Living with Chronic Pain After Being Labeled an Addict

By Patricia Young, Guest columnist

I am writing this article from the perspective of a patient who has chronic back pain and also an unwarranted, doctor-imposed label of “addiction.”

As most people can imagine, having both of these problems -- chronic pain and a substance use disorder -- can be very difficult for a healthcare provider to manage. Imagine though how harmful it is when someone is diagnosed or labeled as an addict and it is not an appropriate diagnosis.

The new polite wording for addiction is "chemical dependence," "substance use disorder" or "opiate dependence."

But these terms are not helpful either, since they have the same meaning to most healthcare professionals, as well as the general public.

To make matters worse, I was totally unaware that this diagnosis was ever made and it was never explained to me that it would be in my medical record. I want to share some of the problems this has caused me.

The first time I thought something was wrong was when I found myself having severe eye pain. I called ahead to the emergency room to make sure they had an eye doctor available to see me and decided to go in when they said they did. Instead, I was examined by a physician’s assistant (PA) after he reviewed my medical records. He looked at my eye from a distance without using any diagnostic equipment, told me I had an infection, and gave me antibiotic drops for it. The eye drops only made the pain worse.

I thought it was odd since I had no eye drainage of any kind and never had such pain before with an eye infection. A few days later I learned I had a herpes sore in my eye. No wonder those eye drops didn’t work!

Not one medical doctor or PA had taken my pain seriously in the ER because I had been labeled as having “drug seeking” behavior. But I did not know that until much later.

At the time I was taking opioid pain medication prescribed by my doctor to treat chronic pain from a lower back injury and two back surgeries. Sometimes I have flare ups of severe pain in my left hip, groin and leg despite the prescribed opiate drugs.

I went another time to the ER in severe pain and was seen by another physician’s assistant. After looking at my medical record, the PA proceeded to tell me to get out of the ER as I lay there on a gurney. My husband and I had no understanding at the time why 3 security guards came and told me to get back in my wheelchair myself or they would pick me up and put me there.

My husband picked me up and we were escorted out the door. I was 59 years old, disabled and was no threat to anyone. It was at that point that I started to wonder what “red flag” was in my medical records to make them treat me like that.

Later I found out what that red flag was. A doctor had written down after one visit that I had a “history of addiction.” This was the first time I became aware of this. I really could not understand why since no medical person had ever said I may have this diagnosis or even mentioned the word “dependency” to me.

I later had to move to Florida from upstate New York because my disability made it hard to cope with harsh winter weather. After the move I had great difficulty finding a new primary care physician. I believe no doctor wanted me as a patient after they saw the diagnosis of “history of addiction.”

We all know how difficult it can be to deal with an individual with a drug addiction. It’s a diagnosis that follows people for a lifetime. Unfortunately, when it is made in error, it is very detrimental and can even be a factor in someone’s death. Not only can there be a huge physical ramification from a diagnosis of addiction, but it can do harm to a person’s mental and emotional health, as well as cause family problems. I know it has affected me that way. The diagnosis evokes many people to make judgements.

I had many angry responses from healthcare professionals in my times of real need. The ones that threw me out of the ER demonstrated their anger by tone of voice, gestures, and curtness. I felt hopeless leaving there and my husband was so stunned he had no words to say. It was a very dark time in my life that is difficult to forget.

It has been suggested to me that I now suffer with post-traumatic stress syndrome and anxiety. Doctors want me to take anti-hypertensive medications daily as a result. This very frustrating and damaging diagnosis has led me to distrust the very physicians I go to for help. My blood pressure is high in their offices but not at home.

I also wrestle now with the problem of feeling as if my reputation has been harmed. I am seen by doctors as untrustworthy and in denial since I disagree with the addiction diagnosis. The very medical system that I worked in for almost 35 years has now mislabeled me and treats me harshly at a time when I need care myself.

I strongly believe there needs to be more understanding within the medical community as well as the public arena about this problem. There is a definite difference between a physical dependence on a substance versus an addiction to it. An addiction diagnosis suggests that one has misused drugs and has a mental disorder.

I have been judged as one of those types of people and it’s wrong. I had many medical professionals come up to me and congratulate me for stopping my pain medication. I thought they were crazy. It was no mental feat to stop taking the drugs, but I must admit my body’s physical reaction was not good. That is normal for someone that has taken opioid pain medicine for a period of time.

It is time we stop hurting and stigmatizing pain patients in this manner. It just makes our pain worse and can even lead to serious mental health problems and in some cases suicide.

Please healthcare providers, make sure your diagnosis is made correctly. I believe that an addiction or dependency diagnosis should only be made by someone who is trained in addiction medicine and who specializes in treating addictive disorders.

Patricia Young lives in Florida.

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The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.