Writing this is a little scary for me, because I’m already anticipating the judgment and assumptions that will come crashing down.
But I guess that’s okay, because I really feel like this needs to be said.
I’m 34 years old, and I cannot remember a time when I was not in physical pain.
The back problems first started when my boobs sprouted, full and heavy, in 4th grade. By 6th grade I was seeing a chiropractor; between my chest and my textbooks, my neck, shoulders, and lower back were already at a constant dull ache. When I was in my first car accident, discs were herniated; additional discs herniated in my second and third, and despite what any personal injury lawyer will tell you, “pain and suffering” settlements are not all that satisfying when you’re 18 and staring down a lifetime of constant pain.
I tried everything. I really did. I went to physical therapy religiously. I didn’t overexert myself. I got cortisone shots, facet block injections, and epidurals. I saw an orthopedist, a pain management doctor, and obviously several physical therapists on a regular basis.
Throughout this ordeal, I put on weight, but I rarely drank alcohol, I never smoked a cigarette, and I did not once try any illegal drugs. Actually, my college career was among the most boring in history, and I credit that not to my being a particularly “good kid” but to the simple fact of my constant, unrelenting pain. Going out with friends to someplace unknown became a fear bordering on phobia; what if we had to walk someplace for an extended period of time? What if we had to climb a particularly large hill or set of stairs? What if — as happened just enough to be terrifying — my back gave out and I crumpled helpless to the ground?
No. Better to stay in, and do my work, and be unbelievably boring than to risk making my pain worse or compounding it with humiliation.
Finally, by the time I was in my mid-20s, I was told the only possible way I could make any of my pain better was by surgery.
So I got surgery — specifically, spinal fusion at my L5-S1 vertebrae, where the pain was worst. The herniations in my cervical and thoracic area were still there (along with a number of other injuries in other areas of my body), but the lumbar herniation was causing shooting pain down my legs and numbness on my hips/buttocks, so that’s what they targeted.
That was nearly 10 years ago. And guess what? I’m still in pain.
Since that first auto accident, I have been prescribed painkillers on and off — Percocet, Tramadol, Vicodin, Dilaudid. Tramadol did nothing for me; Vicodin made me queasy; Dilaudid made me useless. Percocet didn’t last long, but when I took it, I at least had a few short, blissful hours where I wasn’t experiencing intense pain — the dull ache was still there, sure, but I’d dealt with that since I was 12. So I would take one pill at night, to help me get to sleep; otherwise, I would be tossing and turning the whole night praying for relief from OTC weaklings Advil, Tylenol, or Aleve.
I’m 34 now. I haven’t taken painkillers in 3 years. And because of that (among other things)… most days, I hate my life.
Pain is a constant companion, a monster with dripping fangs that lurks behind me like a shadow, chuckling softly as I try to make plans. It is a waking nightmare that plagues work, vacation, and travel, affecting every decision I make. It’s the reason many of my plans are canceled at the last minute — I physically don’t have the strength, because it’s all drained from fighting off the pain. In short, it interferes with my life to such an extent that, if I start to focus on it too much, I start spiraling downward into a major depressive episode very quickly.
So I suffer as quietly as I am able, and I pop Advil like it’s candy (might as well be for the good it does), and I meditate, and I research and buy more pillows and cushions, and I experiment with different sleep methods, and I attempt to exercise, and I really, really, really try to just… keep going.
But after trying physical therapy, injections, and multiple surgeries, I can safely say that out of everything I’ve tried, the only thing that has given me relief is Percocet — one of the infamous medications of the “opioid epidemic,” a “gateway drug” to addiction and overdose, and now officially one of the most regulated medications out there.
And I’m afraid to ask for it. I’ve had so many ER visits and emergency surgeries in my life (in fact, just being in a hospital now gives me acute anxiety attacks) that I feel no one really believes me when I say I am in pain. Pain is something that is minimized in our society, anyway; just look to the oft-quoted “Pain is weakness leaving the body” that every fitness guru has somewhere on their Instagram, and you’ll see where pain falls on the scale of things to take seriously.
Moreover, it’s not news that the United States seems incapable of finding middle ground on anything — it’s always an all-or-nothing, black-and-white, good-vs.-evil issue (whatever that issue may be). But in this case, I — and so many others — are pleading desperately for a happy medium.
And we’re being ignored.
And to some extent, I get it. My hometown on the East coast is part of ground zero for the so-called “opioid epidemic.” If I had to hazard a guess, I would say somewhere between 40 and 50 people from my graduating high school class of 450 have either died or had a sibling die of an overdose. I am not underplaying the seriousness of the problem, or denying that a problem exists.
It absolutely does, and it needs to be addressed. But as with all other issues, it should be addressed carefully and fairly, because not everyone (or even most people) take opioids to abuse them. Many of us take them exactly as they are intended, for the exact reason they exist — to manage our pain.
There is something particularly cruel about ignoring this group of people who take opioids. We can be counted among the most vulnerable populations — after all, we are in constant physical pain, spending our waking hours beating back a violent specter no one else can see or hear and trying to function in a healthcare system already flawed beyond all reasonable measure.
We are begging you: Please. Help us out here. Let us work out a middle ground on this issue.
Our physical and mental health depends on it.