I am a woman with a family history of addiction who is also in chronic pain. What if someday I need opioids to manage that pain?
First, two discs in my lower spine degenerated. Then, they herniated, both bulging out and impinging nerves, inciting an excruciating, sciatica-like pain that affected me around the clock. More than a year since my discs were damaged, pain has become my daily reality. I wake up stiff and sore as though I’ve just been hit by a car (having been hit by a car as a kid, I actually know what that feels like). The only thing I struggle with as much as the pain itself is finding the best way to treat it so that I can have a better quality of life.
For many people in my monthly chronic pain support group, opioids have offered them a lifeline by allowing them to engage in activities they couldn’t otherwise without assistance, including basic things like showering or grocery shopping. Some even credit opioids as the only medication that makes a dent in their pain after trying everything else. Yet, the opioid epidemic has also ushered in new rules that are restricting people from accessing their much-needed medication, as a Boston Globe article reported earlier this summer. Nevertheless, the epidemic is real and deadly, with opiate-related overdoses now claiming more lives each year than car accidents or guns — at a rate of approximately 20,0000 annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I am caught in the middle of the debate. I am a woman in chronic pain who fears she might someday need opioids for its management. I also come from a family in which drug addiction — particularly, to opioids — was not only present, but prevalent. My mother was a longtime heroin addict. Even after she managed to get off heroin with the help of methadone, she continued to do other non-opioid drugs like crack and cocaine.
When she was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer in 2005, she was prescribed Dilaudid, an opiate that’s closely related to and considered as potent as heroin, despite her history of addiction. Being on this prescription medication not only caused her to spiral back into opioid addiction, but she passed many of her pills onto my brother, getting him hooked on them as well.
When she finally died in 2010 and he no longer had access to her prescription, my brother suffered from debilitating withdrawal and took to the streets to procure hydromorphone pills or other substitutes, like OxyContin. It took him nearly a year to quit, with the help of drug counseling and a Suboxone regimen.
For someone like me, with a family history of — and therefore, presumably a strong genetic predisposition toward developing an — addiction, taking prescription opioids for pain seems like a Pandora’s box. Opening it could mean falling headfirst into addiction.
However, it is also something that could potentially offer me much-needed relief from the constant pain that has begun to dictate my life. Considering that an estimated 23.5 million people are struggling with an addiction to one or more substances in the United States while 100 million suffer from chronic pain, there is bound to be an overlap of the two populations. And there is a reason why…
Check out the rest of the original feature article, How Do You Handle Pain Relief If You’re Concerned About Addiction?, to learn more about how Laura Kiesel faces the challenges of managing chronic physical pain as a person with a family history of drug addiction.