All had seemed well for over a year, that is before my routine started to slip. I watched myself save the four Oxycodone pills, intended to last for a twenty-four hour period, and then swallow them all at once. Twenty milligrams down the hatch in an instant, each evening after my wife, Jessica, and our two young children, Madison and Robert, went to bed.
I vividly recall standing beneath the showerhead, my forehead pressed against the tile, as the warm water cascaded down the back of my body, soothing my injured spine and slightly easing the pulsating pain running down my left side, all the way to my toes. There, as I leaned against the shower wall, I contrived new and creative justifications to vindicate my behavior, convincing myself that the pain was just too much and that I could stop using the pills whenever I chose. I’d step out of the shower and sit on the bed, bending myself sideways in order to slide into my pajama bottoms and dress for the evening. I felt like some sort of strange contortionist. I’d then labor down the stairs to read the kids their favorite Berenstain Bears story. Immediately after they were tucked into bed, I’d head for the desk drawer where my prescription bottle was hidden and pour the small white pills into my hand. Tingling in anticipation of the euphoric rush I knew would follow, then I’d take a seat on the couch next to my wife. Whatever we were watching on the television would soften into nothing other than moving pictures, as the narcotic latched onto the opioid receptors in my brain and that familiar warm tranquility swept me into sweet rapture. The pain running down my leg would disappear, as would the pain that I’d brought home from war and the depression I’d suffered since childhood. The tension in my neck would slowly give way to relaxation, and I’d drift to a place where worry simply didn’t exist.
My injury began as a result of the wear and tear of half a decade in the army; the climax came when carrying an air conditioner up a flight of stairs, an effort that resulted in a ruptured disk, a herniated disk, and a severe case of spinal stenosis. Despite years of powerful pain medications, countless MRI’s, hundreds of hours of physical therapy, and multiple steroid injections aimed directly into the afflicted nerve, the pain would always return.
One afternoon, I nearly crawled into the doctor’s office. It was during that visit that the decision was made for me to undergo a three level fusion of my lower spine. The surgeon was extremely reluctant to perform such a major procedure on a man in his early thirties, however all other options had been exhausted. In June of 2013, after years of increasingly debilitating pain, I underwent the spinal fusion. Upon waking, I immediately noticed that while the stabbing pain in my left side had diminished, it wasn’t completely absent. Only time would tell to what extent the surgery had succeeded.
During the interim, I continued to visit a number of physicians (a term known by many as doctor shopping.) With films of my severely injured back in hand, I was able to limp into nearly any pain management physician’s office and walk out with a prescription for a number of powerful narcotics. When asked about the surgical scar on my lower back, I’d simply state that I’d undergone an unsuccessful fusion. There were so many complications inherent in the procedure that I’d rarely be asked anything more. I narrowed my list down to two or three physicians who were the most liberal in terms of the strength and quantities of medication they were willing to prescribe. With no centralized database at the time, there was a lack of transparency between pharmacies and physicians. And besides, I filled my prescriptions at separate pharmacies so as to not raise red flags. I had devised a sophisticated system of self-destruction. One afternoon at work, I noticed that I had begun sweating and was unable to hold still. I recognized immediately that I was experiencing mild withdrawal symptoms. My body simply wasn’t getting enough of the drug. From then on, I’d carry one additional pill to work with me every day, –just enough to stave off the symptoms. The wolf had finally reached my door.
Slowly, the pain began to return in small, but noticeable increments. The intermittent stabbing sensation occurred with increasing intensity until it once more felt like a lightning bolt striking the inside my left leg. It was at my next doctor’s visit that the suggestion of going on short-term disability was broached. This was a benefit that my employer offered: up to six months of time with full pay, as a matter of fact. After all, in spite of my indulgences, the injury was a perfectly legitimate one, and sitting for ten hours a day, working at a computer, was an enormous impediment to the healing process. My leave was approved, I found myself home alone all day long with a nearly limitless supply of powerful narcotics. Even the most inventive self-delusions could not camouflage that I had become addicted to my medication.
Bills piled up in my desk drawer, I neglected my responsibilities as a husband and a father; not attending family functions or my children’s sporting events. In fact the only time I left the house was for a doctor’s appointment. I never missed a single one. My constant depression continued to reach new lows.
I was very jumpy. After returning from my deployments in the army, I’d developed a condition of near constant hyper-awareness; a state of watchfulness that became a kind of obsession. The drugs helped to dull this as well. And of course the results were disastrous.
One particular low point: I slept through an entire Christmas day on the couch (a term called nodding that any addict is familiar with). Though my wife and parents had their unceasing suspicions, I was always able to work my way out from under their questions. After all, I was the ex-solider, the guy who’d completed a one hundred mile charity bike ride through all five boroughs of New York City, and the one who’d never touched so much as a cigarette in his life.
Every Saturday my wife worked and I was home with the kids. My mother, despite whether she believed me or not, would come up each Saturday morning, afraid to leave the children alone with me. She’d offer to take them out of the house, somewhere fun like a movie or a petting zoo. But Robert refused to leave my side. “Daddy needs me,” he’d tell my mother week after week. And indeed I did need him more than I knew. Though I didn’t understand how dangerous a situation I was in, a four year-old boy could see what was happening far more clearly than I.
I don’t know how close I actually came to dying in my sleep, but one evening I woke gasping for air. Once I regained my composure, I walked into our bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. My skin had an unmistakable blue tinge to it. I had obviously stopped breathing in my sleep. Greatly alarmed, I stood and watched until my skin turned to pink again; then I returned to bed. I forced myself to stay awake until the morning sun slowly began to glint through the drapes. I never told anyone what had happened, but was left shaken to the core.
It was the following evening that I sat at our dining room table to share a box of macaroni and cheese with Madison. After dinner, she completed her homework, obviously preoccupied with something. She put her pencil down and looked up at me. Her beautiful emerald eyes welled up with tears and her bottom lip quivered. It must have taken every ounce of courage that a seven-year-old could muster to look me in the eye and ask, “Daddy, why don’t you ever smile anymore?” Completely dumbfounded, I asked her why she thought I didn’t smile anymore. She replied, “Because you always look so sad.” Eventually I said, “I don’t know honey, can I have a day to think about it?” She simply nodded; content with my answer, then picked her pencil up and continued her homework.
During my time serving in the army, I once had a Lieutenant Colonel stand in front of my platoon just before we were to board a C-17 aircraft bound for the horror occurring in the Balkans. He said, “There are two, maybe three times if you’re lucky during the course of your life when you really get to show your stuff.” Those words had stuck with me, to my very core, and I knew that my moment had arrived. I had lost three years to my addiction. I now stood at a crossroads, and it was decision time. I waited for Jessica to come home with Robert. It was no great surprise to my wife when I confessed what had been going on. I then went upstairs and flushed every pill I had down the toilet, and waited for the worst.
It didn’t take any longer than two hours for the sweats, runny nose, watery eyes, and trembles to begin. I asked Jessica and the kids to stay with my folks for a few days at the very least. Their house was closer to her job, and I didn’t want my children to see me in the condition that was fast approaching. I placed a picture of my wife and kids on the nightstand for moments when I felt I could endure no more. Slowly, withdrawal took hold, the shakes and the sweat and the pain twisting its way through every muscle, bone, and fiber inside of my body. It felt as though every nerve ending in my body was being held to a flame. Then came nausea and diarrhea and vomiting, followed by more wrenching pain. Even through all of this, Jessica came home every night and slept by my side as I cried, screamed, and begged to die. She’d lie beside me, imploring me to allow her to take me to be medically detoxed, but I refused. I wanted to feel every minute of it, for the suffering to be burned so deeply into my memory that I’d never, ever, forget. Eventually, maybe nine or ten days later, the acute symptoms began to cease, as did my back pain. I later asked my doctor about this when I came clean to him about my drug habit. He explained that it was quite common for an addict’s brain to create pain in order to feed the addiction. Other times, he said, over long periods of time the medication interferes with the body’s natural coping mechanisms.
Little did I know, the worst was yet to come: The medical acronym is PAWS (Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome). There were weeks upon weeks of insomnia. I was absolutely unable to get a moment of sleep, because as soon as I lay down, what I can only describe as a low voltage electrical current began running through my body. My thoughts were muddled. When my strength began to return, the four of us went to the diner for breakfast. I’d made my selection and forgotten it by the time the server returned. I searched the Internet and every blog I found stated the same things: your brain is hitting the reset button and it will stop eventually; your body just needs to heal.
Each summer, the third week of July to be exact, my family vacations at the very tip of Cape Cod, just before Provincetown. We rent a cabin on the bay side, which lacks the austerity of the ocean side, with its wind gusts and powerful waves. The small house is the last in a row of seven, and is closest to our own private beach. It had been nearly six months to the day since I swallowed my last pill. Bedtime had become filled with deep anxiety due to my fear of continuing sleeplessness. The first night of our yearly getaway, my wife and I lay down on the bed and covered ourselves with a cotton sheet. I closed my eyes and focused on the soft drumming of Jessica’s heart beating against my body, the sound of our children breathing as they dreamt in the next room. There was a gentle sea breeze floating over our bodies; it smelled of the ocean. A horn sounded from a distant vessel somewhere out at sea. I closed my eyes and opened them to see the risen sun shining down from a blue sky onto the bright red, blue, orange, and yellow flowers along the fence line outside our bedroom window. The smell of eggs and bacon cooking filled the air. The clock read eight-thirty. I had slept through the night for the first time in nearly half a year.
Check some more stories from Robert here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robert-vrabel-8b5671b2/