My Opioid Story
By now, we all know there’s an opioid epidemic in this country. Tragic stories like this or this are becoming the norm instead of the rarity. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death in America for people under 50. In 2016 over 64,000 people died from overdose. A couple years ago I found myself in this growing epidemic, and as I’ve tried to be open about other challenges, I’d like to share this part of my story.
Not a lot of folks know about this part of the story, mostly because this topic (for anyone who’s experienced it) is extremely personal and, perhaps more importantly, there is still a stigma attached to anything surrounding the word “opioid” or “drug.” Even for folks who have legitimate medical conditions under the care of licensed physicians, these are things you just don’t talk about because unfortunately in a lot of minds the line between “patient” and “addict” is very blurry.
About 7 years ago I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, and in 2012 I blew two discs in my lumbar spine requiring surgery. I had been on painkillers on and off throughout that time as my Crohn’s flared and in post-surgery recovery but nothing chronic. My back pain increased in the years following my surgery (I realize now it was probably due to excess scar tissue rather than the actual injury) and in 2014 I began seeing a physician for pain management.
On paper I was the perfect candidate — Crohn’s Disease, blown out lower back, fairly big decrease in quality of life, inability to do certain activities, etc. I don’t have regrets per se, I think it was the right decision to seek treatment, but in hindsight I wish I had made the duration shorter, and focused more on treatments that have now brought me the most relief (consistent exercise, targeted strength training, Myofascial Release, and an anti-inflammatory diet). Nevertheless, I remained in a chronic opioid regimen for the better part of 2 years.
Things started off fine enough, I saw some relief, and didn’t have any major side effects. My doc told me I’d become dependent (which I did), but everything was wrapped in a “don’t worry, these medications are incredibly safe, just do what we say” message. What’s not communicated is how these medications dramatically affect the brain, and how little control you have over them. Sam Quinones, in his book Dreamland, writes that the morphine molecule has
“Evolved somehow to fit, key in lock, in the receptors that all mammals, especially humans, have in their brains and spines…creating a far more intense euphoria than anything we come by internally. It creates a higher tolerance with use and exacts a mighty vengeance when a human dares to stop using it.”
As more studies are conducted on opioids and related drugs, doctors are realizing how quickly a “relief” turns into a runaway train. The first rule of medicine is “do no harm” and unfortunately too many medical professionals realized too late that this directly applies to chronic opioid use. Opioids aren’t meant to be used for extended periods of time in part because their efficacy wanes with use, but the brain’s absolute need for them doesn’t.
It’s a problem on top of a problem because not only does the brain reprogram itself to need more of these drugs, it also stops producing its own “relief” agents like Dopamine and Serotonin. Why would it, when the euphoric effects from these drugs are so much more than the brain can produce on its own? Additionally, proven side effects of opioids are that they actually increase “pain” sensations — almost like a self-preservation mechanism to trick your brain into thinking it’s in more pain so that it consumes more of the drug.
I experienced all of this. I “needed” higher doses to maintain adequate pain relief, which kickstarted and cultivated this vicious cycle. I began ignoring doctor’s orders and consistently took more medication than I should (and knew that I should) which caused hellish withdrawals towards the end of the month before I could get a refill. My brain became obsessed with these medications — when was my next dose, how many do I have left, can I make through to my next refill, how can I get more? I became addicted. I even explored other methods to procure these medications outside of proper channels, something that, in my right mind, I would NEVER do. They literally made me crazy.
I can’t emphasize enough the incredibly negative impact these medications had on my brain. I mentioned before how little control you actually have over these medications. They affect you at a biological level that you have no control over, and you aren’t even aware of it. You lose control while thinking you’re in control and even when you realize you aren’t in control you somehow twist things so it doesn’t seem to matter. They cause depression and anxiety, and they wreak havoc on your gut, liver, and adrenals. I felt terrible, was moody at best and flat out diabolical towards my family at worst. I had no energy, couldn’t sleep, and had no desire to exercise or do much of anything. Ironically, what started as a desperate way to control pain and feel better, ended in a constant state of feeling far worse.
Here’s the misconception about addiction: the stigma of addiction, or of opioid use, or of pain management, or whatever, is that it’s a willpower issue, not a biological issue. Now, does that get me off the hook? No, because I’m a sinner, and certainly I recognized my sinful behavior over and over…trust me, the guilt and shame I felt when I ran out, or took too much, or got caught trying to get meds from other avenues was miserable. But there’s a HUGE biological component because of what these drugs do to the brain.
Just like so many stigmas are starting to fade away with mental health issues, I hope the same happens with addiction, and opioid use. It wasn’t a willpower challenge for me — I wanted to get off these monsters more than you realize, but the biological barrier was too great for a long time. I know so many folks who have been, or currently are, in the same boat. You have to realize, it’s not like I was a recreational drug user looking for the next high — I was a guy with serious health issues, serious pain, and a legitimate case for medically-led pain management. And it still happened to me.
By the grace of God (and that is 100% the reason), I stopped all medications in the late Summer of 2016 and I haven’t taken a single thing since — the only things I take now are my Crohn’s medication, an occasional Tylenol, and a bunch of vitamins (like a bunch). Withdrawals were hell, and that’s all I’ll say about that. But I can tell you how great I feel and how grateful I am to not be a statistic.
There are legitimate uses for opioids, in many ways they are miracle medications. I know folks with Cancer who literally can’t do life without them. Next time I have surgery, or if I head to the ER with a bad Crohn’s flare, I’ll absolutely use them. But that’s it. No chronic use, no use for minor issues, not again. Not ever.
I’m happy to say most of my back pain is gone. For the past 18 months I’ve focused heavily on targeted leg and lower back exercises (the folks in the gym look at me funny when I do my prone Supermans on the dirty YMCA floor). For about a year I did consistent Myofascial Release with my Physical Therapist. My posterior chain is still pretty inflexible, but as long as I keep up with consistent training and stretching, I can keep the pain at bay. I’m running again, swimming, playing soccer, doing deadlifts, and even showed up my kids in a cartwheel competition yesterday.
I’ve also significantly altered my diet. I’ve had to change several things since my Crohn’s diagnosis, but I’ve become an even bigger believer in “food as medicine.” Chronic opioid use really smacks the liver and strips your body of essential vitamins & minerals. As a result, my Crohn’s flared more often because my already immune-suppressed body had less and less to work with. I’ve adopted an anti-inflammatory diet, I supplement liver support and vitamins like crazy, and make these thick green smoothies each day that my kids think are “absolutely gross dad.” But I feel better than ever.
The purpose of this isn’t to stand on an anti-opioid soapbox, or die on some argument hill, or laud my new miracle diet; it’s simply to tell another chapter in my story. I like being open about where I’ve come, the challenges I’ve faced, the screwups I’ve engineered, and how, by God’s grace and Jesus’ resurrection power, I’ve overcome. I guess that’s the point — I’m an overcomer. We all are. For the better part of 2 years I couldn’t overcome this, it overcame me over and over and over. Then I overcame.
For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world — faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
—1 John 5:4–5
We can all overcome, not as a matter of willpower, but ultimately as a surrender. And can I say something else? If you know folks who are struggling with addiction, with opioid use, with chronic pain, with whatever, can I implore you to encourage them? Don’t judge them. Those who have faced this beast know what it’s like, they know the darkness and the hell and the shadows. If you haven’t faced this, you don’t know those things. That’s not a knock against you, it’s just reality. So don’t judge and pretend like you know. You don’t.
Encourage, love, bear up, pray.
That’s my story, and I’m so grateful to close out that chapter.
I’m happy to talk, answer questions, or share about this or anything else I’ve posted. Feel free to reach out. 💙 You can follow me on Twitter