A DIY Plan to Overcome Opioid Addiction
How I tapered off opioids with the help of my family and science-backed solutions for beating withdrawals
A Note From The Editors: Before you read this article you should know a couple of things. Prescription Opioid addiction is a serious medical issue and your first course of action should be to talk to your doctor.
As you’ll see in the article, sometimes you don’t end up trusting your doctor and need to exercise your right to be your own medical advocate. In that case, your second stop should be a second doctor.
However, many people don’t have access to medical care or expensive treatment facilities. So in that case, we’d like to share a take from the world of non-medically supervised interventions, i.e. DIY, 12-step, coaching, support groups.
It’s common for people to try to treat themselves before going to group or other professional interventions. Given that many readers will start with a DIY approach, we hope this article helps you create the best possible self-treatment plan. But if your self-treatment plan doesn’t work, please keep trying other, stronger interventions. Notably, the plan below does not treat any of the deeper emotional issues that often complicate an addiction recovery.
I started taking opioids after surgery on my spine at 22 years old. I was young and naïve; I didn’t know what opioids were or the damage they could do.
All I knew is I was in more pain than I’d ever felt in my life and needed relief.
When he saw my suffering, my doctor immediately gave me a Vicodin prescription. I took my first pill and was hooked; you couldn’t get me away from those pills for anything. I now knew what intense pain was, and I was not going back to that.
I figured I’d be in pain for a while. I mean, spinal surgery is intense, right?
Flash forward two months, and little warning bells started going off in my head. I didn’t really understand how these pills differed from say, a super-strong dose of ibuprofen, but they were prescription pain killers. Although the warnings seemed no different to me then the next prescription drug and my doctor gave me no sign there was any risk associated with Vicodin, it just didn’t seem right.
I felt the pain in my lower back had to be better by now — at least to where I could manage it with over-the-counter drugs. So, I called up my doctor. I told him my concerns and asked him to help me with a pain management plan.
What I got, for whatever reason, was a very emphatic refusal to help and a doctor’s order to stay on Vicodin. He said he knew what I needed, and that was Vicodin. He told me not to worry about getting off of it, because my back was NOT better, and would not be for a long time.
Now, I don’t know why it went down like that. I don’t know why he insisted I stay on a controlled substance that wasn’t being controlled in the slightest, but he did. And that led to my addiction growing and growing, leaving me in a world of trouble.
What many people don’t get with opioid addiction is that not everyone is feeding their addiction to get a “high.” Many just want to keep feeling like they can function throughout the day. I took more and more Vicodin to continue feeling as normal as I could, and I couldn’t accomplish that without the drug.
In a variety of studies compiled in 2016, different opioid users talk about their experience when they were first introduced to opioids. Many of them talk about taking the pills initially because it made them feel good, or because it gave them a “high.” But after a while, some noted they simply needed the medicine to continue feeling normal, to stop any withdrawal symptoms.
And I agree with that completely. I didn’t take the Vicodin so much for those “good feelings” as I did for the sense of well-being, or normalcy the pills gave me. I had to take more and more to get the same effect, and after two years, I was taking so much my doctor refused to give me more.
Finding Motivation to Get Off Vicodin for Good
I knew I couldn’t stay on these pills forever. Taking illegal measures to get the same high, while tempting, was a road I didn’t want to go down. My doctor was refusing to increase my dose of the pills, and the doctor I saw on the side had cut me off from them completely.
One thing I had wanted since I was young was a family. I knew I could never have kids while taking opioids, and that was a big deal for me.
I was dating a boy I loved and wanted to marry eventually, but he was starting to pull away. No matter how many times I tried to assure him I wasn’t such a crazy hormonal basket case normally, he didn’t know me before this. It was hard for him to see me as anything but what I currently was, and the Vicodin had changed me to the point of where I no longer felt or acted like myself.
So what could I do?
What I needed was help.
So many who have become addicted to opioids are in the same boat I was. You don’t want to be in the situation you’re in, but you are and you’re stuck.
After coming to this realization, I was able to get off Vicodin completely and have never looked back, although it took time. And I didn’t do it by going to a treatment center, though that is helpful for many people. However, they aren’t a feasible option for everyone.
Here’s how I overcame my addiction.
My Plan to Become Opioid-Free
I was fortunate.
My dad stepped in and came up with a plan for me by researching and finding the best way to taper off the medicine slowly. I had been looking for a way to get off the pills, but was so scared of being without them I had made little progress myself. Having my dad step in and say “this is what we have to do” gave me the push I needed.
I had to move home to put this plan into action. The plan involved me giving up my own access to the pills completely. My dad kept them and gave me my dose every day. I’m sure some can accomplish this on their own if they are motivated enough, but it makes a huge difference to have someone else holding them. Do this if you are at all able.
I’ll never forget the night before I started tapering. I had moved home and thought we’d be starting to taper in a week or two, but my dad sat me down one night shortly after arriving. He told me he completed the tapering schedule and asked me to give him the Vicodin.
You have to understand — that prescription bottle hadn’t left my side in over two years!
Without it, I couldn’t function. My first response was to say “no!” burst into tears and run from the room. I shut myself up somewhere and just sobbed. I couldn’t be without the pills; I couldn’t handle the withdrawals.
I had a change of heart later that night, though, because I WAS motivated to get off the drugs. I was just scared. I knew what withdrawals were like, and they were not pretty! Going through that terrified me, but when I considered the alternative? I knew it had to happen.
Here is what the tapering schedule my dad came up with looked like-
This was with Vicodin 10/500 mg tablets. I started out taking 8 1/2 pills a day and tapered down for 8 weeks to stop taking them entirely. Look at how many pills you’re taking, and base your own plan off that. Use my spreadsheet as a guide.
One thing that made a big difference is the way the taper worked. If you look closely at the spreadsheet, you’ll see that it’s not a straight taper.
Take week 2, for example. I’d take 1/2 a pill every hour and a half for that week. But then in week 3, I’d take my 1/4 pill every 50 minutes. Reducing the dosage is necessary to get off, but taking it more frequently helped immensely with the withdrawals.
This may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. For example, say you’re taking 6 10/500 mg tablets of Hydrocodone per day. You wake up at 8 am and go to bed around or just after midnight. Let’s break it down based on that.
- 8 a.m. 1/2 pill
- 9:30 a.m. 1/2 pill
- 11 a.m. 1/2 pill
- 12:30 p.m. 1/2 pill
- 2 p.m. 1/2 pill
- 3:30 p.m. 1/2 pill
- 5 p.m. 1/2 pill
- 6:30 p.m. 1/2 pill
- 8 p.m. 1/2 pill
- 9:30 p.m. 1/2 pill
- 11 p.m. 1/2 pill
- 12:30 p.m. 1/2 pill
Then for week two, continue tapering, but change up the schedule a bit. For example:
- 8 a.m. /4 pill
- 8:50 a.m. 1/4 pill
- 9:40 a.m. 1/4 pill
- 10:30 a.m. 1/4 pill
- 11:20 a.m.1/4 pill
- 12:10 p.m.1/4 pill
- 1 p.m. 1/4 pill
- 1:50 p.m. 1/4 pill
- 2:40 p.m. 1/4 pill
- 3:30 p.m. 1/4 pill
- 4:20 p.m. 1/4 pill
- 5:10 p.m. 1/4 pill
- 6 p.m. 1/4 pill
- 6:50 p.m. 1/4 pill
- 7:40 p.m. 1/4 pill
- 8:30 p.m. 1/4 pill
- 9:20 p.m. 1/4 pill
- 10:10 p.m. 1/4 pill
- 11 p.m.1/4 pill
- 11:50 p.m. 1/4 pill
So in week one, you were taking more medicine, but you were doing it every hour and a half. For week two, you’ll be taking a pill less per day then you were, but much more frequently. This will help your withdrawals become more manageable than they would be otherwise.
The rest of the tapering schedule will look like this:
1/4 pill every hour and 5 minutes from 8 a.m.
1/4 pill every hour and a half from 8 a.m.
1/4 pill every two hours from 8 a.m.
1/4 pill every four hours from 8 a.m.
1/4 pill twice a day — 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., or whatever works for you.
That’s it! Come week eight there will be no more pills to take.
However, you know your own body; this doesn’t seem feasible to you, think about what modifications can make it work. If you’re taking 6 pills a day, is moving down to 5 the next week too much? If so, move down to 5 1/2 instead.
The most important thing is to stick with the schedule. You can and will get off opioids if you’re able to stick with it!
On the other hand, be cautious about going too slowly. If you’re determined, your body can handle the withdrawals that will come, scary as they may seem.
A terrible list of opioid withdrawal symptoms has been found by research:
- Joint/muscle aches
- Abdominal cramps
- Gastrointestinal upset
- Feeling sick
And to add to that, I would say apathy. It’s hard to get excited about anything when you’re going through withdrawals; it’s hard to laugh or even smile. You basically just exist.
Fortunately, I found some things that made all the difference.
How to Cope With Withdrawals
There were three things I did that seemed to help the most to cope with the withdrawals I was having.
First and foremost, exercise
I cannot even tell you how crucial exercising is to your success. Your body and mind are undergoing a massive change and they need all the help they can get. According to a recent study, exercise is an effective way to deal with substance abuse and makes a big difference with withdrawals.
The study evaluated the effect of exercise on abstinence rate, withdrawal symptoms, anxiety, and depression on those struggling with substance abuse. Data was compiled from 22 separate studies, showing that physical exercise is able to reduce withdrawal symptoms significantly.
Exercise made a difference in all the categories studied, and mind-body exercises were shown to be beneficial as well. Beyond helping with withdrawals, anxiety, and depression, the abstinence rate was shown to be the highest in opioid users who exercised regularly.
Withdrawals can make you want to throw in the towel and grab a pill. They’re part of the reason you’re addicted. Although your mind knows you need to get off of them, you have to convince your body of that too. You need every one of those endorphins exercising gives to stay strong.
I picked a variety of exercises to do throughout the week, from “Just Dance” on the Wii, running a few miles outside, stretching, or other exercises in my bedroom. I tried to make sure I did some form of exercise for at least an hour every day.
And let me tell you a secret, I never felt like exercising.
I felt like crap and didn’t want to do anything! But by pushing myself and doing what I thought was torture, I could carry on tapering down.
I have an uncle who runs a health supplement company, and he had a hot drink similar to a herbal tea. It contains yerba mate, which is known for boosting energy and improving focus mentally.
That cup of tea lifted my mood for a half-hour or so each day. And if you’re thinking a half-hour doesn’t sound like much, it was golden. Having just a half-hour of feeling better daily was so huge.
I lived for those 30 minutes!
Do things—with others—even though you don’t feel like it
I was so depressed I would just sit and stare at the wall. Not helpful! My family dragged me along to dinner, shopping, even filing papers at my dads work. (fun!)
I never wanted to go, but I did anyway. And I was terrible company. But at least I was doing something.
Sitting around is the worst thing for an addict because it leaves us with our own thoughts. And those thoughts usually revolve around giving up and taking the pills again. Not good!
Distraction is key here because even though you’re out doing something unwillingly and are terrible company, you’re not thinking about your meds as much. And that, my friend, is why you have to do things.
That’s why distracting yourself is so important.
Go to that movie you don’t care about.
Go try on clothes you don’t want.
Try to live your life as normally as possible—you won’t always be horrible company and dislike doing everything!
Ask your friends and family to help you with this. Make appointments in advance if you can, and remind yourself that you need to keep them even though you don’t feel like it when the time comes. Do it anyway.
Once You’re Off, Are You Done?
I won’t lie: addiction does a real number on you. Once you have tapered off completely, you'll start feeling better gradually, but it takes time (a year and a half, in my case) to get back to fully feeling yourself again.
The emotional damage can take much longer to heal from — my self-confidence took a hard hit. It was years before I started putting myself out into the world again, years to believe that I was good enough and worth it.
I’ve since had multiple doctors prescribe Vicodin for me, from a root canal to a c-section and anything in-between. I always politely insist on a different medicine, and if they refuse, I just get by with ibuprofen (except in the c-section case, I completely insisted that they give me a different drug!)
Staying clean from addiction is a choice, and one you may have to make consistently for the rest of your life.
You may still have pain. I know I do. But being in control of your mind and body is priceless. I have a husband and two kids now, and I count my lucky stars that happened for me and that I got clean.
This plan isn’t unique to me; I believe it will work for anyone motivated enough.
If you’re determined to live your life free from opioids, you can get there. It will require a lot of hard work and tenacity, but once you’re clean, you’ll be that much stronger.
You’re meant to live your best life, and that’s hard to do—probably impossible to do—when your brain is clouded by addiction.
I wasn’t meant to depend on drugs for my happiness —and I don’t believe you are, either.