Lift The Label: My Experience with Opioids

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Photo: Mike Thurk

This post is sponsored by the Colorado Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Health’s Lift The Label campaign.

Pain and I have an interesting relationship. As an athlete – and runner – I’m pretty comfortable with it. In fact, a main goal of training is to get comfortable in the uncomfortable. The only way to do this is to experience pain, to invite pain into my training, to wrestle with the physical sensation of wanting to quit, wanting to stop moving, but continuing, despite the physical cues insisting otherwise. Then, do it again.

Pain is my training tool, and I think many other athletes can relate to this well. I’m describing a hard workout, a race or an ‘off day’ in training. They are painful. These hard days are instrumental in getting stronger mentally, but also physically. Some of the best-trained athletes are those that have the highest tolerance to pain, at their peak in a training season (Endure by Alex Hutchinson). I know that’s the case for me.

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So what is my relationship to pain, besides familiar? Is it healthy? Extreme, maybe? I experience pain on a daily basis and use it as a barometer to effort level, progress and the onset of an injury. Although my relationship with pain is a bit extreme compared to most, I think it is my familiarity with pain that allowed me to avoid other potentially dangerous conditions.

After my near fatal fall in Tromso, Norway, I sustained multiple, serious injuries. I was admitted to the hospital for nearly two weeks, had a total of five surgeries with twelve broken bones, and a very lengthy recovery process. Even as someone very familiar with pain, this pain was new, more intense, and at times, unbearable.

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I remember the first nights in the hospital, being unable to sleep due to an unrelenting pain. In order to receive some comfort and relief, the nurses gave me morphine and other prescription opioids so I could relax, sleep, and my body could try to repair itself. At this point in my recovery, I needed the relief so I could start to heal, so I could rest and not focus on the unyielding sensation of pain. But, as I made the transition to home, after my last round of surgeries and new prescriptions of painkillers, when was it appropriate to stop taking them? A sensation that I referred to as useful, as a mark of progress, had now turned into a sensation linked to fear. I was now afraid to feel pain. I didn’t want to feel it. I wanted to numb it. I wanted to be able to sleep, to relax, to feel normal. If I was in pain, I couldn’t sleep, I could hardly focus. I couldn’t live that way.

But the more I read about the effects of my painkillers – opioids – on healing my bones and ligaments, the more I questioned my use of them. I was instructed by my physicians to take the painkillers, insisting they would help me as my body healed from my accident. Opioids are prescribed extremely regularly – in fact, the prescribing rate for opioids in Colorado is 59.8 opioid prescriptions per 100 people. Yet, I was unconvinced. So I stopped. I didn’t refill my prescriptions and I became re-acquainted with my body, and how it was truly feeling.

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My story with opioids isn’t how everyone’s story goes, unfortunately. In the U.S., 2.1 million people suffer from opioid addiction and 115 people die every day from opioid overdose. Prescription opioids are incredibly normal – they’re prescribed to everyone, regularly. Grandmothers, teachers, children, you or me – we could all receive an opioid prescription from a doctor, so they can seem harmless to take. The truth is, opioid use is not so straightforward. It’s terrifying to think it can take as little as 7 days of opioid use for a person’s brain to become dependent on them.

Some people may be able to choose not to take them, like in my circumstance; some may take them and be fine.  Others may one day find themselves a part of the 2.1 million statistic. Prescriptions are often cited as the way many people first come into contact with opioids – 80% of people who use heroin first misused opioids from a prescription, and 40% of those overdose deaths I mentioned come from prescription opioids.

In addition to my familiarity with pain and its use as a training tool, I also have a master’s in neuroscience. So, my knowledge of the brain, addiction and its response to chemicals made my skepticism of opioid use even higher. Often, opioid use has the stigma of being seen as a moral failing, something a person chooses to do. This is just not true, it’s not how the brain works. Can you stop yourself from feeling hungry or thirsty? Or from telling your heart to beat or your lungs to breathe? There are certain things your brain overrides, and this is what happens when addiction takes over. It’s no longer a choice. Scientifically, we know that opioid addiction is actually a brain disorder – an actual illness that needs medical treatment.

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Photo credit: Mike Thurk

In Colorado, there are 22 certified opioid treatment programs and 600 doctors, physicians assistants and nurse practitioners statewide who can prescribe buprenorphine treatment. Often, what keeps those with opioid addiction from seeking help from these resources is that same stigma. The one that equates addiction with failure or poor choices. These labels only cause more harm, so, if you’re looking to make a difference in the opioid crisis, I’d encourage you to remember this –  beneath the label of opioid addiction is a person just like you or me, whose use of opioids may have started innocently, but then found themselves wrestling with a very real medical struggle.

If you or someone you love is suffering from opioid addiction, please reach out! You can also visit LiftTheLabel.org for more information, or if you feel your or another’s life is in immediate danger, call the Crisis Hotline at 1-844-493-8255.

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