My experiences with drug reactions and drug addiction began in my mid-20’s.
Growing up, I was a closeted emotional wreck. I say this because I had developed a great act which, to others, masked the fact that inside my own skin I was depressed, confused and felt very much as if I didn’t belong anywhere despite popularity at school, good grades and an intact family. Married at 23 and divorced at 24, I was no longer able to hide the depression. A physician put me on the anti-depressant Triavil. Not long after, I tried to commit suicide and came dangerously close to succeeding.
Fast forward to my mid-30s when I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. At the time, it was not the commonly diagnosed disease it is today. In fact, I saw 21 medical specialists before the Arthritis-Lupus Clinic at Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia got it right. It was, and I believe still is, considered to be a partially sleep-disorder related illness. At that time, the treatment was believed to be Amitriptyline (also known as Triavil). While at a dosage of 90mg or more the drug acts as an anti-depressant, at a considerably lower dose it does not; however, it does, at the low dose, induce crucial non-REM sleep, the restful transition sleep that many with Fibromyalgia seem to lack.
My tolerance for the Amitriptyline increased over time until I was approaching that 90mg ceiling. So, my treating physician prescribed Valium to accompany it. I quickly built up a tolerance to it and that dose was increased as well.
In a matter of no time I was addicted to it.
Without belaboring all the details, I’ll just say that when I realized I was addicted, I phoned a local hospital that had a drug detox unit and spoke with the head floor nurse. She told me I had two choices. I could admit myself to the unit immediately or go cold turkey at home; but, if I chose the latter I had to have someone with me around the clock for seven days. She said either way, withdrawal was going to be hell.
And so it was.
Family and friends took turns staying with me for the next week. I was alternately hyper, depressed, suicidal and lacked any appetite. In fact, I had to force feed tiny amounts of food and water. It’s an experience never to be repeated or forgotten.
Recently, Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has come forward with legislation to combat the national epidemic of addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin, known as opioids. Portman’s bill, known as the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), passed in the Senate by a vote of 94 to 1 in March and was followed this past week with several related bills to also address the epidemic.
But, as with so much of what ails us as a nation, legislation isn’t going to fix the problem because 1) the pharmaceutical companies have too much skin in the game and to many lobbyists; 2) Obamacare has so destroyed the ability of doctors to take the time needed to effectively diagnose and treat illness and, 3) we have become a culture of the quick fix, instant gratification and impatience with all things that require time and effort.
I may have tried to commit suicide without the anti-depressants prescribed for me at age 23 but I’ll never know that for certain. What I do know is that there exists an undisputed body of medical research concluding that, in certain people, anti-depressants (and particularly following cessation of the medication) increase suicidal ideation.
As for the subsequent addiction to Valium in my 30’s as a result of treatment for Fibromyalgia, it cured me forever of a willingness to take any pain medication for almost any reason. I can say that with certainty because I have had surgery since and refused all pain meds post-op to the horror of my physician. Yes, I suffered through rather than risk addiction to the too easily prescribed Tordol, Hydrocodone, Percocet, Tramadol. I am neither brave nor stupid. I simply never want to go through hell again. So, I chose two days of excruciating, post-op pain to even the possibility that a pain killer might be addicting.
What I learned from both of these experiences has served me well ever since.
First, following the attempted suicide, I embarked upon a life of inner reflection and personal responsibility. I decided nothing was worth living a lie and if I lived the life I wanted, rather than the life I internalized was expected of me, at least I could like myself for my authenticity.
Second, I threw off the diagnosis of Fibromyalgia. Well, not initially. I still said I had it but I treated it as a “lifestyle” illness. If I ate healthfully, exercised the correct amount, noticed what types of emotional, mental and physical stress in my life precipitated an “attack,” I could use my lifestyle to contain, or even eliminate the illness. For years now, I no longer think or speak of “having Fibromyalgia” nor have I had any symptoms.
While we may not be able do anything about the power of the pharmaceutical companies and their power over the FDA, or change the catastrophic effects of Obamacare on the quality of healthcare, what each of us can do is take responsibility for whether we are living a life of authenticity or deceit of self; whether or not we choose the quick fix over less expedient but safer alternatives and, perhaps most importantly, whether we are willing to acknowledge that much of what ails us is related to the pace at which we live and the choices that we make in trying fit into a culture that, in its present state, may have very little to contribute to our physical, emotional or mental well being.