A few years ago, I injured my right hip playing tennis. Unbeknownst to me, I had torn one of the hip flexor tendons slightly. I continued to aggravate it just enough so that it got progressively worse. Finally, a cyst formed in the hip socket near the damaged tissue. I found myself limited in movement and in low-grade, but constant pain. I went to several healers to work on it, but finally, I realized that my hip was injured, and I was going to need more serious help to heal. After a lot of research, many conversations and deep reflection, I decided on stem cell therapy. Here is what took place.
On Monday this past week, I drove two hours south of Los Angeles to a surgery center where an experienced doctor drew stem cells out of the bone marrow in my pelvis. After spinning them in a centrifuge she then re-injected the cells into my hip joint, into the damaged tendon and also directly into the bone. Over the next few months, the stem cells are supposed to kind of “set up shop” and work with the body to build the necessary tissues to heal the areas in question. The healing possibilities are really something incredible. The people I spoke with who have experienced this procedure reported the most amazing results. I am hopeful. We will see.
I am a person in long-term recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism. I’m now over 28 years sober. Today, my life and work are dedicated to living free from addiction in all forms, and helping others on the same path.
I’m one of those less common people who loves life without drugs and alcohol. I don’t miss it. At the beginning of my recovery, this was not the case. I’d wake up any given day with anxiety, uncertain if my sober status would be intact come nightfall. Through the combined power of the 12-Steps and Yoga, a monumental transformation took place in me. Ultimately, all physical and psychological cravings went away completely. I simply no longer desired to use. It was as if my entire being had changed.
It’s one thing to discuss the goal of cessation. How does a person in the throes of addiction simply stop using drugs and alcohol? To consider, though, how a person in recovery can stop desiring drugs and alcohol is another thing altogether. That latter consideration — a complete release of desire to use — is both rare, and of maximum interest to me. Regarding drugs and alcohol, I’ve been in a desireless state for as long as I can remember. And nothing had happened to this point in my recovery that would challenge that.
Getting back to my hip, I have never had any surgery or procedure that required me to be in a hospital setting. I have never been given an anesthetic, though my humorous and wise uncle did remind me that through active drug addiction, I had “put myself under” on more than a few occasions.
Of course, I had already had “the talk” with the doctor performing the procedure.
“You need to know that I used to be an addict? It’s been a long time, but I want to avoid taking opiates, if at all possible.”
She told me straight up, “You are going to need pain relief after this. How much relief is up to you. People tend to need help for somewhere between two to five days. It’s important that you not be in pain so that the body can heal.”
It’s critical for me to have that talk. For one thing, I get to tell an important truth. In disclosing this information early, I set myself up for continued honesty. I also get information to better understand what the norm is because if there’s anything I know, I do not fit the norm when it comes to taking drugs.
For further support, I have with me a dear friend in recovery. He is my man, Joe. He understands addiction and is always there for me. He will drive me the two hours home after this procedure is over. He will protect my recovery like it was his own.
Before the procedure began, the doctor briefed me one last time and then escorted me into the “operating” room. I was greeted there by five people wearing gowns, masks and gloves. With a smile and slight tremor in my voice, I asked, “Are you all waiting for me?” All of a sudden, I got kind of nervous. The inside voice chimed in: Do they realize this is NOT a surgery?
The anesthesiologist beckoned me to lay down with my face in a small cradle as if I were having a massage.
“What will you use to knock me out,” I asked.
“A combination of Versed and Fentanyl,” he replied nonchalantly.
“Really? Wow!,” I said, a bit shocked.
They were about to stick a pretty thick needle into two bones, aggravated tissues and joints. I knew I had to be sedated, but Fentanyl?
“Look,” I said to the anesthesiologist. “I don’t want to be in pain, but please use the least amount possible. Ok?”
He was very kind, though quite weird. I imagine all anesthesiologists are weird. They kind of can’t help it. They have at their disposal the strongest and most pure drugs known to mankind. And they are about to administer them to you. For someone with my background, the whole thing is just surreal.
He told me he would use the lowest dose possible without allowing me to experience pain and discomfort. I agreed and positioned myself face down on the table. The anesthesiologist then told me he was going to begin slowly administering the sedative, and the very next thing I knew, I woke up two and a half hours later in a small recovery room.
Joe was there, smiling. He later would tell me that upon waking I said, “Wahe Guru. Wahe Guru,” to which I have no memory. Those words form a very powerful Sikh mantra, which attempts to convey the inexpressible awe and bliss of simply being alive. Years of yoga practice, study, teaching and recitation of mantras such as this one must have made their mark. Those were good words to have on the tip of my tongue.
As a person in recovery from addiction, my protocol for taking painkillers is that if I am truly in pain, it is okay to take them. I do not have any hesitation or shame around doing this. However, if I am “in discomfort,” the time for painkillers is over. I can handle discomfort with ice or a Tylenol, or perhaps nothing at all.
Right out of surgery, the nurse gave me Percocet, a powerful opiate. At this point, I was still experiencing acute pain. I felt no sensation from that pill other than a lessening of the “tightness” and pain in my hip. She gave me one more of them to hold onto if I needed it on the way home.
Meanwhile, the doctor gave me a prescription for another opiate called Vicodin. In that moment, I recalled an important story: When I was eighteen, I had my wisdom teeth pulled. Before leaving the dentist’s office, he offered me a prescription for painkillers, but I turned it down because, frankly, I was so high from whatever he had given me during the extraction that I couldn’t imagine needing anything more. Later that day, when the drugs wore off, my head blew up like a balloon. I was in so much pain that I had to run back to the office and get help. Remembering this story, I asked Joe to stop and fill the prescription for the Vicodin on our way home in case I needed them later. While we were there, we got crutches as well.
About an hour or so into the drive home, the pain amped up. My hip and back started to throb and I took the second Percocet. In about 30 minutes, the pain dipped back down and became manageable again. Then it happened…
As Joe and I turned off the Pacific Coast Highway into the canyon where I live, I felt a rush come over me. The drug seemed to hit my bloodstream like a freight train. It was huge, immediate and very familiar. My breathing and heart rate changed instantly. I lowered my eyes, head and arms still, scanning my body to try to get a grip on this feeling. A powerful warmth had come over me and veiled all pain from my perception. I looked at Joe, and plainly stated, “I’m high. Joe, I’m really high. I feel…high.”
I have been raised in recovery to understand that to feel this very sensation is extremely dangerous, that it can set off the phenomenon of craving and lead to a relapse, which can lead to death. Countless are the examples of men and women who have been sober for varying periods of time and then found themselves in a position where they had to take painkillers. So many of them would end up relapsing, and many would never make it back. These stories are not dramatic fabrications. And no part of me feels arrogant when going toe-to-toe with any opiate. I know that these substances are bigger than me. I know that my nervous system is not set up to handle that kind of wattage.
How long had it been since I felt this?, I thought to myself. Is this ok? Am I going to be okay? Is the phenomenon of craving going to be activated in me? Will I be thinking about this tomorrow? There is no way to describe these questions and concerns to someone who hasn’t experienced recovery from addiction, especially recovery from opiates.
I was acutely aware of Joe and he was acutely aware of me. There was a momentary silence as I took a kind of nuanced inhale, labored and deliberate, that one could only take when high. Joe burst out laughing. And so did I.
In real-time, I was questioning the experience of being high, an observer of myself. I didn’t deny what I felt and there was no shame. I was present and simply curious, what does this mean? And then the answers started to flow in a stream of thoughts that I can only try to relate to you here.
My life means so much to me. My recovery and my work in the world with Recovery 2.0 mean so much to me. My relationships with my wife, family, teachers and friends are so important to me. I love this planet. I love people. I love myself and I love God. I’m grateful for all the blessings of my life, and while I neither dislike nor condemn the feeling that this drug has produced, I do not desire it over the life I have chosen. I am free.
The faces of my teachers and loved ones flashed through my mind, the sum total of their prayers and love buoying me. Rather than fearful or neurotic, I felt elevated and clear.
When Joe and I arrived at my house, my wife Kia was there to receive me. “How did it go?” she asked, gently putting her arms around me. I told her the whole story. We had a good and healthy laugh about it. I got into bed and dropped into a deep and restful sleep.
The next morning, I was able to stand up using crutches for support. I was in no pain, but had some discomfort. I intuitively knew that I would not need any more medication. In the old days, I would have gotten rid of the Vicodin because if I didn’t it would linger in my thoughts and could threaten my sobriety. That is no longer necessary.
What has come even more clear for me is that a life of Yoga — the physical and spiritual practice, the continual desire to be stronger and more awake, to build intuition and to live beyond the reach of addiction — makes extraordinary things possible.
Today is five days since the procedure. I have gotten stronger every day and I am now walking well. I will begin physical therapy on Monday and build from there. Apparently, the body takes about three to six months to do its repairs under the tutelage and direction of these stem cells. I’ll be excited to report to you how things are going.
Author’s Postscript — This is not a how-to protocol for what people in recovery should do when faced with taking painkillers. This experience was very personal. Please remember, I have been sober for 28 years and have worked continuously to strengthen and be honest with myself in every way. If I were to direct a coaching client or sponsee about how to handle the same situation, I would say, always err on the side of caution and humility. Always tell someone else in recovery what you are doing and bring them with you. You may need to humbly give your medications to someone who can administer them responsibly, in case you do not feel that you can. You may need to flush any extra pills down the toilet. Have a great reverence for the power of these drugs. Work your program of recovery, practice yoga and meditation and, one day at a time, make your entire being into an unwelcome host for addiction.
Tommy Rosen is a coach, yoga teacher and author. He has over 28 years of continuous sobriety and is the founder of Recovery 2.0. Learn more at: https://r20.com