By: Jane Ridley
Original Source: nypost.com
Recent studies have shown that opioid addicts are overwhelmingly white and living in suburban and rural areas. About half are women. Many develop the habit from prescription painkillers, such as Oxycontin, Vicodin and fentanyl, then move on to cheaper street heroin. Here, Jane Ridley meets Jennifer Matesa, 51, of Pittsburgh, an author of three books, including “The Recovering Body: Physical and Spiritual Fitness for Living Clean and Sober,” and the blog guineveregetssober.com, who tells her very personal story of addiction and rehabilitation.
Counting down the hours until my husband returns from his weeklong business trip, the all-consuming sense of anticipation is not so much about seeing him again, but using a morphine tablet I’d found after hiding it away — without it, I won’t have the energy to make him breakfast and pretend everything is normal.
Suffering from withdrawal, I’m short of the prescription opioid drug that allows me to function as a wife, mother and in my job as a writer.
While the popular image of heroin addiction is a homeless person sticking dirty needles into their body — stealing to feed their habit — mine was the face of a lesser-known but common type of opioid addiction. I was a respectable, high-functioning female living with addiction, fitting the profile of a number of users who, according to studies, are increasingly middle-class white women like me.
In common with many, my journey into addiction began when I was being treated for extreme pain. In my case, it was migraines and fibromyalgia, the condition that causes agonizing muscular aches. The symptoms — which worsened in my early 30s after I became a mother in 1997, lost my own mother in 1999 and constantly moved homes due to my husband’s academic job — were accompanied by depression and anxiety.
I’d been taking painkillers since my late 20s — most containing small amounts of codeine, a super-weak opioid. As time went by, I needed stronger medication to get me through the day.
I consulted a pain clinic between 2002 and 2008, which prescribed me various forms of opioids. At one time, the most effective was 10 milligram tablets of Vicodin, which I’d chew in the morning with my tea and toast. In the same way that people rely on coffee, I craved opioids. Soon, I was taking them in the afternoon, too. They were all given to me legitimately through my doctor. My “high” was never the stereotypical sleepiness or so-called “nodding out” — it was like a shot of energy making me alert and able to tackle whatever life threw at me with less stress and anxiety. It was the only way I could handle juggling my work, my son, my marriage and the upkeep of our large three-story house and garden. Without the drugs, I was terrified I’d crack.
Soon, I was illegally doctoring dates on my prescriptions so I could get my fix sooner. When I moved on from Vicodin and Oxycontin to fentanyl patches, instead of putting them on my skin, I’d cut them into pieces and apply them to the roof of my mouth for quicker absorption.
The practice is potentially lethal. There were times when I’d feel my respiration relax to the point where I’d wonder if my body would remember to wake up in the mornings.
The turning point came in 2008, a year after the death of my father from cancer and cirrhosis. Our family has a history of addiction but his alcoholism was swept under the rug. In contrast, I didn’t want my son to grow up without a mother.
When I experienced withdrawal — which could last as long as a week when I was between refills, like that time my husband was away — it was beyond the worst manifestations of the worst flu. “How have you been?” my husband asked me on his return from that business trip. “Fine,” I lied. But, aside from horrible stuff like shaking and runny eyes, the world just smelled rotten, like black mildew. I wasn’t present for my son, Jonathan, now 18. Neither my husband nor child suspected the illness, but Jonathan kept wondering why I was sick all the time. Things had to change.
Six years after I first went to the pain clinic, I hired a doctor to detox me. I was treated as an outpatient. While shocked at first, my husband was supportive and, with the initial use of Suboxone, a semisynthetic opioid, I managed to wean myself off. But the most effective remedies were self-acceptance, meditation and physical exercise like cycling. And I found a community of fellow people in recovery who loved me for who I was.
I still suffer from fibromyalgia and migraines — I treat them with non-opioids — but I’ve accepted I can’t be totally free of pain.
As for stemming the opioid epidemic, there is no easy solution. But it’s time to teach physicians to recognize addiction and respond to it with compassion and treatment, not judgment and punishment.
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