Tag Archive: opioids

Withdrawal is sneezing: What it’s like to taper off opioids

So as a result of feeling a bit better lately, I have been trying to go off all of my opioid pain medications, which at one point totaled as much as 60 mg. a day — three, eight-hour time release 15 mg. morphine pills and then as many as three, short-acting, 5 mg. hydrocodone as needed.

I worked my way down from 60 mg. a day to 15 mg. a day over the course of a month, and then tried to drop down to zero. It did not go well. You can read more about that here.

A little over a week after trying to go cold turkey, for various reasons involving a fresh pain flare and horrific withdrawal symptoms, I ended up back on the drugs. And I have spent the last few months working with a team of doctors trying to figure all this out and attempting to slowly taper off those last 15 mg.

This is what it’s been like:

Withdrawal is sneezing. Every three or four minutes. As soon as the opioids wear off at all — it’s sneezing.

And it’s anxiety. And waking up drenched in sweat. And it’s the kind of diarrhea that you have to learn to accept as a part of your life now. The kind that fills the toilet multiple times a day and leaves your legs weak.

It’s calling your high school boyfriend at 2 p.m. on a Friday because you’re in Target having an anxiety attack for no reason and you need to talk to someone, anyone, or you might actually die right there between the fitting room and the yoga pants display. It’s immediately regretting that phone call and then having anxiety about why you made it in the first place.

It’s not sleeping. God is withdrawal not sleeping. It’s, you’re lucky if you get four hours in one night. And waking up at 3 a.m. like normal people wake up at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. or even 9 a.m.

It’s giving up, and then trying again tomorrow.

It’s realizing that cutting your pills in half and taking them in a different time configuration actually helps a lot. And it’s tracking every dose and every symptom in Google Keep.

It’s deciding that maybe dating isn’t the greatest idea when your fight or flight response is literally kicking in every time it takes a guy more than seven minutes to respond to a text message. It’s giving in and hooking up with a guy on a Tuesday night anyway because the escape is worth the mess you’ll have to deal with in the morning.

It’s doing a lot of things you aren’t proud of.

It’s your primary care doctor telling you that other people have no problems at all going off these drugs, then qualifying his statement with, “But, I mean, I believe you,” which somehow implies he doesn’t.

It’s reaching out to your old psychologist and pleading for help, and then getting referred to a psychiatrist who specializes in this sort of thing and finally finding one person on the whole entire Earth who actually has some idea of what you’re going through.

It’s a glass of wine, and a handful of Advil, and lots of sugar candy, as you try to find anything to help manage the symptoms.

It’s slow. Withdrawal is maddeningly slow. It’s going down 1.25 mg. in a day and feeling like the world is ending and waking up more anxious than you’ve ever been. And wondering if you can actually do this.

And then it’s a post anxiety-crash four hours later, and being so tired that you can’t even move your arm to check your phone.

Withdrawal is multiple people calling you a drug addict to your face because your body is physically dependent on a medication you were given by a doctor. It’s multiple people saying you just need more willpower and more prayer and more desire to get off the drugs.

It’s wondering if maybe you are a drug addict.

It’s trying to eat Taco Bell because Taco Bell usually solves everything and then realizing that you can’t even stomach a cheesy gordita crunch because the withdrawal has destroyed your appetite.

It’s working out to help the anxiety, and using the stupid Calm App for meditations that never work, and texting your best friend 72 times an hour so that you know you’re not alone. And then texting her again. And it’s breathing her oxygen for awhile because you don’t seem to have any of your own.

It’s intestinal cramping so severe that you’re literally doubled over in pain on the couch, crying out in pain, wondering if this is the end.

It’s deciding to go back to church because for some reason, for that hour each week, you feel maybe a little bit of peace.

Withdrawal is feeling weak.

It’s wondering if you’ll ever feel normal again. It’s wondering that over and over and over and trying to convince yourself that someday you will get a full night’s sleep and you won’t wake up covered in sweat and you won’t have diarrhea first thing in the morning and you won’t have the crushing feeling of anxiety as you greet the day.

Withdrawal is trying to live a normal life while your body goes through hell every day. It’s trying to work and be a good friend and a decent human being when all you want to do is die. It’s trying to figure out how much information, exactly, you should give your boss about your opioid dependence.

It’s having a pain flare and thinking that maybe the drugs were doing more than you thought, and wondering if you’re even doing the right thing.

It’s saying that John Green quote about survival to yourself 59 times a day. The one that goes, “I’m not saying that everything is survivable. Just that everything except the last thing is.” And then it’s reminding yourself that this is probably not the last thing.

And it’s reaching out to your Facebook friend who has the same chronic pain you have and him telling you that you have to do this — it’s important that you do this — because if you don’t the next best option is in-treatment and you don’t want that.

It’s trying to distract yourself with The Hobbit, and Spotlight and Downton Abbey, and Facebook.

Withdrawal is still happening. It’s ongoing. It’s a long-term goal. A hope that one day you’ll be clean — whatever that means.

It’s praying, and crying, and giving up, and trying again.

And it’s sneezing.

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Going off morphine is hell

Editor’s note: Like most of my posts, a version of this story originally ran in Pain News Network. This version contains profanity because going through opioid withdrawal is seriously fucking hell.

This weekend, as I tried to get off morphine once and for all, one thought kept going through my mind — if the devil is any good at his job, hell will just be eternal opioid withdrawal.

It’s like, have you ever had the flu, and also food poisoning, and also been hit by a train, and also had the fight or flight anxiety that comes from being chased by a bear for a week straight — all at the same time? Well it’s worse than that.

It’s fucking hell.

And it’s all made even worse by the fact that I had the cure the whole time. Every single minute that went by, I knew that I all had to do to make it all go away was pop one of those little blue pills in my purse.

I made it to the 72 hour mark last night at midnight. That’s 72 hours without a morphine or a hydrocodone. I haven’t gone a full 72 hours without an opioid in almost two and a half years.

I swear to God I was tapering. I spent all of November tapering down my dose. Going so effing slow. Like three pills, then two pills, then three pills, then two pills, then after a week, I’d do one pill then two pills, then one pill.

But I was down to one pill every other day, of the lowest dose, and I knew the next step was going through withdrawal. I thought maybe it wouldn’t be that bad since I had been going so slow with the tapering. I was wrong.

Honestly, the first 24 hours weren’t so bad. My body was just chilling, all expecting another dose in a day or so. But then, at midnight, exactly 24 hours in, the involuntary leg movements started. Yes. This is a thing. I was lying in bed, in the middle of the night, and my right leg would just move. Also, my anxiety started skyrocketing so high you’d have thought I was in a war zone.

By the morning, about 31 hours in, the muscle aches had set in, and everything I had ever eaten over the last two years had started to come out. Diarrhea doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world, until you literally spend so much time on the toilet that your legs go numb. And then when you do get up, you are so dehydrated that you can’t even walk without holding on to the wall.

There’s other stuff too, the kind of stuff that maybe sounds minor until it happens to you. Like, my nose was randomly running, and I was sneezing like there was a secret cat hidden in the bathtub. And I could not sleep. At all. And if somehow I did get a couple minutes of shut eye, I would wake up drenched in sweat. Also everything made me cry. Seeing the sun? Tears. Facebook posts about makeup? I’d start weeping. Basically the fact that I was alive was enough of a reason.

Again, all these things don’t sound so horrible, but when they are all happening at once, it is literally hell on earth.

I spent most of the 72 hours watching Breaking Bad — which is either the worst show to watch during withdrawal because it’s all about drugs, or the best because it’s all about the horrible things drugs lead to.

I also spent most of the 72 hours trying to process how I got to this point. Morphine has been so good to me over the last two years. And I stand by the fact that it literally saved my life. If it wasn’t for the pain relief I got from the drug, I don’t know if I would have been able to endure. And I am thankful to morphine for that.

But I wouldn’t wish the morphine withdrawal on Hitler.

And I thought about everyone who has ever had to endure this for whatever reason. And my heart filled with compassion and love for them. Some people like to say that drug addicts are just weak, or lack self control. Those people are assholes.

I also thought a lot about how much I wanted to just pop a morphine and make everything better. I thought about it so hard. Vividly picturing the little blue pill in my head and fantasizing about how good it would feel to take just one.

And I thought about how going through this withdrawal was a good thing because I wouldn’t even be going off morphine if I wasn’t feeling better.

I felt like this was a final step. A last stand by my pain to suck me in. I had to get off this drug to move on with my life. But it was so incredibly hard.

And I kept thinking about how, I am a good person. I am a strong person. I should be able to get through this. Why am I struggling so much?

My best friend was extremely supportive during the whole thing, constantly checking on me, praying for me, and sending me encouragement. And at one point she sent me a text that said, “I think the last two years were the toughest times of each of our lives (in different ways). Glad I get to see you on the other end.”

The other end. Wow. I honestly never thought I would ever get to see the other end. For a long time, I didn’t even think there was an other end to get to.

The idea that I could get to this proverbial other end though, it was enough to keep me going.

Honestly, I still feel like I was jumped, and then tossed in front of a train. But I’m doing a lot better than I was doing on day two. From what I can tell the withdrawal symptoms can last anywhere from a week to months, but it’s those first 72 hours that are the most horrible. And I have made it through those.

I also discovered that there’s a cocktail of over-the-counter drugs that help. Specifically, I have been popping handfuls of Advil, Imodium and Benadryl.

I saw my brother this morning. And as I walked toward him, I felt like I was just regaining my footing after being in a plane crash. Still shaken up, disoriented and feeling like hell, I said, “Well, I’m finally feeling a little better. I made it to 72 hours.”

“Great. Now you have to make it a week,” he said.

Fuck, I thought. He’s right.

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Surviving the Hurricane of Chronic Pain

I have recently started feeling better these last few months — a string of good days, I like to say — and it’s given me a chance to catch my breath and reflect on some of the crap I’ve endured over the last couple years.

For me, waking up one day with stabbing rib pain was like swimming along the river of life, only to be picked up by a hurricane, hurled back about 100 miles, and left to fight the raging current in water that was barely above freezing.

And yeah, it made about as much as sense as a hurricane in a river.

It was like everything I had accomplished had been taken from me, and instead of swimming forward, or swimming at all, I was literally gasping for air, about to drown every single day.

And people would come along and say, “Oh, I’ll pray for you!” And I’d be like, “Umm, I’m literally drowning! And there’s a hurricane! In a river! HELP ME!”

And they would say, “Well, if you really want to survive, you’ll give up gluten.” And I’d be like, “Umm, I just need a life raft! Giving up gluten isn’t going to help me!”

And they would say, “Well, if you were a horse, we would have let you drown by now.” And then they would laugh. And I’d be in the river, trying to survive the winds and waves and the rain.

And then someone with the best of intentions would come up to me and say, “Well, everything happens for a reason. I’m sure there’s some larger reason why you’re drowning.” And then they would walk away. On the land.

I spent almost six months on the verge of drowning. And eventually I just got so tired that I wanted nothing more than to close my eyes, fall back into the water, and let it all go. Let the pain go. Let the depression go. Let the daily battle to stay above water, go.

I spent every day wanting to let go. Planning ways to let go. Convincing myself that if my family really loved me, they would just let me go.

I also started stripping away everything I could so that I could stay above water. I got rid of my part-time job as a church youth leader. I threw my independence over board and moved in with my mom. And eventually, heartbreakingly, I even let go of my boyfriend’s hand. I let it all slip away so I could focus all of my energy, every day, on breathing in air instead of filling my lungs with water.

And I tried to see every doctor I could find, looking for a lifeguard. But they would say things like, “Well, you don’t look like you’re drowning.” Or, “Well, I mean, you’re drowning. But we can’t see the hurricane, so there’s not really anything we can do about it.” Or, “I mean, it’s not like you’ve been hit with a nuclear bomb. People who get hit with nuclear bombs are the ones who are really suffering.”

And then, finally, a rescuer came along. We will call him, Dr. M, for Miracle. I literally tear up when I think about meeting Dr. M.

He couldn’t see the hurricane either, but he believed me when I said there was one. And he understood the one thing I needed more than anything was a life raft. So he threw me one. Dr. M put me on a large dose of opioids, and it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It was like someone calmed the winds and the storm started dying down. The water finally got still for the first time in a long time.

He was the first doctor to actually take my pain seriously. I imagine that he’s either had chronic pain himself, or loves someone who had it because that’s the only way I can explain how compassionate he was — how amazing he was about believing that I was truly drowning.

It’s true that the best thing you can say to someone who is sick is, “I believe you.”

It was because of Dr. M that I finally got on a drug regimen that allowed me to float in the water every once in a while and rest my arms. To let the life raft do some of the work. And when I told him that the medication wasn’t lasting me all month — that, near the end of the 30 days, I was starting to drown again — he believed me, and gave me enough to get through all four weeks.

But even with the drugs, the only thing I could really do was float. I couldn’t swim forward or even get to shore. I just stayed still, trying to survive all the times the winds picked up, or the water got below freezing, or the waves got too big. I did my best to endure the side effects from the medication, the pain flares, and the ER visits.

There’s a saying, “You’ve got what it takes, but it will take everything you’ve got.” And surviving this has taken everything I ever had in my soul.

For the last two years though, I’ve just been happy to still be alive. Happy that I had a life raft and some calmer waters. I started planning how to live my life where I was. It was 100 miles behind where I’d been, but I started to realize that the trees in that area were actually kind of pretty. And that there were some other people floating around that I would have never met if there had never been a hurricane. I started to think that perhaps I could set up a life there.

But then, something happened. Something I never thought would ever happen, actually happened. I started swimming forward again.

I had tried every day that I could to swim forward, only to be pushed back. I would wake up and try to shower, go for a walk, drive, or do anything that would help me go forward again. But every time, I ended being tossed right back to where I was — sometimes even further back.

One day though, I swam forward and I stayed there. And then the next day, I swam forward a little more, and I stayed there too. And then again, again and again.

I had started taking vitamin D, after realizing that I was tragically deficient in what should more accurately be referred to as hormone D. When I started getting my levels back up it was like I suddenly had the strength to move forward again. My whole body could swim again.

And for the first time in a long time, I experienced things I had almost forgotten existed. The perfect pleasure of going for a long walk on a crisp fall day. The heart-stopping independence of being able to get in car, drive myself to the mall, and do the one thing I used to love most of all — shop. The joy of being able to take a shower and immediately blow dry my hair without needing an hour-long break in between the two.

There were so many things that I couldn’t do because I couldn’t swim forward for so long. So many things I had to give up. Like folding my own towels in my own special way. And waking up to the sunrise and being happy to see the morning light without having to worry about the pull of fatigue from my medications.

And even, especially, turning over and laying on my right side. I had not laid on my right side in over two years.

So now, here I am, finally swimming forward again for the first time in a long time. For now, it feels like maybe the hurricane has finally passed. But I still wake up every day worried that there will be another storm. I worry that the winds will pick up and I’ll be hurled backward, and I won’t have a life raft and I’ll start to drown again.

But now, at least, I know that if that does happen, I have it in me to survive.

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