Frank’s Fumble: Opioid addiction nearly stole his future away

By on November 30, 2016

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Home from Kutztown University for fall break, Frank was playing football with friends in his family’s backyard in Warwick Township. Running through the yard with the football, he didn’t notice the small tree stump, fell, and fumbled the ball. While Frank went down, his foot remained planted in the muddy yard. They had all heard the snapping of his broken ankle as Frank screamed in pain.

The vibrant, well-liked 20-year-old was rushed to the emergency room. Sedated during surgery, he woke to see a nurse offering him a pill in a small white cup.

“Young man, swallow this now and it will take the edge off of your pain,” she told him. “The doctor will send a prescription with you when you are discharged.”

Frank swallowed the Vicodin; his first of many more to follow.

Upon his return to college, he told himself that his pill popping was like playing football. It produced a great feeling and he was in the safe territory because his doctor had continued to prescribe them for his chronic ankle pain. Questioning whether he should call a time-out and try living without the pills, he knew he couldn’t do that. Having become dependent on them, his body craved more and more to provide the intense euphoric feeling of pleasure that he had grown to like and need. Frank was addicted to pain pills, an insidious form of addiction that carries challenges and dangers.

“Most of the heroin users now, their first opioid exposure was a prescription drug,” Dr. Wilson Compton, National Institute on Drug Abuse, recently stated. “That’s true for at least 80 percent of today’s heroin addicts.”

Frank came close to joining that 80 percent group.

“I decided to stay at college my last summer there and graduate early,” he recalled. “To maintain my 4.0 GPA, I was studying every day and night, and popping Vicodins every day and night. I had to start buying them off the street. I started stealing from my friends for money to feed my addiction. At one point I had only $100 to my name. That amount could buy me four 10 mg Vicodins or ten 1/10th grams of heroin. The fiscally conservative road would have been to buy the heroin. I had lost so many friends to heroin overdoses that I was scared to try heroin, but I was so desperate I almost caved in. Spending $80 on Vicodin, I used the other $20 for gas to drive home and stop by my family doctor for a prescription. After filling the prescription I went to my parent’s house. No one was home but there was my best friend, a full bottle of Vicodin sitting on the kitchen counter. I clutched the bottle and fell to my knees. The bottle was labeled for my mother, to take one pill every four hours as needed for pain.

“As I placed it back on the counter my parents walked in. Overwhelmed with the joy of my visit, we spent a wonderful evening together,” Frank recalls. “After watching a football game on television, I went upstairs and lay down on my bed, wondering and wishing why life couldn’t be simple like it was before. Around 2 a.m. I went downstairs and took the pain pills out of my mother’s container, replaced them with vitamins, and swallowed a handful of Vicodin. Later that morning I heard my mother sobbing uncontrollably. Dad told me that they didn’t want me to worry about her while I was at school so they hadn’t told me that she had bone cancer. She was on the floor, shaking violently and screaming, ‘Why aren’t my pain pills helping?’ I had stolen pain pills from my mother, who was suffering from bone cancer! I had hit rock bottom!

“Quickly retreating to my laptop, I started doing some research. I watched Macklemore’s powerful new video, ‘Drug Dealer,’ of what he sees as a pandemic of drug addictions driven by doctors who overprescribe painkillers,” said Frank. “Dr. Mehmet Oz agreed, ‘Doctors went too far in prescribing opioids for pain.’ I read that Americans are in more pain than any other population, according to a recent startling statistic. Approximately 80 percent of the global supply of pain pills is consumed in the United States. The over 300 million pain prescriptions written annually in the United States equals a 24 billion dollar market, allowing every adult to have a full bottle of pain pills and then some. Averages of 46 people die in America every day from opioids such as Vicodin. The CDC urged doctors to curb prescribing painkillers due to often unintended consequences: Addicts are driven to the black market and find heroin is much cheaper. Opioid addiction may be the gateway to heroin use.

“There is, however, a critical difference between someone like me, Frank, who loves my Vicodin, and my mother, who truly needs them for her cancer pain. I was part of this raging problem of addiction and I was going to overcome it.

“Driving back to school, the image of my mother crying in pain haunted me. Vowing to finish the pills I had and then quit, I did just that,” Frank said. “Within 18 hours of quitting, my body felt like I had fallen off of a cliff. The wall that I was leaning on had crumbled. I experienced hallucinations; blurred vision; severe nausea and diarrhea; vomiting; anxiety; chills; insomnia and even suicidal thoughts.

“People considered me to be a strong person, but in the throes of cold turkey withdrawal, I became a different person. Desperate to feel normal, I bought and took a full day’s supply of my prior usage amount. Four hours later I woke up again in a hospital bed. This time there wasn’t a nurse holding a cup with a Vicodin in it. I had unintentionally overdosed and was saved by Narcan. The nurse handed me a card to fill in the name of my chosen funeral home for my next overdose!”

“The doctor explained that my addiction is not impossible to overcome but it is often impossible to do it alone. He sent me to a rehab center where I detoxed safely,” recalls Frank. “ I learned to relieve my chronic pain through alternate means. Many tools such as music, art, and meditation, were provided to me to eliminate my constant thoughts of and dependency on Vicodin. The rehab facility’s philosophy was to treat my whole being rather than simply focus on my disease of addiction. Holistic therapies were incorporated as an integral component of healing; helping me get my life back and remaining addiction-free.”

Fast forward five years. Frank had chosen opiate replacement therapy and remains on a slow tapered schedule of elimination of the replacement. He graduated from college and is working as a therapist in a rehab facility where he shares his experiences with his patients. He credits his faith, NA meetings, and his sponsor, for helping him unshackle the chains of addiction. Frank’s mother is in remission and they are all thankful to be back in the game of life…life without drugs.

Janice Ballenger may be contacted at janiceballenger@yahoo.com.

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