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I Almost Relapsed on Pain Pills at 11 Years Sober

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Amy Desner shares a near miss that happened at 11 years sober. The medication was legitimately prescribed and the pain was real, but it still nearly derailed her recovery.

The endodontist pointed at an image of my teeth on a screen.

“You have two cracked lower front teeth. We need to do two root canals,” he said with what I’m pretty sure was glee.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. What? I thought it was just some gum recession. Are you sure?” I asked.

“X-rays don’t lie.”

Maybe not, but endodontists do.

“How much is that gonna cost me?” I asked dejectedly.

“Linda will come in with an estimate.”

An estimate? I was getting a root canal, not a car repair.

“Fantastic,” I said sarcastically.

I really had no choice but to pay. I mean tooth pain is the worst. We all know this.

I’ll spare you the ugly details that Linda delivered. But I will tell you that if the endodontist had any balls, he would have told me himself. Pussy.

I didn’t hide my history of addiction.

Before the endodontist started drilling away, I made sure to tell him I have a history of drug and alcohol abuse, am in recovery, and can’t have any pain pills. And that because of my history, I also have a higher Novocain tolerance and a lower pain threshold than most people.

“Last time I was on pain pills, I tried to stab my ex-husband and got arrested,” I said and laughed nervously.

“Before I became an endodontist, I was a cop,” he said with a straight face.

Perfect. Why can’t I ever shut up? Also, a nightstick and gun weren’t enough for him? Now he needed a drill?

They numbed me up with Novocain and started drilling away. I had on some stupid oversized Lady Gaga/post-cataract surgery sunglasses. I closed my eyes and tried to relax.

“Ahhh, no wonder it hurts so much. There’s an infection,” he said. I think he was smiling under his mask.

He pulled out a little bit of mucus and wiped it on his rubber glove to display. One tooth was starting to abscess.

I nodded my head and tried not to throw up.

When it was all over, I was poorer and they were richer, but I wasn’t in pain.

I was in terrible, physical pain when I asked for pain medication.

A few days passed and I started to feel a terrible throbbing pain. The teeth he worked on were still sensitive to cold and sweet. I called the office. They assured me that I must be feeling referred pain or an ache from the ligaments below, because there were no nerves left in those teeth.

More days passed. I was now in tears. The throbbing continued. I couldn’t bite down on those teeth. The pain was constant and unrelenting. I called and asked for pain pills. They prescribed me 5 mg Vicodin. My sponsor was a pain specialist and a hospice nurse. He signed off on me starting this medication and was willing to talk to Officer Endodontist.

When I started taking the Vicodin, the pain diminished a little but was far from gone. I felt a little bit of that veil between me and world come down, and there was some emotional relief. The edges of the tooth pain and the pain of life were dulled a little bit.

I liked it.

What I didn’t like was that I was keeping track of the time like I had a stopwatch clutched in my sweaty little hand, watching a sprinter’s competition. ‘Only two more minutes ‘til it’s been 4 hours. Soon I can take more.’ I tried to rationalize it. My sponsor always said you shouldn’t miss a dose. You stay ahead of the pain because otherwise you’re trying to play catch up and you get a rush.

My pain wouldn’t diminish.

I finished the script, but the pain marched on. I went back into the police department … I mean the endodontist …and they did another set of X-rays. No nerves. He got all the nerves out. Maybe it was the Vagus Nerve Stimulator that runs electricity up my neck and into my jaw. (Another doctor—not a former cop—had implanted it to help control my seizures. I have epilepsy. Years of drug abuse. Go figure.) Give it time, dentist-cop said. I’m not a patient patient, I told him. The pun was lost on him.

Another couple of days went by and I was in agony. I called and talked to a dentist I know. I had to have more pain pills. I couldn’t take it. I was in tears on the call.

“Vicodin only comes in 5 mg,” she said.

“No,” I corrected her. “It comes in 7.5 and 10 mg as well.” She didn’t question how I knew this, but come on. That’s something only a pill aficionado would be well versed in.

My reaction to the meds reflected old, addictive patterns.

The dentist called in the 10 mg instead of the 7.5 mg and I didn’t say a word. Maybe it was a mistake? Maybe she wanted me to stop bugging her and her staff? A small part of myself that I refused to acknowledge was thrilled. FREELAPSE! But when I popped one of those 10 mg, holy moly. I. Was. Loaded. Pain pills and opiates always make me aggressive, and I become super-adversarial. I was nodding off in meetings. That veil between me and the world was thicker and blurrier, and I settled into it like a comfy lounger.

I had been couch-surfing for the last five months, and at this particular time I was staying with somebody I was sort of dating. It was NOT a match. And only when I was loaded up on Vicodin could I tell him how I really felt. The rest of the time, I fawned and tried to please him. But on Vicodin, watch out. I picked fights and spewed fire. And the scariest thing was, I liked it.

I was walking his dog one day, high on my pills (which I was still taking as prescribed) and a terrifying thought came to me: I wanted to feel like this forever. ‘Let’s burn our life to the ground. Who cares?’ My parents and cat had recently died. My epilepsy was out of control. I didn’t have a job or a place to live. I couldn’t drive. I didn’t want to feel my feelings. They had landed me in the psych ward just six months prior. I wanted to be numb, on a diet of Vicodin, 24/7. And that’s when I knew I was in serious danger. I called my sponsor.

With the help of my sponsor, I made a hard decision.

“The pain pills have woken up my addiction and I’m really scared. And now I’m wondering if I was always in this much pain or just manipulating myself and the staff and wanted to be high. Why didn’t the Percocet for my epilepsy surgery in September set me off but this did. And I don’t understand …”

“Stop,” he said firmly. “It doesn’t matter. You will never know. You need to stop taking the pills. The ‘whys’ are unimportant. You’re recognizing you’re in danger now, so throw them away.”

“They’re finished,” I said sheepishly.

“Even better. Call your dentist and tell them no more pain pills no matter how much you complain. Which will be a lot. Protect yourself against yourself.”


I’m so grateful I pulled back in time.

And that’s exactly what I did. I wasn’t lucky. I was honest with myself and I took action. I told somebody else what was going on even when I didn’t want to, and I did what I didn’t want to. Acting as-if. Jesus, I hate that phrase.

The first few days, I missed the pills terribly. And then after a bit, I forgot all about them.

And you know what? My teeth still hurt.

But the pills hurt worse.

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Amy Dresner is a journalist, author, and former comedian as well as a recovering addict and alcoholic. She has been a columnist for the addiction/recovery magazine since 2012 and has freelanced for, Psychology Today, and many other publications. Her first book, “My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean,” was published by Hachette in 2017 to rave reviews from critics and readers alike, and is currently in development for a TV series.

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