Signing a Pain Contract in the Age of Opioid Phobia

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

I know, I know. Opioids seem to be all that pain patients talk about these days. Blah, blah, blah. We get it, you need drugs. Let’s move on already.

But I don’t have that luxury. Opioids are, for better and for (mostly) worse, a huge part of my life. And I recently decided that I was:

A. Going to need to continue taking at least a small dose of hydrocodone long-term

B. That I really needed a slighter larger, “small dose” to be able to function.

I have what’s called intercostal neuralgia on my right side and the best way I can think to describe it is that I always feel like I have three broken ribs. The pain is no joke. And although it seems to be more manageable these days, it lingers and it hurts like hell, and opioids are the only thing I have found that even kind of helps.

Without hydrocodone I am in too much pain to shower regularly, check email, do my makeup or even sit a restaurant and eat.  With hydrocodone I can pretty much do all those things, like a typical health person who’s just a bit high. 

And yes, I know they are addictive, I know how hard they are to get off of, and I know that withdrawal is hell. I’ve been through it. I took myself down to 5 mg a day from 60 mg day when my pain became more manageable. It wasn’t easy. It took about a year for my brain to deal with that, and the withdrawal issues sucked.

So, when I say I need to be on hydrocodone, I say it with all the wisdom and caution that comes from the personal experience of dealing with opioids — and their side effects. 

And honestly, I’m among the lucky ones. When I called my doctor to ask if I could up to 10 mg a day, he agreed and knew I wouldn’t be asking if I hadn’t given lots of thought to the pros and cons of that choice. 

But that doesn’t mean dealing with opioids doesn’t also suck. 

First, I had to drive two hours each way to see him, because that’s how far away the closest university hospital is to my house and my case is too complex for the local small town doctors. And, as a reminder, I live my daily life feeling like I have three broken ribs. Driving two hours each way sucks. 

Then, when I got there, I had to take a drug test. Some politician somewhere decided people on opioids shouldn’t be using pot. Okay. But peeing in a cup sucks when you’re a woman. It gets all over your hands. You miss the cup and don’t collect enough. It’s just messy. 

But fine. Whatever. 

I peed in a cup. Good news. I’m clean. Well, I mean, aside from the hydrocodone, I’m clean. 

Signing a Pain Contract

Then, I had to sign what is formally called the “Controlled Substances Medication Agreement” — basically an opioid pain contract. At first blush it doesn’t seem like a big deal. As long as I’m a good person, there shouldn’t be any issues, right?

But the thing is literally 21 bullet points long. And it feels like I signed away all of my rights. 

The contract includes things like bullet point number 8, which requires that I get my prescription filled at the same pharmacy every month.

This is annoying because I use my local small town pharmacy, which is closed on Sundays, holidays and every night at 7 p.m. And if I’m due for a refill on a Sunday or out of town for work when my prescription expires, I can’t get it filled early, as bullet point number 14 clearly explains. 

Bullet point 14 also says I have to keep all my drugs in a locked cabinet or safe, and if they’re ever stolen I can’t get an early refill. Guys, that’s just not practical. I take these meds as needed, and sometimes that means I’m at the grocery store or visiting a friend or eating at Taco Bell, and then suddenly they are needed. And at those times, they are in my purse, which doesn’t have a lock on it. 

Bullet point number 11 says I can’t go to the emergency room for opioids, which sucks because sometimes my pain spikes and the only thing that gets it under control is a shot of dilaudid, which I usually get at the ER. I guess now when my pain spikes, I’m supposed to drive two hours to my doctor and hope he’s available to deal with it. 

Oh, and if I’m ever too sick to make that drive, nobody is allowed to pick up my hydrocodone prescription unless I have pre-authorized them, as per bullet point number 13. Of course, it has to be a written prescription — doctors cannot legally call in or fax hydrocodone  prescriptions anymore. 

I also agreed to get random drug tests, allow pill counts. and basically just give up all of my dignity. 

Fine. Okay. I need these medications. So I signed on the dotted line. And I guess I just have to hope I never get robbed, have a flare up or need a refill on a Sunday. 

The thing about opioids is that everyone assumes that if they ever need these drugs they will be able to get them. That anyone who’s truly deserving doesn’t have anything to worry about. But I have to tell you something: I’m a good person. I’m in real pain. I need these drugs. And I’m barely able to get them.

I understand how powerful these drugs are. Going off morphine was literally hell for me. But you know what else is hell? Living every day of your life feeling like you have three broken ribs. 

Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She loves Taco Bell, watching "Burn Notice" episodes on Netflix and Snicker's Bites. She has had intercostal neuralgia since February 2013.

Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”

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