It was easy to get them. Dr. Feel Good, as my mom called him, would’ve prescribed me anything I wanted -- he told me so himself. All it took was a few minutes of slick talking in the examination room and the Rx slip was in my hand. Soon my GP was riding the perks of my addiction -- probably inundated with vacation offers and other bonuses from the pharmaceutical companies, like a typical American doctor -- while I was stuck in the pits.
I had been legitimately struggling with Postherpetic Neuralgia (PHN), which is lingering, intermittent nerve pain that a very small percentage of people who had shingles (HZ) are dealt as a parting gift. According to the CDC, “Approximately 13% (and possibly more) of people 60 years of age and older with herpes zoster will get PHN.” Unfortunately, statistics for how this affects younger people are non-existent.
Dr. Feel Good had originally prescribed Vicodin for my pain, which made me nauseous and agitated -- and slightly dependent. When the pain came on more frequently, Vicodin wasn’t cutting it for me anymore. I thought about my other medication options; I was intrigued by the alleged euphoria that Oxycodone provided. Why not relieve my pain and take a mini mental vacation at the same time? Plus, I romanticized the notion of taking pain pills for an invisible pain, deeper than neuropathy. But opiates are hardly a good option for long-term pain management, especially for a 24-year-old girl.
I didn't think I had an addictive personality so I figured it would be easy to manage. But I started to slip -- fast -- and since each pill cost roughly $10 and I was taking about 10 pills a day, it was an expensive habit. I found myself exaggerating my nerve pain to justify my use to my family.
When I realized I was addicted, I decided to enter a hospital detoxification program.
Thanks to the somewhat coherent record I kept in my journal, I can recall my experience in detox piecemeal.
Pi day, March 14th, found me at the same New York City hospital where I was born.
The morning before I entered detox, I was gathering all the empty pill bottles I’d loaned to my windowsill, wondering how each choice led me to this place. Wondering if I would ever live better, live to my full potential.
The first lady who saw me during the intake process was very kind. I had to muffle a giggle when she asked me what church I belonged to after I told her I’d lost my faith. I knew right then that she wouldn't understand where I was coming from. I meant "faith" in the broader sense: faith in life, faith that this world was good and good things could happen to me.
Snot dripped from my nose but she said I was a beautiful girl and that I should not be here. She was the first of many staff to say that. I found it offensive -- what did my looks have to do with my pill problem?
After waiting around more and seeing other intake specialists, I was deemed -- or doomed -- to be worthy of the methadone program.
The place was like a prison. It was so dirty: the ceilings were moldy, the floors dusty. They were very neglectful. No one told me what was going on when I was admitted, just: “Here’s your room; if anyone’s bothering you, tell the doctors, and here, pee in this cup.” Then, I was left to my own devices. Bored, lonely, hungry, thirsty, chapped lips -- in a room that ironically overlooked Stuyvesant Town, where I lived with my family.
I forgot to bring quarters to call my family from the public payphone down the hall.
"7:00 PM group, for all who care to attend, in back lecture hall," was announced over the loudspeaker.
The orientation proved to be pointless and the counselor confessed that we all suffer and don’t get the help we need, because the insurance companies call the shots. Then he reminded us that we would see people behaving in strange ways here that might alarm us.
They wouldn’t let me eat until the PA saw me, even though I told them I hadn’t eaten all day. It was true; I’d been on a steady diet of pills and coffee.
Later on, in the dingy rec hall, where we ate our Kosher meals and watched TV, the patients protested to watch NCAA’s March Madness.
“We don’t really change the channel. Think everyone in here’s gonna want to watch that?” the West Indian nurse chirped.
“Well, not her,” one of guys said, motioning to this woman who was nodding off at the back table, walking stick in hand.
“We usually just keep it on the news for that reason.”
One guy, Wayne, could barely keep his eyes open. H, Oxy, and Benzos were his poisons of choice. He was “a made man” -- a.k.a., part of the Mafia. Travis was barely lucid but was very nice to me. He also loved to combine Oxy and Benzos. Both men were old-ish, covered in tattoos, and had done hard time. Wayne did 18 years, had to take the fall for a body -- couldn’t snitch, couldn’t rat. Travis was arrested for selling LSD and, through that arrest, lost everything, including his boxing sponsorship. His dreams were dashed. Both men have kids and are estranged from their baby mamas. Travis lost the love of his life; she hanged herself while he was in jail.
These men were my stand-in dazed uncles. On a floor composed mainly of male convicts from all walks of life (I was one of three girls), they promised to protect me.
While I stood on line for my nightly dose of methadone and sleeping pills, a guy behind me cupped my ass and I lost it on him.
They put me on suicide watch.
I puked up my dinner in a methadone haze.
The nurse who was supposed to be watching me was always on her phone, probably playing Candy Crush. But she was kind. I felt like the staff wasn’t keeping tabs on me at all.
A boy I knew from high school worked as a porter. I discovered this when he saw me and quickly averted his eye. Another nurse urged me to read Proverbs and the Gospel According to John. That was ironic considering that this was a Jewish hospital. She told me I needed to rebuke Satan.
“Hello my name is Rachel and I’m an addict.” I was urged to attend a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, where I discovered that even the Twelve Steps are about love and unity at the core. The intimacy and realness between complete strangers served as an odd juxtaposition to the cushy yoga retreat I was fortunate enough to attend a year prior on the gorgeous beaches of Tulum, Mexico. In Tulum, I was amazed at how the small group of women there were so fearlessly open about their lives and issues off the bat. I found the same true at the NA meeting. It unified patients of varying demographics.
I made one female friend, Jennifer -- at 33, she was a cautionary tale. She, too, was from NYC, close with her family, and an elementary school teacher just like me. Early on in her addiction, she pretended to have a slew of strange symptoms, which she knew were really side effects from abusing Oxy. Her family was at their wit’s end with her after believing her lies for so long and sending her to the best physicians.
I had also been experiencing weird health issues, like mysterious rashes and flu-like symptoms, thanks to the damage Oxy was doing to me.
Jennifer seized in the classroom from a bad withdrawal and could no longer hide her addiction from the school administration -- the ambulance was called and she was carted off to detox. She seemed oddly at home in her hospital gown. She was too nervous to call her family for the first two days of her stay at the hospital; she knew they wouldn't want to hear that she was back in detox for the hundredth time.
“Your first time in detox, you swear to yourself you’re never going to come back to this hell hole again; you’re gonna sober up, you’re gonna stay clean, but then--”
Her voice tapered off into a sigh as she picked at her hospital bracelet.
I didn't say goodbye to her when I left because of what she’d said to me earlier: “You never keep in touch with the people you meet at detox/rehab.”
I ended up leaving detox before the recommended four days because I didn't feel I was getting the care I sought.
Everyone else at detox was popping about 40 pills a day and whenever someone asked me how many I had been doing, I felt embarrassed that I was at 10 a day.
I found some of the hospital staff to be caring but all of them misguided. At the end of the day, the insurance companies really do dictate a patient’s treatment. The social workers, the nurses, and even the doctors were at the mercy of the terms and limits set by the overarching healthcare industry -- a fact that can unfortunately keep people from receiving the quality of care they need to recover from addiction.
I was the only detox virgin -– everyone else had been sucked into the cyclical hell of detox, rehab, prison. Clearly the system is broken.
What stuck with me was the palpable hopelessness of that environment -– the hard questions that come up in NA meetings like, “How do I stop?" and, "How do I stay clean in a bad world?” Questions as difficult to comprehend as the universe and life itself.
My family thinks I unwittingly became addicted to Oxycodone by trying to “manage” my PHN pain -- but the pain gave me an excuse to use and that morphed into feeble attempts at "managing" my life.
After cutting out of detox early, I decided to move to Australia, where I wouldn’t have easy access to the pills. That saved my life. When my PHN pain is severe, I do crave the relief of Oxy, but I won’t poison myself again. Even though my stint in detox was brief, I know it’s not a place I want to see again anytime soon.
I know I am not unique in my pain. Countless others are gorging on the same slice of misery that I am, wondering if they, too, can make it without the pills, and I’m sorry for each one of us. I wish I was powerful enough to take away all of our suffering.
***Oxywave.jpg collage credit: Ariana Rose (my sister!)