On January 24, 2008, I was hit by a drunk driver. My two oldest kids were in the car with me. We were waiting at a stoplight and I had turned to look back at them when the vehicle struck. I later learned that the driver had been trying to commit suicide. He had a bottle of vodka and numerous pills in him when he hit us going 65 miles per hour. My kids were okay, but the accident caused life-altering damage to my spine.
It's hard to describe the pain I've experienced as a result. I get stabbing sensations in my legs and arms, similar to what you feel after your foot falls asleep and you're trying to regain movement. I had herniated disks in the cervical, lumbar and sacral regions of my spine. There was extensive nerve damage. I can't feel my toes.
Following the accident, my doctor began administering facet injections, a combination of corticosteroids and local numbing agents, which provided long-term pain relief lasting from four to six months. At the time, I had good health insurance through my husband, Ardy, who was in the Marine Corps.
When I became pregnant, I stopped the injections in favor of hydrocodone—opioid pain medication available in pill form—the safest option for the baby. In fact, legally, I had to stop seeing the spinal care specialist and allow my obstetrician to take over my pain management, to ensure both my needs and those of my unborn child were met.
A few months after my daughter was born, my spinal injury symptoms began to interfere with work. I couldn't look at a computer screen without triggering a migraine. I couldn't type because of nerve damage in my fingers. I was unable to work. It got so bad that I needed almost round-the-clock care. My husband, who had recently been placed on special assignment in Hawaii, had to petition for an honorable discharge in order to care for me.
Opening the gate
Without health insurance, I couldn't afford the injections that were keeping my pain in check, but my doctor told me I could afford narcotic painkillers like the hydrocodone I'd taken during my pregnancy. Although addiction ran in my family, I wasn't worried because I rarely drank and had never tried recreational drugs. Growing up with a police officer father and a mom who's a nurse, I was well aware of the dangers of illegal substances. I never questioned the risks of taking opioids—my doctor had written a prescription; I assumed it was safe.
I started taking 30-60 mg of hydrocodone a day. Every few months, my body would adjust and the drug would lose its effectiveness, so my doctor would increase the dosage. Eventually, my prescription maxed out at 120 pills a month. My doctor wouldn't go any higher. That's when I started supplementing with pills I would buy from friends, family, acquaintances—wherever I could get them. At my worst, I was taking 30 pills, or 300mg of hydrocodone, a day.
I began spending all of my family's money on pills. We lost our home as a result, and had to move in with my parents. Ardy was the only person who truly knew what was happening with me. On days when I couldn't find enough pain pills, he would take care of the children and let me sleep. In the years after the accident, it wasn't uncommon for me to have days when the pain was so excruciating I could barely get out of bed. My kids didn't notice the withdrawal symptoms; they just thought mommy wasn't feeling well.
A brush with death
In 2012, Ardy and I were on a bike ride, our first date since our youngest daughter was born, when he collapsed. He was foaming at the mouth and having a seizure. His heart had stopped. When the ambulance arrived, paramedics thought he had overdosed on something. I thought, he doesn't even take Tylenol. The irony doesn't escape me.
My otherwise strong and healthy husband, 24 years old at the time, had suffered a heart attack. He was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition and given a pacemaker. Discovering that your heart can stop at any time, at such a young age, doesn't just take a toll on you physically; it's emotionally devastating as well. I knew I had to be strong for him. I had to push through my own issues even though I was in horrible shape.
The final breaking point came when my parents accused Ardy of stealing money. It hurt me to see him being unfairly blamed. I had to admit that I was the one who had stolen from them. That's when something snapped inside of me. I decided to seek treatment.
Not long after that, Ardy saw an ad in local magazine for a clinical trial of buprenorphine, a medication commonly used to treat opioid dependence, including heroin addiction. I called the number listed and made an appointment for the following day. As a study participant, I was able to get off hydrocodone with the help of the trial drug. I never suffered from withdrawal symptoms. By the end of the six-month study, I was down to taking just 16 mg of buprenorphine a day.
After that, with the help of my doctor, I weaned down to an even lower dosage. Then I participated in another trial, this time for Probuphine, a pharmaceutical implant containing buprenorphine that lasts for six months at a time. I found this drug even more effective than the first one: Because it's an implant, I don't keep any pills in my house, so there's no chance of my children getting their hands on it. When my family goes on vacation, I don't have to worry about forgetting to pack it. Probuphine is currently up for FDA review—a decision is expected by May 27, 2016—and I hope and pray that the administration sees the benefits in it that I do.
In fact, I recently testified in front of the FDA on behalf of Probuphine. It was nerve-racking, having only four minutes at the podium to share what I've learned over the course of three years in recovery, but I had to do it. The implant is the safest delivery system of buprenorphine for folks like me who need daily, long-term treatment. It saved my life.
Drawing the line
I know I'm lucky that I never crossed over into using heroin, as so many people hooked on prescription painkillers often do. From participating in the trials, I've learned there are different means of administration. Some people crush up the pills and snort them or inject them; others put pills into various bodily orifices. The only thing I ever did was take a pill, put it in my mouth, and swallow it. Even though I was addicted, because I had spent so many years working in law enforcement—and because I have parents who talked constantly about illegal drugs—crossing that line was my boundary. Yet by taking pills, my likelihood of accidental overdose was probably greater. I was taking so many at one time, and they don't just contain narcotics, they also have acetaminophen in them, which can kill your liver in large doses. I was doing horrible damage to my liver.
While in D.C., I met others who were testifying. One man had lost his son, a recovering heroin addict, who had been in medication-assisted treatment, like me. But after rehab, a meeting sponsor convinced the son that he wasn't really sober because he still relied on medication. He grew depressed and eventually relapsed. He died of an accidental heroin overdose.
Since speaking before the FDA, I've decided to go public with my story. Before, only my husband, parents, and my brother and his wife knew I was in treatment. People need to know that medication-assisted treatment works, and it's available. The more conversations that happen—whether negative or not, if they are civil—the faster things can change.
My oldest children are now 14 and 11, and the conversation we have around drugs is vastly different from what it probably would have been, had opioids never entered the picture. We've always talked about recreational drug use as dangerous: you don't know what you're buying when you buy from somebody off the street; you could be ingesting rat poison. I've prepared them for drug-related situations. If with they're with a friend and something happens, they know what to do. They know CPR.
Now the discussion is about legal drugs, as well. I tell them that just because a doctor has prescribed a medication doesn't necessarily mean it's safe. You have to be an advocate for yourself. That's where I slipped up: Had I really researched hydrocodone and known all of the risks, I don't know that I would've taken it at all. Now when my kids go for their yearly checkups, they talk to the doctor. They'll look to me for certain words but mostly they have the conversation with their doctor.
Never too late
As a mom, I feel overwhelmingly guilty at times. I hate what I've put my family through. Still, my kids are proud of my success. I hope I've helped them to see that addiction is truly a disease, and know that people can recover. Addiction doesn't make you a bad person.
My own opinions have changed drastically. Before, when I was working in law enforcement, I saw addicts and thought that they had simply made bad choices. They could choose not to be a slave to a substance, I believed. I'm ashamed that I felt that way, but I know that that's part of the reason addiction happened to me. My opinion needed to be changed in order for me to help change the opinion of others.
I fully believe I'm still alive today because God has a purpose for me. Some people will ask, Why would he let you become addicted? I believe that we have free choice. Part of the responsibility lies with me.
I've learned to be grateful for the people who love me, even when they're giving me tough love. I attribute a lot of my success to my husband, who never gave up on me or got angry with me. He knew that I was suffering, in more ways than one, and wanted to find a way to get help. A supportive network, and a really good doctor who supports your success as well, is crucial.
For anyone out there who's struggling with opioid dependence, you need to know that help is available. It's never too late. If you're still breathing, you can still get help.
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