It’s been years since I’ve had to use opioids. If you’re still using, here’s what I need you to know.
I need you to know that the first time I went into withdrawal, I had no idea what was happening.
A weekend away from a life fueled by parties and pills, and suddenly I found myself on the floor, stomach wrenching, skin crawling, nose running. The flu, I thought.
“Dopesick,” my friend said.
I need you to know that terms like these, dopesick and withdrawal, don’t come on the label of the pills in the baggie at the party.
There’s no instruction manual for chasing a high. Even the orange pill bottle with the child-safe cap, (take with food and don’t operate heavy machinery) … that’s all long gone by the time you’re looking to take the edge off at 11pm in a large house on a hill with a bunch of people you don’t know, in skin that never felt quite right.
I need you to know that the bottom line is: you don’t start popping pills because you feel good.
Mentally or physically, prescribed or off the streets, you’re medicating something. I was medicating something. I need you to know that everyone in recovery—every damn person I meet—speaks about feeling uncomfortable in their own skin. Itchy in their own head, living with voices like chattering teeth that never stop.
And that dopamine drowsiness, that warm, milky, safety net of pills … I need you to know it welcomes us into a world we’ve always felt on the outside of. Finally, our brains say, you’re home.
And then, I need you to know, we come down. We (very literally, but also very metaphorically) withdraw.
I need you to know that drugs work until they don’t.
We wouldn’t love them as much as we do if they didn’t work at all. This is part of the disorientation surrounding addiction, and why we stay addicted for so long. We’re chasing a solution that was, after all, a solution at one point. At least that first time, or maybe the second. For many of us, in chronic pain or struggling with trauma or depression or anxiety, that escape was our first glimpse at relaxation or a life worth living.
I need you to know that no matter how good that first time was, a maintenance opioid addiction is a miserable and boring routine made of a deep, aching physical withdrawal constantly bearing down on us, a high-speed chase taking place in your body and your mind.
I need you to know that everything about addiction is confusing.
Withdrawal itself, that first time, is shocking and unexpected, like an unplanned pregnancy of emptiness. I need you to know that addiction is so confusing that even the language surrounding it right now is up for debate, with “addict” itself a loaded term, reclaimed in anonymity during 12-step meetings, but now shamed by medical professionals, either self-stigmatizing or empowering, who knows.
I need you to know I got better, slowly at first.
I need you to know that I tried to kill myself persistently in my twenties and had long periods where I didn’t think I’d work again. And now here I am, alive and well and not doing drugs. My story was bad in the same way all of our stories are bad. Doing drugs puts you in dangerous places. You hurt the people you love. I’m no different.
I need you to know that I couldn’t imagine the sort of life I have today, for myself, when I was using drugs. Or even when I first got sober. I wasn’t accustomed to functioning or being competent. But I became functional, living without drugs every day, on the good days and the bad ones too. I need you to know my story got better.
I need you to know that you too, can get better, no matter how far gone you feel today.
Tracey Helton Mitchell says that when she was using, “Clean was a rumor. Clean was a fairy tale. Clean was an island in the never-ending stream of depression and self-hatred.”
David Carr said, “End-stage addiction is mostly about waiting for the police, or someone, to come and bury you in your shame.”
I need you to know that the shame doesn’t have to bury you today. No matter how far gone you feel right now, that is how addiction feels, it feels impossible and totally alone. But it isn’t impossible and totally alone. I need you to know that feeling is a lie.