On a cold, wintery day in NYC, I drove my wheelchair from my law office in the financial district to Beth Israel in Union Square. Frozen to the core and in tremendous facial pain from the cold wind striking my face, I entered the waiting room of the pain management clinic. On a break from work, I arrived in my typical designer suit and shoes, but out of the remaining twenty patients, only one other patient even resembled me. The waiting room was filled with typical looking addicts waiting in line for their next fix. Their hair was uncombed, their bodies and clothes were filthy, their bodies exposed from immodest clothing, and their voices were loud and agitated. My chest tightened with anxiety and fear. Is this how I, too, would end up?
The nurse called my name, and I followed her to the examination room with baited breath in the hopes that this doctor could help me fight the cruel pain of trigeminal neuralgia (“TN” also known as “the suicide disease” because 50% of patients kill themselves from the unbearable pain). As we approached the room, I dodged a doctor-patient altercation. Screaming, the patient insisted on more drugs. The doctor, unphased by her patient’s behavior, retorted, “absolutely not! Your last prescription should not be empty already. Please leave.” After earning a BBA and JD, I never thought I’d be going to the same doctors/drug dealers as junkies.
Unfortunately, the appointment made my future seem even grimmer. After being on 26 different non-opioid drug therapies, trying hypnotism, medical massage, cupping, Chinese medicine and acupuncture, as well as a failed open craniotomy, my options were few and discouraging. I could try another anti-convulsant, but chances were, it wouldn’t help the pain and would turn me into a zombie. So, I chose, with the doctor’s advice, to go on a long-term regiment of Percocet.
While it took the edge off of my suffering, even the opioids couldn’t eliminate my pain. The pain was so intense that neighbors often heard me screaming and would come to my rescue. I would regularly be forced to run to the doctor’s office on deposition lunch breaks for injections of Toredol, a non-opioid powerful anti-inflammatory, just to have the ability to mouth the word “objection.” Ultimately, I had gamma knife brain radiation, where a halo was screwed into my skull while conscious, to blast the nerve. In addition to gamma knife, I also subject myself to bimonthly nerve blocks through my skull. However, with all of these procedures and desperate attempts to eliminate my pain, I am still forced to take a daily opioid regiment.
Before becoming ill with TN, I never used controlled substances. In truth, I abhorred the sensation of being high. I felt my brain was being fried like the eggs on those “just say no” commercials of the 90s. And a family member’s opioid overdose in 1997, caused by his doctor’s failure to properly treat his cluster migraines, was devastating enough to deter me from ever experimenting.
I have since learned that, when used to fight pain, opioids don’t cause a high. Rather, they level out our body’s pain receptors and assist in returning the body to its intended state of calm, lowering our elevated heart rates and raising our blood pressure to normal healthy levels. For me, taking an oxycodone is the difference between being rushed to the emergency room and remaining in my bed, rocking back and forth in a fetal position with boiling rags applied to my face until the pain is ameliorated.
Daily opioids provide an effective method to combat pain in chronic pain sufferers. Yet, time and again, we are accused of being addicts and interrogated like criminals by everyone from pharmacists and doctors to our politicians and the media. Even when Prince passed away after suffering from chronic pain and epilepsy, the media smeared him as an addict because he had a bottle of narcotics on him. In reality, chronic pain sufferers are forced into opioid dependence and then shamed for it.
The issue has become so politicized that politicians like Bernie Sanders tell those in agony to do yoga and guided meditation to ease our suffering. The sheer insinuation that yoga or guided meditation would help a war veteran with phantom pain from an amputation is insulting and only demonstrates an utter ignorance on the issue. Politicians do not need to deprive us of the medication we need because of the few who can’t follow the established regulations.
Narcotics dependence isn’t something, which only affects the homeless, criminals, musicians, artists and junkies, like those I saw and feared at the pain clinic. This dependence takes prisoner those with chronic pain, like myself, war veterans, or those with such deep emotional pain that, they, too, seek relief. As much as opioids have saved me from ending my own life out of desperation, it has just as easily ruined my life, whether it be from liver damage, severe withdrawal or exacerbated pain. No one chooses this life. I would do anything to flush my pain killers. But, for now, I have no other option.
So, to all those politicians who ignorantly tell chronic pain sufferers to strike the lotus pose the next time we’re in pain and accuse us of being addicts, let me be clear: Keep your uninformed opinions to yourself. We aren’t addicts. We’re survivors.