, but I only needed to stay for 40 hours. I've been on some intense drugs in the last three years, and I decided to attempt life without them with the hope that my body and mind would be stronger, not weaker.

The problem started the summer of 2014, when every anti-inflammatory medication or opiate-free method wasn't working on the pain I was experiencing. I had trouble walking, I could barely climb stairs, I couldn't twist my wrists. We tried injections, infusions, all the drugs in the TV commercials, diet, rest, and meditation. When they all failed, the last resort were opioids. Opioids can be used to manage long-term pain, but from what I have learned over the last 2 years, they are mostly prescribed for chronic pain to those that don't plan to come off of them (end of life care, for example). They are not commonly prescribed to a young person with an autoimmune disease -- except when there's no other option left.

There's a stigma that follows taking these drugs, and I understand that. I've personally known three young people who lost their lives to overdoses on the specific drug I've been taking. And I admit, there were days that I was unwisely thankful for the medicine because it gave me energy, and it made me feel happy, in a time where I'd previously felt hopelessly alone. That's the danger, though. They start by treating physical pain and by the time dependence sets in, they have control of the psychological side too.

I've written before that this medication gave me my life back, and it really did. I was able to travel to Africa with my family because of it. I was able to host my sister's bachelorette party and dance alongside her for hours at her wedding. I was able to continue my career -- one of the great joys in my life -- and the last year has been filled with projects that inspire me, challenge me, and bring me joy.  Since my joint and nerve pain was numbed in my wrists and shoulders, I was able to paint again. However, if there had been any other pain management option I would have chosen it. The drugs gave me my life back but then slowly chipped it away again. After nine months on these medicines, I became who I am at my very worst -- all the time. When people say that depression takes the color out of life, they mean it. My last post explained the depth of that darkness. But there was also anger, self-loathing, impatience, blinding anxiety, and paranoia.

If I say anything of importance here, I want to say this:

It is really, really hard to come off of opiates, regardless of who we are or why we first begin taking them. Choosing opioid withdrawal -- monitored by doctors or not -- means choosing abdominal pain, hot and cold flashes, deep bone and joint pain, insomnia, vomiting, tremors, terrible night sweats, sensitivity to light, and constant nausea. That's only Stage 1, and it doesn't cover all of the psychological bullshit.

Stage 1 of my withdrawal process was the easiest of all time. After tapering down to a low dose of my medication, I went cold-turkey under the supervision of my prescribing doctor and skipped the most nasty withdrawal symptoms. But I still felt miserably sick. And now, two weeks later and on to Stage 3, I'm exhausted, discouraged, and overwhelmed. I experience rushes of anxiety that lock up my chest and make it hard to breath normally. They aren't related to my circumstances, my attitude or anything I can seem to control. The psychological symptoms of withdrawal are crushing me, and I'm only on day 14 of a possible 90.

It leads me to think that the people who come off all opiates after long-term addiction are some of the strongest people in the world. Abstaining from drugs altogether is nowhere near as difficult as using them, becoming dependent, and then choosing another life. The withdrawal process, and the shame it causes, is torture. But I had support. If my boss had given up on me, if there had been no doctor to explain the consequences of continuing treatment, if I hadn't had family with the patience to handle my angry and illogical meltdowns -- then there's absolutely no way I would have made it this far. I used to view addicts as cowards. But I never understood how impossibly strong I was asking them to be.

I grew up in a community where a kid died of an overdose before anyone knew he was abusing -- a community where we re-locked the car doors while sitting at intersections, assuming homeless people were drug addicts and that drug addicts were violent. But I was wrong. Opiate addiction isn't caused by the high, it's caused by despair and isolation. We use drugs to manage pain. We abuse drugs by attempting to wipe all pain away. And honestly, in a country where we're unaccustomed to feeling pain and practicing vulnerability, I see logic in that desire. We've created a culture that can't grieve loss. 

This is what I know: 
I am loved.
Addicts are broken-hearted. 
Recovering addicts are warriors.

I hope that one day soon, I'll get over the shame of ever thinking otherwise.


  1. "I wanted you to see something about her - I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew."

  2. Your heart for sharing this -
    Love you

  3. You are brave, and you are strong. The way you handle difficult circumstances with so much grace, maturity, and faithfulness is a beautiful and inspiring thing. Don't be too hard on yourself, because you are doing such a good job. :)

  4. This is as open and raw as I've ever read. You're words make me feel your pain, your despair and struggle but most importantly, your bravery as you reach for your hope.... It is inspiring and graceful and I thank you for sharing. I am a lifting you in prayer kiind of fan.