Narcotic Pain Meds In Recovery: To Take, Or Not To Take?

Dealing with chronic pain as a person in recovery is a controversial topic.

Staunch 12 Steppers may take the hardline approach that you should not take anything stronger than Tylenol for pain. Others take a more pragmatic approach and listen to what their doctor considers to be the best treatment option. Whatever your approach, one thing is for sure: it has to be right for you. In my experience, there is absolutely no need for you to be a martyr to pain as a sober person.

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In my experience, there is absolutely no need for you to be a martyr to pain as a sober person.

Just under a year ago, I fell off my bike and broke my arm. At the time, I’d only been living in America for three months and had no idea what to do. My worst nightmares came forth in just a five minute window: getting into thousands of dollars of debt from medical bills and getting hooked on painkillers—given my prior addiction to codeine.

Flummoxed by what to do next, I got back on my bike and cycled home! I spoke to a friend in recovery about what to do—I was certain I’d hurt my arm from the searing pain and tears that followed—and she said to sit tight for half an hour and see if the pain subsided with Tylenol. Anxiously waiting, with tears and excruciating pain, I went to the hospital.

My fears were realized; I’d broken my arm. The reason this was devastating was beyond sustaining an agonizing injury—I’d just moved to America and become a full-time writer. I was new in the country, I hardly knew anyone and I didn’t really have much recovery support here.

"What do you want for the pain—Vicodin?" The doctor asked.

"No! I’m in recovery. Give me something non-addictive." I exclaimed.

A glimpse of sanity came over me and I realized I wasn’t quite in my right mind—pain and shock will do that to you. I called my friend in the UK who happens to be a doctor in recovery. He told me that the goal of treating pain is not the absence of pain; but to be comfortable. He said recovery was not about being a martyr to pain either. I knew at that moment that I had options: I could try it, stick to the doctor’s instructions, regularly check in with people in recovery—even have my roommate dispense the pills—and see what happens.

With effective boundaries in place, I need not be a martyr to pain.
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I can say for certain that Tylenol does touch the sides of the immense pain you feel from a broken bone.

With careful measures in place, I took the advice of both my friend and doctor and accepted a short prescription of Vicodin. While it took the edge off the pain, I, surprisingly, hated how it made me feel. This was a drug I used to take regularly, with wine, to avoid my reality and numb my existence—at that time, I couldn’t get enough. But here I was, five years sober, hating the  feelings the drugs gave me so much, that I cut the dose in half and stopped taking the medication after just a few days.

Within a week, I visited with the orthopedic surgeon who prescribed Tramadol—an apparently less powerful alternative to Vicodin(!). Again, I had the same reaction—I hated how it made me feel: fuzzy-headed, nauseous, well…stoned.

Once you live a life in recovery—which is to be fully awakened and in touch with your senses—having that taken away was truly awful. I didn’t want a dulled existence; I wanted the vibrant, in touch with my feelings, engaged life that I had grown rather fond of. Drugs just dull my shine today—so I would only ever take them in short doses and when it is absolutely medically necessary.

After a week, I switched these narcotic prescriptions to Tylenol and Advil, under the guidance of my primary care doctor, which turned out to be effective and didn’t make me feel horrendous.

I think what happens in recovery is that we hear horror stories of pain and relapse.

They frighten us into making decisions based out of fear, rather than making sensible decisions with pragmatic medical guidance. I’ve sat in meetings and heard people tell me they’ve experienced dental surgery with nothing more than their higher power! I’ve also heard people tell me horror stories of people taking narcotics for post-surgical pain and ending up in a full blown heroin addiction.

I’m not negating the need to be cautious—I’m saying that we have more options available to us when we act out of rational and considered thought, and the advice of a medical professional. People in recovery are not qualified to tell us how to deal with pain. In this instance, your higher power—if that is something you choose to believe in—is your doctor, because they have the medical expertise to know better than you do. Pain is a significant impairment to rational thought, which is why we seek professional help in these situations.

Overall, in my experience, I believe that—for me—I can take narcotics responsibly in recovery. With effective boundaries in place, I need not be a martyr to pain. There is no need to struggle.


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Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including The Fix, Recovery.org, Ravishly, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE.