Years ago, in another state, a physician-friend of mine became addicted to opioids, also known as narcotics. She was one of the smartest doctors I knew: ethically based, raised in a loving family, had children and a spouse. I think it started with a sports injury and pain medicine. Eventually she was divorced, which likely had something to do with her addiction. She said the opioid had a hold on her, and she just couldn’t stop. Years later she told me that it wasn’t difficult to acquire the prescription medicines, but somebody must have been watching, because she was caught after three years with an accelerating need for higher doses.
My own experience with opioid pain medicines, after pancreatic cancer surgery in May of 2017, was colored by my having observed my friend’s struggle. Physicians are a high-risk group and addiction to narcotics was NOT something I would accept for myself. Despite that determination, the pain was bad, lasted for three or four months, and required those darn pain medicines for a prolonged period. Two months after the surgery, still needing pain meds, I better understood how people could get addicted to narcotics. In retrospect, I know that at least some of the discomfort I was experiencing had to be secondary to withdrawal from the pain medicine itself.
One definition of addiction calls it “a condition resulting when a person ingests a substance (like oxycodone, alcohol, nicotine) or engages in an activity (like gambling, shoplifting, internet gaming) that might seem pleasurable but the continuation of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary responsibilities such as work, relationships, or health”. Experts tell us addiction isn’t always due to a physical dependency, a search for pleasure, or a flaw in moral character. Rather it is often a reaction to escape stress. Methods to help people find release from addictive and compulsive behaviors are myriad but the most successful seem to be faith-based, associated with counseling and emotional support, and provided over a prolonged period (like 16 months).
For me, getting off opioid pain medicines was accomplished by gradually tapering off the stuff while increasing exercise, performing creative activities, finding interests outside myself, while opening my heart to spiritual sustenance. What also benefited me was the support and companionship of my wife. I learned that surviving with comfort and escaping the compulsion and destruction of opioid addiction can be done, but requires doing the work as well as making the choice to get and receive help.