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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.

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

Some staunch 12-steppers take the hardline approach that you should not use 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 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.

A few years 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. I was terrified of getting into thousands of dollars of debt from medical bills and—given my prior addiction to codeine—getting hooked on painkillers.

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

I was terrified of prescription pain medication.

My fears were realized; I’d broken my arm. The reason this was devastating went beyond the agonizing physical injury. I’d just moved to America and become a full-time writer. Since 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 a 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. In that moment, I knew that I had options. I could try the prescription pain meds, stick to the doctor’s instructions, regularly check in with people in recovery—even have my roommate dispense the pills—and see what happens.

I can say for certain that Tylenol did not touch the sides of the immense pain I felt 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 was surprised to find I 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. I hated it 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 I lived a life in recovery—which is to be fully awakened and in touch with my 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. This 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.

People frighten us into making decisions 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! People have also told me horror stories of others taking narcotics for post-surgical pain and ending up in a full-blown heroin addiction. And I’m not negating the need to be cautious!

I am 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. Other people in recovery are not qualified to tell us how to deal with our own 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 narcotic pain meds responsibly in addiction recovery. With effective boundaries in place, I need not be a martyr to pain. There is no need to struggle.

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Olivia Pennelle (Liv) has a masters in clinical social work from Portland State University. She is a mental health therapist, writer, and human activist. Her writing has appeared in STAT News, Insider, Filter Magazine, Ravishly, The Temper, and Shondaland. She is the founder of Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, Life After 12-Step Recovery, and Tera Collaborations. She lives near Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Instagram @Livwritesrecovery and @teracollaborations

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