Column: Keeping an eye on Mr. Grumpy
Skidding on my dog’s bone and sailing down the stairs, I knew my arm was broken right after I hit the floor. Once a perfectly normal elbow, this misshapen disaster of an arm joint had me swearing like a sailor and begging my husband to call 911. Mercifully, I was soon on my way to hook up with some sweet anesthesia.
They’re all so pleasant, the ER staff, with their warm blankets and questionnaires. Yes, my blood pressure is up and so is my heart rate. Yours would be, too. Can I have some pain medication, please? Now?
The nurse smiled as he handed me a laminated card and asked me to rate my discomfort.
And so I met the Pain Scale Parade. Ten tiny faces stared up at me, emojis in a comedy turned tragedy. Blowing past the whiners numbered one through nine, I pointed to Mr. Grumpy bringing up the rear. His yellow face had gone red with agony; tears streamed into his frown lines. After the X-rays they finally shot me up with morphine. Only on the operating table did the pain fade away, along with my consciousness.
Shattering my elbow traumatized me so much I forgot to enjoy the morphine.
That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Being an alcoholic/addict in recovery doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy pain relief; I used to enjoy it too much. By the grace of God and with lots of help, I have strung together more than a few sober days. But as we age, some of us addicts laugh together that our knee/hip/shoulder replacements allow us a guilt-free trip to la-la land.
We live in an era when we take pain relief for granted. No more sucking down a bottle of whiskey and biting on a stick until we pass out from the agony of surgery. We are prescribed an increasing array of opioids for real and present physical pain. Some folks actually hate the dopey-headed side effects, which makes no sense to an addict like me. For many people, opioids relieve both physical and emotional pain. Statistically speaking, this ocean of opium derivatives has generated a tsunami of pain pill dependencies, washing ashore as a rise in heroin addictions.
How does this happen? The leap between a responsible citizen legitimately using painkillers and a heroin-shooting-up junkie seems more like an Olympic long jump. Why would any sane person choose a shady drug deal over a legally-obtained prescription? Here’s what the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says:
“Among new heroin users, approximately three out of four report abusing prescription opioids prior to using heroin. The increased availability, lower price, and increased purity of heroin in the US have been identified as possible contributors to the rising rates of heroin use.”
Here’s what I think:
Heroin relieves emotional pain better than prescription medications. I’ve never used it, but I can’t imagine anything else that would entice a normal person to risk infection, addiction, and arrest. I do not believe anyone wakes up and says, “Gosh, it’s such a beautiful day. I think I’ll shoot up. If I get really good at this, I’ll lose my job, my home, my family, my health, my freedom, and possibly my life.”
Perhaps we picture addicts crouched in an alley between dumpsters. The night is dark, the ground is wet and filthy, and they’re shooting up in a wild-eyed frenzy. We think we don’t actually know anyone like that, because we don’t. Addicts look like the people we work with, go to church with, and sometimes even our own kids.
Regarding the mindset that fosters addiction, I can only speak from my own experience. In 1971, at age fifteen, my friend offered me a joint at a Crosby, Stills and Nash concert. When the high of marijuana kicked in, I felt my brain slip into a warm, cozy blanket. For the first time in my life I was free of emotional pain. My immediate response was, “where can I get more of this?” Seventeen years passed before I asked, “where can I get some help?”
Doctors, therapists, TV psychologists: everyone has a theory as to why some people fall prey to addiction. Personally, I lean towards an idea best encapsulated by Blaise Pascal, a French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist (1623-1662) who said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.” But that’s just my perspective.
I’ve learned a lot through recovery. I know I can’t handle emotional pain all alone, and substance abuse would ruin me. It matters not whether my risk factors are genetic, environmental, or the fact that I’m straight out of Crazy Town. When over-the-counter meds aren’t adequate for my next adventure in agony, I must look closely at how much I really need, and what I’m really medicating. Sometimes Mr. Grumpy is just being a grouch.
Rachel Ophoff of El Jebel works as a right-brained writer/speaker and a left-brained bookkeeping consultant. A diehard “Star Trek” fan, she celebrates the days she’s firing on all thrusters.” Her column will appear on the second Wednesday of the month. For more, visit rachelophoff.com.