I can’t pinpoint when I became an addict. There’s a possibility I developed a taste for narcotics in the womb, as my mother—a heroin addict up until her disappearance in 1995—admittedly took drugs while pregnant. Maybe it was in high school, when my best friend and I would crush and snort her mother’s hydrocodone in the girl’s bathroom—sweet release from our abusive home lives. Or maybe I succumbed the way so many housewives and mothers do: by the pen stroke of our well-meaning physicians.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly 18 women die every day from overdose of prescription pain medication. They were mothers, wives and daughters, and just like me, they were prisoners of their addiction.
I’d dealt with chronic lower back pain since my first pregnancy, and by the time it was bad enough to see a doctor, my two sons were in preschool and first grade. After precursory X-rays, the doctor offered me mercy in the form of a prescription. I felt a tiny thrill when I saw the word “hydrocodone,” remembering the jovial high it gave me back in high school.
It didn’t disappoint. By day two, I was taking the maximum dosage on the label. I blew through my first prescription and called the doctor’s office to get a refill, which, kindly, he provided. It was easy to justify the meds. I had real pain, I told myself, and (bonus) I was more patient with my kids. How could that be a bad thing?
A few months after starting the drugs and continually asking for refills, my doctor didn’t want to be my dealer anymore.
That first “no” led me to the ER with a faked ankle injury. I waited for a Saturday when my husband, an active duty Marine, would be home with the kids before heading to the emergency room, limping my way through the sliding glass doors. I left a few hours later with a new prescription for pain pills, using the meds to float me until I could find a new doctor to score from. Lather, rinse, repeat.
My hydro- and oxycodone addiction (which later turned into a Tramadol dependency because doctors thought it was less addictive, which wasn't true, at all) lasted 10 blurry years. If I'm honest, I wasn't picky about my drugs. I'd take any pain pill that came my way. During that time, I was a functioning stay-at-home mom who cooked dinners, went to my kids’ sporting events and packed their lunches—evidence that I was a good mom who didn’t have a problem.
I didn’t think about the side-effects, like how the pills made me so forgetful I failed to show up to my son’s second-grade parent-teacher conference, four times in a row. I didn’t talk about how the pills made me sleepy, which led to frequent day naps. That meant letting my young sons play video games all day, and occasionally sleeping through afternoon pickups at their school. Being high made me feel so warm and cozy that I couldn’t see my own failures as a mom.
I became a pill-seeking pro. When I found new doctors, I worked a seamless con, describing my pain, waiting for them to ask if I’ve ever taken medications. I would say, “I’m nervous about pain pills because I’ve heard they’re addictive.” Then doctors would follow with reassurances that the medication was safe and offer a prescription I would accept with an appropriate level of hesitation. Once, desperate to stock my supply, I called the pharmacy and claimed I'd accidentally dropped all my pills in the toilet to get a replacement bottle.
It worked. It always worked.
The pills made me so forgetful I failed to show up to my son’s second-grade parent-teacher conference, four times in a row.
Getting sick or injured was a blessing. The promise of narcotics became one of my biggest priorities. Yet, if you asked me if I was an addict, I would tell you no.
Through my military husband’s multiple wartime deployments, and more alone time than I could count, the pills became my way of coping. The deeper problem, one I wasn’t yet ready to face, was that I was self-medicating for depression and PTSD from an abusive childhood.
Desperate to understand why I struggled with my temper and why I avoided spending time with others, I sought out a therapist and spent three days taking psychological tests before receiving my eight-page diagnosis. “Trauma” appeared repeatedly throughout the packet, as did the recommendation that I seek out a psychiatrist for meds and start a counseling program. During my testing, I never mentioned the pain pills because I was afraid the admission would make it impossible for me to get them. For the same reason, I never saw a psychiatrist, either.
The results weren’t enough for me to seek treatment. The thing about being high was that I felt as if I’d already found the solution. I believed the opioids made me a better, more fully functioning person, so why would I want to quit?
The meds dulled my pain, but also “helped” in off-label ways. They made me a more engaging conversationalist, as long as I took pills before every social event. They made me more patient, so I took pills every morning and afternoon to help me deal with getting my kids up and ready for school, helping them with their homework and disciplining them when they misbehaved. They helped me focus, so I took pills throughout the day once I later enrolled in college. The meds made me more creative, so when I began working as a writer, I took pills before starting assignments. Every facet of my life was shaped by drug use.
As the years progressed, I suffered from new health concerns: headaches, digestion problems and chest pain, all likely caused by years of medication abuse. Over time, along with being more prone to emotional outbursts that made my family uncomfortable, I needed higher doses to feel “normal”—and that meant I was using my prescriptions faster, and doctors began to notice.
Refills soon required in-person appointments, and those involved referrals to pain management specialists for “pain contracts.” I would bemoan to my husband that I hated being “treated like a drug addict”—but that’s exactly what I was.
My husband also noticed my dependency, but felt conflicted. He saw the medications and knew they were prescribed by qualified doctors, but also knew something was wrong. If he voiced his concerns, I played the victim, reciting my pain like a poem until he began questioning his own intuition.
But as the tenth year of my drug abuse continued, I started to see through my own façade.
A nagging fear was in the back of my mind. “What happens the day you can’t get a refill?” The anxiety made me count pills and plan out my doses. It also made me hate who I saw in the mirror.
I reflected on one of my lowest points, just six months earlier, when I swiped the pain pills prescribed to my son after his knee surgery, waiting until the very second he said he didn't need or want to take them anymore. I told him I'd throw them away because they weren't safe to keep in the house, but it was a lie. I took every last pill.
I don’t know exactly when it happened—whether it was watching my extended family battle their own addictions or getting fed up with the anxiety of not knowing when the medication train would come to a stop—but finally, I realized I was an addict.
I wondered what life would look like in 10 years. Would I always need pills? I knew that if I kept going, I’d eventually have to source my drugs from dealers to meet my dependency needs. I knew my family deserved better than what I was giving. I also knew that my addiction could kill me, leaving my sons and husband with the same resentment I held toward my own mother, who police believe was killed during a drug dispute, although her body was never found.
My mom wasn’t always a heroin addict. As a teenager, she was prescribed pain pills after a terrible car accident. Like me, she developed a dependency and when she couldn’t get pills any longer, she turned to the streets. It was hard to stay angry at her when I realized how similar we were.
In 2014, I stopped making excuses and committed to getting clean. I didn’t tell my friends or family, not even my husband, who was on a seven-month deployment overseas, because I didn’t want to disappoint them if I failed. Instead, I did the one thing I knew would make it nearly impossible for me to get more drugs: I confessed to my doctors.
For the next four months, I worked slowly to wean myself off opioids. It was painful. My legs ached. I was tired, angry, depressed and fidgety. I’d dream about taking a pill to make it all go away.
But I didn’t take it. Eventually, I shared my journey with my husband and teenage sons, who were incredibly supportive and compassionate. Their love and forgiveness made the struggle of recovery so much easier.
I avoided sharing my story for years because I was afraid of judgment. Now I see that fear was what kept me addicted all along. The fear of pain, fear of failure, fear of change and fear of not being good enough—all kept me clinging to my pain pills.
The day I was ready to stop being a victim of my past—to start being responsible for my life and my choices—was the day I stopped being a prisoner to my addiction. Freedom is the sweetest high I’ve ever known.