I am the addict next door. You know…the woman who lives in the nice house in the nice neighborhood with the nice family. That’s me.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 130 people in the United States die from an opioid overdose each day. These days, it is being referred to as a national emergency. As such, the face of addiction is changing—becoming all encompassing. As one addict put it, “I’m the All-American girl…just the All-American girl who is addicted.”
Ask around and you will be hard-pressed to find someone whose life hasn’t been directly touched by this epidemic or knows of someone whose life has been touched by it. Our society no longer has the luxury of the “us vs. them” mentality. The “them” is becoming all of us—from young and old to rich to poor and everything in between. And I was one of them.
Despite the social stigma it may invite, I don’t hide my addiction. It is a part of who I have become now, and I reference it from time to time. In doing so, I have become increasingly amazed at the people who confide in me that they have someone close who is addicted, too. There was the middle-aged woman who, before confiding her secret, glanced around the room anxiously to see who was in earshot and then shared with me that her husband was an addict. Or the young girl who grabbed on to my mention of my addiction and began sharing the story of her mother, an addict. Both told a familiar story of back problems, surgery, opiates and then headlong addiction.
My story is very much the same. My drug of choice was opiates, oxycodone primarily. But I was not averse to drinking alcohol, too, when there were no pain pills to be had.
My addiction and I go way back. My father was addicted to pain pills. He gave me my first pain pill when I was 11 years old. It was around that time he also informed me that taking a pill if you were sad was OK. I would turn to those pills from time to time throughout high school and college and beyond. I didn’t gobble them by the handful. But I was the one patient who was always up for filling that extra refill or the patient who hoped a minor ailment was far worse than it was.
When I decided I wanted to get pregnant, I stopped. After my son was born, I continued to stop —for a time. Then I gradually began using again, every now and then, and drinking too much on the weekends. I felt I was keeping my head above water. I was anxious and depressed, and I often equated taking those pills or drinking as a way to catch my breath, to calm my mind from its incessant worries, thoughts and obsessions.
Then I had back surgery. Spinal fusion. It failed. Six weeks in, I sat patiently as the surgeon surveyed my most recent X-rays, and much to his own shock, he informed me that both the titanium rods used in the spinal fusion had snapped in two. I would have to deal with chronic pain for the rest of my life since the rods, I was told, could not be safely removed.
I grabbed onto that news and those steady streams of pills and off we went. I wouldn’t now be confined to just taking pills every now and then but had a legitimate reason to take them consistently. My son was older. I decided to jump headlong into my addiction.
When people hear my story, many are quick to defend me, which I always find interesting. “It was those doctors pushing the pills on you,” someone once said to me. After all, I couldn’t be an addict. I lived next door in the nice house with the nice family. But, no, the doctor may have been prescribing them, but I was the one taking too many and demanding more and more and more.
And yet, this same person, who refused to accept that I could be an addict of my own doing, recently posted a meme on Facebook that said, “If Narcan is free to addicts because they have a disease, why isn’t chemo free for cancer patients?”
I can’t even begin to explain why that argument, logistically alone, does not work.
But I get it. I understand the frustration. While at in-patient rehab, I met a woman who had been clean for a year. She decided to celebrate that fact by indulging in her substance of choice and falling back into her addiction. Apparently, she was a frequent flyer at the facility, complaining loudly that the last time she was there, the cafeteria offered a salad bar and now didn’t.
I was desperate for this second chance and did not intend to take it for granted. I wanted rehab. Truly. I remember walking circles in my living room, waiting for my last pills to wear off and knowing the hell I would face with withdrawals—think the flu 100 times over—because I had no more pills to take. During those times, I would daydream about rehab and the chance to start again. I wanted to live. I had something to live for: a wonderful family and a job that I had once loved and thrived in and had lost.
In my foggy, drug-fueled mind, I was trying to hang on to it. You see, addicts lives their lives in a 20- or so-minute span of euphoria once the pills have been ingested or, given my later habit, snorted. I would try to cram in all the “normal stuff” I used to do during that tiny time frame. Be a good mom. Be a good wife. Load the dishwasher. Clean out the cat box.
It was folly, I know, but I held stubbornly to it.
I did the same with my freelance writing career. By the end of my addiction, I had gone from a thriving 20-year business to a single contract, which I lost eventually.
I attended a meeting high on pills and must have nodded off. I remember someone asking me if I was OK. A day or two later, I received a phone call saying that my services would no longer be needed. I had worked for this client from the very start of my freelance career two decades earlier.
Today, I don’t drink. I don’t take pills. I have found immense joy in life. It took rehab—in and outpatient, intense therapy and an understanding of the little girl who spent most of her growing up years traumatized. I don’t excuse my actions. I will carry the guilt of what I put my husband and son through for the rest of my life. But I have worked hard to understand why I made the choices I did. I believe all addicts deserve that consideration. We are not “them” but us. And we live right next door.