Emmy Winning Video Perpetuates Myths About Addiction

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

"Rebekkah's Story" recently won an Emmy for Short Format Daytime Program at the 46th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards. The six-and-a-half minute video was produced by Truth Initiative, a non-profit created to campaign against tobacco use that recently launched an opioid misuse and education campaign called The Truth About Opioids.

Rebekkah is a young woman addicted to opioid medication and heroin who spent five days in a “treatment box” publicly detoxing on a New York City street.  The documentary has also been broadcast on television and can be seen online:  

Though billed as educational, the producers of “Rebekkah’s Story” failed to accurately convey the facts. This is not the first time we've seen movies about drug use and addiction that misinform.  

I wrote a blog not long ago about the problems with two mainstream movies -- "Ben Is Black" and "Beautiful Boy"— both of which reinforced unhelpful narratives about addiction. In both films, good people from good families found themselves caught in the web of addiction, seemingly with no personal responsibility for it. 

"Rebekkah's Story" continues in the same tradition. It exploits Rebekkah and her experience while perpetuating three myths about addiction that do us no favors as our nation struggles with this terrible illness.

At the same time, millions of Americans with chronic pain are being forced off opioid medication — left to suffer in part because of these three myths:

Myth #1: Heroin Use Starts With Prescription Drugs

The movie begins with a misleading statistic: “Eighty percent of heroin users started with a prescription painkiller.” That implies taking painkillers as prescribed for medical use leads to using heroin 80% of the time, and that is not accurate. 

The 80% statistic comes from a 2013 study of heroin users who reported nonmedical use of opioid pain relievers before initiating heroin. Most of them had not been prescribed those opioids for pain; they obtained the drugs from family or friends for nonmedical use.  

In fact, the vast majority of people who use heroin have abused other substances prior to abusing prescription opioids. Usually, their long history of substance abuse begins in adolescence with tobacco, alcohol and other substances besides opioids. Moreover, by 2015, one in three heroin users initiated their opioid use with heroin.

Rebekkah's situation -- progressing from oxycodone to heroin -- was unusual. The video presents her story as a cautionary tale of what can happen if you use prescription opioids, but her story is atypical. Almost always, there are other factors that contribute to the transition from appropriate use to abuse and addiction. This is a truth not addressed in the film. 

The film begs the question: Why did Rebekkah start to use heroin? What did heroin provide that she could not resist? 

Myth #2: Withdrawal Is Synonymous to Addiction

"She had been an accomplished dancer and athlete, and that was lost when her addiction took over her life and self-image," explains the video's website. "Now Rebekkah is regaining control of both — courageously making her detox public in order to help other people while she works towards a new start."

The producers of “Rebekkah’s Story” present a poignant story, but they propose that withdrawal is synonymous with addiction. That is incorrect.

Withdrawal may be associated with addiction, but it does not necessarily follow from addiction. Not everyone who goes through withdrawal has the disease of addiction, and not everyone with addiction must go through the agonizing withdrawal that Rebekkah did.

A major problem that most people with addiction face is the stigma associated with their disease and their inability or unwillingness to obtain help. Fear of facing a legal penalty (such as incarceration) or a social consequence (estrangement from family members, job loss, etc.) often prevent those who use heroin from seeking treatment.  

People experience opioid withdrawal largely because the healthcare and criminal justice systems make access to appropriate and safe treatment illegal, unavailable or unaffordable.  

Myth #3: Detoxification Ends Addiction 

The ending of "Rebekkah's Story" differs from reality, too. Addiction is usually a life-long disease and patients who recover frequently relapse. The video's tidy and triumphant resolution does not accurately reflect what occurs in real life.  

It's troubling how the producers went about creating the video in ways that subtly strengthen and exploit the three myths about addiction.

Their set was a makeshift hospital room projected in a cubicle visible to pedestrians walking near Times Square. The setting was essentially a stage for performance art at Rebekkah's expense.

Rebekkah takes on the role of a gladiator engaging in combat against a metaphorical beast: the agony of opioid addiction.

rebekkah-social.jpg

She is the heroine with whom we should empathize. We are supposed to share her anger toward the wicked doctors who prescribed her pain medication. 

People watch as Rebekkah suffers from withdrawal without receiving the medical treatment that should be available to anyone in withdrawal. It was surprising that, in the documentary, an addiction physician was complicit in exploiting a person undergoing withdrawal.   

No one should be forced to experience what Rebekkah went through. She should have been given appropriate medical care as she recovered from heroin abuse. 

"Rebekkah's Story" claims to tell the truth about opioids. It does not. All it shows is Rebekkah’s decision to voluntarily and publicly experience a horrible withdrawal that was both unnecessary and avoidable.

Unfortunately, compliant and non-addicted pain patients who are currently being forced off opioid medication don’t have the same stage to tell their stories. Their voices often go unheard, and their agonies are invisible.

_DSC8561.JPG

Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and is author of the award-winning book “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary “It Hurts Until You Die.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

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.

FDA Warns About Fast Opioid Tapers

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an unusual warning Tuesday cautioning doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid pain medication.

The agency said in a statement it had received reports of “serious harm in patients who are physically dependent on opioid pain medicines suddenly having these medicines discontinued or the dose rapidly decreased.” The harm includes withdrawal symptoms, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress and suicide.

The FDA gave no details on cases of patient harm but said it was tracking them and would require changes on opioid warning labels to help instruct physicians on how to safely decrease opioid doses.

“Rapid discontinuation can result in uncontrolled pain or withdrawal symptoms. In turn, these symptoms can lead patients to seek other sources of opioid pain medicines, which may be confused with drug-seeking for abuse. Patients may attempt to treat their pain or withdrawal symptoms with illicit opioids, such as heroin, and other substances,” the FDA said.

bigstock-Man-s-hand-with-empty-pill-bot-104277830(1).jpg

In recent years, there have been an increasing number of anecdotal reports of pain patients committing suicide or turning to illegal drugs for pain relief. It is not clear why the FDA decided to act now, just days after the departure of former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD.

In PNN’s recent survey of nearly 6,000 patients, over 80 percent said they had been taken off opioids or had their dose reduced. Nearly half said they had considered suicide because their pain is poorly treated and many were turning to other substances – both legal and illegal – for pain relief.

  • 11% obtained opioid medication from family, friends or black market

  • 26% used medical marijuana for pain relief

  • 20% used alcohol for pain relief

  • 20% used kratom for pain relief

  • 4% used illegal drugs (heroin, illicit fentanyl, etc.) for pain relief    

Last December, over a hundred healthcare professionals warned in a joint letter to the Department of Health and Human Services that forced opioid tapering has led to “an alarming increase in reports of patient suffering and suicides” and called for an urgent review of tapering policies at every level of healthcare.

“This is a large-scale humanitarian issue,” the letter warns. “New and grave risks now exist because of forced opioid tapering.” 

Federal agencies widely differ on opioid tapering recommendations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a "go slow" approach, with a "reasonable starting point" being 10% of the original dose per week. Patients who have been on opioids for a long time should have even slower tapers of 10% a month, according to the CDC.

The Department of Veterans Affairs recommends a taper of 5% to 20% every four weeks, although in some cases the VA suggests an initial rapid taper of 20% to 50% a day “if needed.”

In its warning, the FDA cautioned doctors that no standard opioid tapering schedule exists that is suitable for all patients.

When you and your patient have agreed to taper the dose of opioid analgesic, consider a variety of factors, including the dose of the drug, the duration of treatment, the type of pain being treated, and the physical and psychological attributes of the patient,” the FDA said. “Create a patient-specific plan to gradually taper the dose of the opioid and ensure ongoing monitoring and support, as needed, to avoid serious withdrawal symptoms, worsening of the patient’s pain, or psychological distress.”

The FDA urged patients and doctors to report side effects from opioid discontinuation and rapid tapers at druginfo@fda.hhs.gov or to call 855-543-DRUG (3784) and press 4.

Precautions Needed for Medical Cannabis

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Medical cannabis continues to thrive. Older Americans are flocking to cannabis dispensaries and more states are considering legalization or adding approved indications.

But there is relatively little information about the potential risks and pitfalls of medical cannabis. The New York Times reports that “researchers are uneasy about the fact that older people essentially are undertaking self-treatment, with scant guidance from medical professionals."

There are three broad categories of precautions that people who are using or considering medical cannabis should be aware of.

Product Quality and Reliability

Reliably sourcing a high-quality cannabis product can be difficult. Product labels are often inaccurate. A 2015 survey of cannabis edibles in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles found that only 13 of the 75 products tested (17%) had labels that accurately indicated their THC content.

More recent testing in California found that about a quarter of the cannabis-infused cookies, candies and tinctures failed safety tests because of improper labeling or because they contained pesticides.

One lab in Sacramento was even found to be falsifying test results. A spokesman for the California Cannabis Industry Association said it's an open secret in the industry that companies have been paying for favorable test results.  

States from Massachusetts to Nevada are also seeing problems with pesticides, mold and heavy metals contaminating medical-grade cannabis.

DRUG POLICY ALLIANCE

DRUG POLICY ALLIANCE

Interactions and Contraindications

Cannabis consists of over 100 cannabinoids, as well as other physiologically active substances. This makes for a lot of possible drug interactions. Drugs.com lists 129 major and 483 moderate interactions that cannabis can have with medications such as acetaminophen, codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, pregabalin and oxycodone.

Moreover, cannabis has been found to reduce thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) levels. For people with thyroid disease, artificially suppressed TSH can affect medication decisions. Similarly, cannabis reduces platelet aggregation, a problematic and even risky issue for people with bleeding disorders or low platelet counts.

A new review in Current Opinion in Neurology found that cannabis exacerbates tinnitus (ringing of the ears), a common problem for older people and people with Meniere’s disease or Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.

Tolerance and Withdrawal

Cannabis tolerance may be a clinically significant issue. A new study on CBD oil for seizure management found that cannabidiol loses its effectiveness in treating epilepsy. About one-third of patients in the study stopped taking CBD because of a lack of benefits or side effects like sleepiness and gastrointestinal trouble.

“CBD is a good option for children and adults with certain kinds of epilepsy, but as with anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs), it can become less effective over time and the dose may need to be increased to manage the seizures,” said lead author Shimrit Uliel-Sibony, MD, head of the pediatric epilepsy service at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center.

Also important is withdrawal. Recent research on cannabis withdrawal in a group of chronic pain patients found that about two-thirds reported at least one moderate or severe withdrawal symptom. Withdrawal symptoms included sleep difficulties, anxiety, irritability and appetite disturbance.

In sum, there are important issues to address when using or considering medical cannabis. Unfortunately, knowledgeable physicians are hard to find and high-quality cannabis is difficult to obtain reliably. It is hoped that this will change soon so that medical cannabis can be used safely and effectively.

Roger Chriss.jpg

Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

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.

FDA Continues Crackdown on Kratom Vendors

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has stepped up its campaign against the herbal supplement kratom by sending warning letters to three distributors of kratom products – the latest effort in what appears to be a concerted government effort to stop all sales of the herb.

Front Range Kratom, Kratom Spot and Revibe are accused of illegally selling unapproved “drug products” and making unproven claims about kratom’s ability to treatment opioid addiction, chronic pain and other medical conditions.

The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have previously warned consumers not to consume any kratom products. The CDC said kratom was the “likely source” of a small salmonella outbreak, while the FDA alleged that kratom has opioid-like qualities and could lead to addiction and overdose.

bigstock-Mitragynina-Speciosa-Or-Kratom-229830793.jpg

“Despite our warnings that no kratom product is safe, we continue to find companies selling kratom and doing so with deceptive medical claims for which there’s no reliable scientific proof to support their use,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said in a statement.

“We cannot allow unscrupulous vendors to take advantage of consumers by selling products with unsubstantiated claims that they can treat opioid addiction. Far from treating addiction, we’ve determined that kratom is an opioid analogue that may actually contribute to the opioid epidemic and puts patients at risk of serious side effects.”

Kratom comes from the leaves of a tree that grows in southeast Asia, where it has been used for centuries as a natural stimulant and pain reliever. In recent years, millions of Americans have discovered kratom and started using the herb as an alternative to prescription drugs for treating chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and addiction.

Like most herbal and dietary supplements, there is little scientific research to support the use of kratom and it is not approved for any medical condition by the FDA. As a result, many kratom distributors are careful to avoid making unsubstantiated medical claims. Front Range Kratom, for example, currently has a clear disclaimer on its website stating that:

Information on this website is not for health-related guidance. The products mentioned on this website are not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat or cure any diseases or health conditions. You need to consult with a medical practitioner for all issues with regards to your overall health.”

But even sharing customer testimonials about kratom is considered illegal marketing by the FDA. The agency alleges in its warning letter to Front Range Kratom that the website contained comments from new customers such as “Certainly kratom is useful for pain — myself and everyone else on the internet can attest to that.” Another customer wrote that “the two things I think kratom works the best for are pain and to help people get through some of the post acute withdrawl (sic) symptoms they get when they come off of their pain medications.”

Those testimonials from kratom users can’t be found on the website today.

“If people believe that the active ingredients in kratom have drug-like effects that can treat pain or addiction, then the FDA is open to reviewing that data under our new drug approval process,” said Gottlieb. “In the meantime, I promised earlier this year that the FDA would step up our actions against unapproved and unsafe products that are being deceptively marketed for the treatment of opioid addiction and withdrawal symptoms.”

FDA investigators are also monitoring the social media sites of kratom vendors. Last October, Kratom Spot shared on its Facebook page a CNN story about kratom as a possible treatment for pain and opioid addiction. The company only said the story was “positive news for kratom as... an all natural alternative.” But the FDA said that amounted to the illegal marketing of an unapproved drug.

“The claims on your website and social media sites establish that your kratom products are drugs…  because they are intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease—in particular, for opiate withdrawal and addiction,” the warning letter states.

It probably didn’t help that Kratom Spot shared a picture on its Facebook page of hundreds of kratom orders being readied for shipment by another federal agency -- the U.S. Postal Service.

Kratom Spot, Front Range Kratom and Revibe were all given 15 days to respond to the warning letters, which state that “failure to correct violations may result in law enforcement action such as seizure or injunction.”

KRATOM SPOT/FACEBOOK

KRATOM SPOT/FACEBOOK

The threat of legal action can be all that it takes to drive a kratom vendor out of business. In February, the FDA forced  Divinity Products Distribution to recall and stop selling kratom products. The FDA said the company agreed to the “voluntary destruction” of its kratom products, even though there were no reports of illnesses associated with them.

How Two Toddlers Saved My Life

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

I wish I could say it’s been a rough couple months for me, but that’s not exactly true. It’s actually been more like a rough couple years.

I spent three years battling debilitating rib pain that nobody seemed to be able to cure. And then, when I discovered that my obscenely low vitamin D levels were likely to blame and I started to feel better, I faced an entirely new version of hell — opioid withdrawal.

I had been on morphine for three years, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and I honestly thought that when the rib pain subsided I could just endure 72 hours of physical hell and move on with my life.

But morphine is like an abusive boyfriend, it lingers. It hurts you and then offers you the cure, and then it hurts you again. And you always pay for the highs with desperate lows.

Studies have shown that it can take two years for your brain to adjust after withdrawing from opioids. And it turns out it doesn’t much matter if you were buying them off the street or getting them via a legitimate prescription from a legitimate doctor. Your brain doesn’t care.

And yes, I know, there are people out there who have an easy breezy time with it. They just decide to stop and then they stop.

I am not one of those people. I hate those people.

I have spent the last few months suffering from a potent mix of suicidal thoughts and anxiety attacks. And navigating the whole mess is especially hard because for some reason people think that if you are just a strong enough person, you’ll be fine. Let me tell you the truth, opioids don’t care if you are Wonder Woman herself, they will ravage you.

In the midst of all this, my best friend since childhood was pregnant with her third child. She and I are like sisters, having both endured crazy families, growing up poor and our 20’s together.

And so when she was put on strict bed rest about 27 weeks in, I said I would come stay with her during weekdays to help with her other two kids, who are both just toddlers themselves at 1 and 3 years old.

I work from home, so I have the luxury of volunteering for such things. And I confess I was pretty pleased with myself at the thought of playing a small role in making sure the newest member of their family was born healthy.

But if we’re being honest, she could have said no. She could have said that she didn’t want an opioid addict around her kids. She could have easily pointed to my debilitating anxiety attacks and said I was unfit to supervise toddlers.

Maybe she was too desperate to say anything like that to me. But I honestly don’t think she ever even thought it.

So, in late May, I basically moved in with her, her husband and two toddlers. I went from the cool chick who comes over and plays bubbles to the cool chick who has to give the kids baths, feed them, change diapers, clean up spit up, watch Sesame Street on repeat for 16 hours a day, AND play bubbles.

And somewhere along the way, I forgot that I was having a really rough couple of years.

Kids have a way of forcing you to be in the present. There’s no time to anxiously contemplate the meaning of life and whether or not you’ll ever find true love, when the meaning of life and true love are staring up at you calling you “Bistol” because the C sound is hard, and asking for another pack of gummy bears.

And I don’t care who you are, watching a child literally learn to do the most fundamental of human movements, walking, over a period of about three weeks is breathtaking and jaw dropping and mid-afternoon Taylor Swift dance party worthy.

And so, that is how one of the worst times in my life was transformed by two toddlers. Two boys who had no idea they were helping me navigate opioid withdrawal when they were screaming for teddy bears at 1 a.m., and spitting up all over the carpet, and eating rocks, and begging for ketchup, and laughing and crying and cuddling and loving.

Because that’s actually how it works, isn’t it? You think you’re saving someone, but then you realize that this whole time they were saving you.

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.

Seeing Both Sides of the Opioid Debate

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

I have suddenly found myself on both sides of the opioid issue.

I’m a chronic pain patient who is among the lucky few to have gotten better, or at least mostly better. And now, I’m so “lucky” that I get to take myself off opioids. It’s been hell.

I had this idea in my head that it would be like in the movies — 72 hours of feeling like death and then I would go on with my life. But it turns out even after your physical body adjusts to life without the drugs, your brain aches for them and begs you to take them.

I have it on good authority — a psychiatrist at a university hospital who specializes in this sort of thing — that I was never classically addicted to the morphine and hydrocodone that I took on a daily basis for my intercostal neuralgia. I never took more than the prescribed dose. I never took them to get that “high” that can come from the drugs. I never bought any off the streets.

I took them for pain. As prescribed. And I passed every stupid urine test they ever gave me. If they gave out grades for taking opioids correctly, I’m not saying I would definitely have an A+, I’m just saying I probably would. 

But when you’re on morphine 24 hours a day/ seven days a week for three years straight, your brain doesn’t much care why or how you took them, it just wants to know why the heck you stopped.

And so even after the initial diarrhea and the sweating and the body aches subsided, my brain was left in shambles. And I was hit with horrific, lingering crippling anxiety and insomnia.

It turns out there’s this thing called post-acute withdrawal syndrome, or PAWS. And first it should be noted that they really didn’t take things typically associated with puppies and use them to name ugly, terrible withdrawal-related issues. But whatever.

Anyway, as you go off certain drugs, like opioids, “Post-acute withdrawal occurs because your brain chemistry is gradually returning to normal. As your brain improves the levels of your brain chemicals fluctuate as they approach the new equilibrium causing post-acute withdrawal symptoms,” according to an article on Addictions and Recovery.org.

“Most people experience some post-acute withdrawal symptoms. Whereas in the acute stage of withdrawal every person is different, in post-acute withdrawal most people have the same symptoms.”

And the symptoms can last for two years.

Here’s is a list of symptoms from that article:

  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Tiredness
  • Variable energy
  • Low enthusiasm
  • Variable concentration
  • Disturbed sleep

I have all of them, if you were wondering.

The anxiety and insomnia are a special kind of hell, because they don’t even let you escape with sleep for a few hours a day. You’re just awake, all the time, wondering if the world is actually going to end right then.

And you know in your mind that the anxiety isn’t logical. You know that just because the guy you’re seeing has read your text message but he hasn’t immediately responded to it doesn’t mean he’s met someone else and gotten married to her in the last seven minutes.

But anxiety doesn’t give an eff about logic. So your heart rate ramps up and you feel sick to your stomach and you convince that if he would just TEXT YOU BACK it would all be fine. And then he does, but it’s still not fine. Because it’s never fine.

Possibly most depressingly of all, I’m struggling to write. The anxiety convinces me that I have nothing important to say and nobody would want to read it anyway, and that anything I type has probably already been said better by someone else. It paralyzes me, and takes away the one thing in life I have always been able to count on. And getting this very column out has been an exercise in sheer will.

So yeah, it’s been awful. And most of the doctors I’ve been working with truly believe that since the drugs are technically out of my system and I wasn’t an “addict,” that I should be super awesome and totally good to go. Except I’m the completely opposite of that, and I’m really struggling with all this.

The worst part might be that dealing with withdrawal has so many ties to morality in our culture, so every time I have an anxiety attack and I reach for half a hydrocodone to calm me down, I feel like I failed at life. I feel like I went from A+ to F-.

The thing is, even with all this hell, I still don’t regret going on morphine three years ago. Back then I was in so much pain that I was genuinely planning ways to kill myself and the opioids were the only thing that helped me. They not only saved my life, they helped me keep my job and stay somewhat social.

But now, as I try to get my brain back to normal, I’m struggling. Like I mentioned, I’m working with a psychiatrist and psychologist and I have also recently made the decision to go on anxiety medication and try sleeping pills.

I still wake up in a state of panic more days than not though. I feel like something horrible is going to happen at any moment, and feel lucky if I get five hours of sleep in one night. So it’s not like I’ve found a magic cure.

The bottom line is it’s time we all admit how incredibly complicated opioids really are.

On one side, people in pain deserve access to them. Quality of life is important and nobody should have to suffer because of mass hysteria about hydrocodone. 

But we can’t ignore the fact that no matter how responsibly we take these drugs, our brains get addicted to them over time. And stopping them isn’t as easy as a 72-hour withdrawal weekend.

Doctors need to know these things, and then they need to relay them to their patients. And only when we have an honest conversation about the benefits AND the risks associated with these drugs can we begin to move forward in a productive way.

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.

Sneeze Alert: What It’s Like to Taper off Opioids

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

As a result of feeling a bit better lately, I have been trying to go off all of my opioid pain medications, which at one point totaled as much as 60 mg a day — three, 8-hour time release 15 mg morphine pills and then as many as three, short-acting, 5 mg hydrocodone as needed.

I worked my way down from 60 mg a day to 15 mg a day over the course of a month, and then tried to drop down to zero. It did not go well. You can read more about that here.

A little over a week after trying to go cold turkey, for various reasons involving a fresh pain flare and horrific withdrawal symptoms, I ended up back on the drugs. And I have spent the last few months working with a team of doctors trying to figure all this out and attempting to slowly taper off those last 15 mg. 

This is what it’s been like:

Withdrawal is sneezing. Every three or four minutes. As soon as the opioids wear off at all — I’m sneezing.

And it’s anxiety. And waking up drenched in sweat. And it’s the kind of diarrhea that you have to learn to accept as a part of your life now. The kind that fills the toilet multiple times a day and leaves your legs weak. 

It’s calling your high school boyfriend at 2 p.m. on a Friday because you’re in Target having an anxiety attack for no reason and you need to talk to someone, anyone, or you might actually die right there between the fitting room and the yoga pants display. It’s immediately regretting that phone call and then having anxiety about why you made it in the first place.

It’s not sleeping. God is withdrawal not sleeping. You’re lucky if you get four hours in one night. And waking up at 3 a.m.   

It’s giving up, and then trying again tomorrow.

It’s realizing that cutting your pills in half and taking them in a different time configuration actually helps a lot. And it’s tracking every dose and every symptom in Google Keep.

It’s deciding that maybe dating isn’t the greatest idea when your fight or flight response is literally kicking in every time it takes a guy more than seven minutes to respond to a text message. It’s giving in and going out with a guy on a Tuesday night anyway because the escape is worth it.  

It’s doing a lot of things you aren’t proud of.

It’s your primary care doctor telling you that other people have no problems at all going off these drugs, then qualifying his statement with, “But, I mean, I believe you,” which somehow implies he doesn’t.

It’s reaching out to your old psychologist and pleading for help, and then getting referred to a psychiatrist who specializes in this sort of thing and finally finding one person on the whole entire Earth who actually has some idea of what you’re going through.

It’s a glass of wine, and a handful of Advil, and lots of sugar candy, as you try to find anything to help manage the symptoms.

It’s slow. Withdrawal is maddeningly slow. It’s going down 1.25 mg in a day and feeling like the world is ending and waking up more anxious than you’ve ever been. And wondering if you can actually do this.

And then it’s a post anxiety-crash four hours later, and being so tired that you can’t even move your arm to check your phone.

Withdrawal is multiple people calling you a drug addict to your face because your body is physically dependent on a medication you were given by a doctor. It’s multiple people saying you just need more willpower and more prayer and more desire to get off the drugs.

It’s wondering if maybe you are a drug addict.

It’s trying to eat Taco Bell because Taco Bell usually solves everything and then realizing that you can’t even stomach a cheesy gordita crunch because the withdrawal has destroyed your appetite. 

It’s working out to help the anxiety, and using the stupid Calm App for meditations that never work, and texting your best friend 72 times an hour so that you know you’re not alone. And then texting her again. And it’s breathing her oxygen for awhile because you don’t seem to have any of your own.

It’s intestinal cramping so severe that you’re literally doubled over in pain on the couch, crying out in pain, wondering if this is the end.

It’s deciding to go back to church because for some reason, for that hour each week, you feel maybe a little bit of peace.

Withdrawal is feeling weak.

It’s wondering if you’ll ever feel normal again. It’s wondering that over and over and over and trying to convince yourself that someday you will get a full night's sleep and you won’t wake up covered in sweat and you won’t have diarrhea first thing in the morning and you won’t have the crushing feeling of anxiety as you greet the day.

Withdrawal is trying to live a normal life while your body goes through hell every day. It’s trying to work and be a good friend and a decent human being when all you want to do is die. It’s trying to figure out how much information, exactly, you should give your boss about your opioid dependence.

It’s having a pain flare and thinking that maybe the drugs were doing more than you thought, and wondering if you’re even doing the right thing.

It’s saying that John Green quote about survival to yourself 59 times a day. The one that goes, “I'm not saying that everything is survivable. Just that everything except the last thing is.” And then it’s reminding yourself that this is probably not the last thing. 

And it’s reaching out to your Facebook friend who has the same chronic pain you have and him telling you that you have to do this — it’s important that you do this — because if you don’t the next best option is in-patient treatment and you don’t want that.

It’s trying to distract yourself with The Hobbit, and Spotlight and Downtown Abbey, and Facebook.

Withdrawal is still happening. It’s ongoing. It’s a long-term goal. A hope that one day you’ll be clean — whatever that means. 

It’s praying, and crying, and giving up, and trying again.

And it’s sneezing.

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.

Going Off Morphine is Hell

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

This past weekend, as I tried to get off morphine once and for all, one thought kept going through my mind — if the devil is any good at his job, hell will just be eternal opioid withdrawal.

It’s like, have you ever had the flu, and also food poisoning, and also been hit by a train, and also had the fight or flight anxiety that comes from being chased by a bear for a week straight — all the same time? Well it’s worse than that.

It’s effing hell.

And it’s all made even worse by the fact that I had the cure the whole time. Every single minute that went by, I knew that I all had to do to make it all go away was pop one of those little blue pills in my purse.

I made it to the 72 hour mark last night at midnight. That’s 72 hours without morphine or a hydrocodone. I haven’t gone a full 72 hours without an opioid in almost two and a half years.

I spent all of November tapering down my dose. Going so effing slow. Like three pills, then two pills, then three pills, then two pills. Then after a week, I’d do one pill then two pills, then one pill.

I was down to one pill every other day, of the lowest dose, and I knew the next step was going through withdrawal. I thought maybe it wouldn’t be that bad since I had been going so slowly with the tapering. I was wrong.

Honestly, the first 24 hours weren’t so bad. My body was just chilling, expecting another dose in a day or so. But then, at midnight, exactly 24 hours in, the involuntary leg movements started. I was lying in bed, in the middle of the night, and my right leg would just move. Also, my anxiety started skyrocketing so high you’d have thought I was in a war zone.

By the morning, about 31 hours in, the muscle aches had set in, and everything I had ever eaten over the last two years had started to come out. Diarrhea doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world, until you literally spend so much time on the toilet that your legs go numb. And then when you do get up, you are so dehydrated that you can’t even walk without holding on to the wall.

There’s other stuff too, the kind of stuff that maybe sounds minor until it happens to you. Like, my nose was randomly running, and I was sneezing like there was a secret cat hidden in the bathtub. And I could not sleep. At all. And if somehow I did get a couple minutes of shut eye, I would wake up drenched in sweat. Also, everything made cry. Seeing the sun? Tears. Facebook posts about makeup? I’d start weeping. Basically the fact that I was alive was enough of a reason.

Again, all these things don’t sound so horrible, but when they are all happening at once, it is literally hell on earth. 

I spent most of the 72 hours watching Breaking Bad — which is either the worst show to watch during withdrawal because it’s all about drugs, or the best because it’s all about the horrible things drugs lead to.

I also spent most of the 72 hours trying to process how I got to this point. Morphine has been so good to me over the last two years. And I stand by the fact that it literally saved my life. If it wasn’t for the pain relief I got from the drug, I don’t know if I would have been able to endure. And I am thankful to morphine for that.

But I wouldn’t wish the morphine withdrawal on Hitler.

And I thought about everyone who has ever had to endure this for whatever reason. And my heart filled with compassion and love for them. Some people like to say that drug addicts are just weak, or lack self-control. Those people are a**holes.

I also thought a lot about how much I wanted to just pop a morphine and make everything better. I thought about it so hard. Vividly picturing the little blue pill in my head and fantasizing about how good it would feel to take just one.

And I thought about how going through withdrawal was a good thing because I wouldn’t even be going off morphine if I wasn’t feeling better. (See Crystal's last column: "Is Vitamin D Making Me Feel Better?")

I felt like this was a final step. A last stand by my pain to suck me in. I had to get off this drug to move on with my life. But it was so incredibly hard.

And I kept thinking about how, I am a good person. I am a strong person. I should be able to get through this. Why am I struggling so much?

My best friend was extremely supportive during the whole thing, constantly checking on me, praying for me, and sending me encouragement. And at one point she sent me a text that said, “I think the last two years were the toughest times of each of our lives (in different ways). Glad I get to see you on the other end.”

The other end. Wow. I honestly never thought I would ever get to see the other end. For a long time, I didn’t even think there was an “other end” to get to.

The idea that I could get to this proverbial “other end” though, it was enough to keep me going.

Honestly, I still feel like I was jumped, and then tossed in front of a train. But I’m doing a lot better than I was doing on day two. From what I can tell, the withdrawal symptoms can last anywhere from a week to months, but it’s those first 72 hours that are the most horrible. And I have made it through those.

I also discovered that there’s a cocktail of over-the-counter drugs that help. Specifically, I have been popping handfuls of Advil, Imodium and Benadryl.

I saw my brother this morning. And as I walked toward him, I felt like I was just regaining my footing after being in a plane crash. Still shaken up, disoriented and feeling like hell, I said, “Well, I’m finally feeling a little better. I made it to 72 hours.”

“Great. Now you have to make it a week,” he said.

Crap, I thought. He’s right.

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.