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Back in 1982, I worked with a guy named Joe B. I would give Joe a ride to work every day, and on those rides I got to know him pretty well. Joe had a substance use problem and eventually he confided in me that he was addicted to heroin. He shared something with me that rings loud and clear to this day: “You know Mark, this heroin is a bad deal … sleep is merciful to a heroin addict. Do not even try it.”
Back then I was pretty naïve and didn’t understand what Joe meant by this comment. However, two recent personal experiences with prescription opioids have given me a glimpse into what people who struggle with substance use experience. In particular, the sleeplessness and anxiety that come with trying to stop opioids.
On Nov. 30, 2017, I had a trip-and-fall episode at work and broke my right femur, or thigh bone, the strongest bone in the body. It was brutally painful, and pain management from EMS started immediately upon their arrival, as the initial dose of opioids takes the pain away.
After subsequent major surgery and associated medical procedures, I was discharged with a prescription for oxycodone. I stated my concerns, but was assured that I would need it for the pain. It was communicated that the best pain management and healing strategy was to take it as prescribed to “get in front of the pain.” I did so for about six weeks, and then weaned off the medication. The misery of my first two nights without any opioids in my system is hard to describe. Extreme anxiety made the task of falling asleep impossible.
Not even a year later, in July 2018, I had another trip-and-fall incident while traveling to Washington, D.C., and this time broke my left femur. I knew that I needed pain management, but this time I ceased the oxycodone after about three weeks. I still experienced lack of sleep, but only for one night, and the anxiety was not as overwhelming.
My experience during those three nights of opioid withdrawal were almost more than I could bear. Imagine a lifetime of unaddressed sleeplessness and anxiety and you get a glimpse into how far people in the throes of addiction will go in order to “fix” themselves.
In my experience with the medical profession, opioids remain one of the first options for acute pain management. Yet there are still so many associated problems due to the addictive properties of these substances. It’s easy to see how we’ve ended up with the devastation the opioid overdose epidemic has wreaked on our society.
From May 20-23, the National Safety Council is bringing the Prescribed to Death Memorial, which brings people face to face with the opioid crisis, to Albany, N.Y. The faces on the wall represent those who lost their lives to opioids, often after starting innocently enough with an opioid prescription. I could have been one of them. My friend Joe, wasn’t so lucky.
I know that doing what we can to limit opioid use, including educating prescribers, also will help us eliminate preventable deaths. I share my story so others will recognize that even when used as prescribed, and for the shortest duration necessary, opioids still have the potential to wreak havoc on our lives.
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