The Storm of Addiction
Each spring when the jacarandas bloom and the breezes flutter their purple petals through the air, I always hum “Purple rain, purple rain … .” So it was all the more tragic, and ironic, that just as the jacaranda petals started to fall this year, Prince, the artist behind that song and dozens of other hits that form the soundtrack of my teens, was found not breathing, alone in his Minneapolis home.
That he was only 57 was shocking enough. That he was known as a clean-living, serious artist was all the more. Here was a superstar who had a reputation for being a teetotaling vegan. Always attracted to the spiritual, he had converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, forsaking – even swearing not to mention – the overt sexuality of his early music and stage persona. First reports pointed to a bad case of the flu. Still, how could such a vital man just drop dead?
As inevitably happens, other reports started to leak out. Weeks after, The New York Times ran a thorough and convincing report pointing to pain pill overdose as the likely cause of Prince’s untimely death. Years of frenetic performances – doing the splits, leaping from stage risers only to land in those famously high-heeled shoes – had taken their inevitable toll on his joints. Even superstars can’t escape the laws of aging. There was mention of hip surgery in the early ’00s. All of this points to chronic pain, but those who thought they knew him well seemed dumbfounded that Prince had a problem with pain pills. How could this happen?
I know exactly how.
And whether they choose to admit it or not, so do millions of us who have suffered severe injury or disease that result in the kind of long-term ache that gnaws at you, blanketing your life like a cold shroud you can’t ever shake.
In a near-fatal horseback riding incident in the mid ’90s, my shoulder was dislocated and my left leg was all but severed. Orthopedic surgeons reconstructed my crushed bones with titanium rods and screws, vascular surgeons stitched a new map of veins and an artery, and a plastic surgeon brought skin together into an acceptable form. Miraculous. Truly. I published a book, “Not By Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life,” about how I recovered from that accident and went on to ride again. Sure, my leg can’t take the pounding of running or jumping, but I did start to be a serious dance enthusiast – a journey I wrote about in another book, “Faith in Carlos Gomez.”
But what I have never, ever written about – until right now – is the ongoing misery that led to years of dependence on Vicodin and other pain medication, and the struggle I had to get off them. Advances in medicine mean that doctors can put together and make functional injuries that would have meant amputation or disability in the past, but movement is accompanied by pain. All that time I was writing books, riding horses again, taking yoga, even dancing, I was paying a price for it no one suspected.
Pain management protocol calls for you to “stay ahead of the pain” by taking medication before you start to truly suffer. And so like a good girl, I followed the Rx. Except, somewhere down the line, one pill stopped keeping the misery at bay. So then I took two, three. If I forgot or even if I thought, “I don’t need these today, I’m feeling OK,” when that gnawing ache inevitably returned, it felt to me all the more voracious, crippling. So then three, four. I made my own twist to the lyrics to an old Jefferson Airplane song: One Oxycontin makes you invincible. One Vicodin makes you calm. And the Tylenol from Savon doesn’t do anything at all …
I didn’t start taking pills for recreation, to check out of my life, but for physical suffering. My disfiguring scars were proof enough, right? But here is where the line into addiction starts to blur: These opioids don’t only alleviate aches in the body. There is a numbness, a wrapped-in-cotton sensation that allows you to function but be protected from the sharpness of life. Like anyone, I had my sorrows. The pills served also to buffer the upset over a divorce, a dysfunctional family history, from the ever-present, low-grade anxiety over money and career ambitions.
Say “addicts” and up pops the image of the junkie with needle tracks, the meth head with rotting teeth, the criminal trying to score. How could this be me? I lived in Malibu! My articles were on the covers of national magazines! I was taking medicine, after all. My doctors – by this time I had a few – kept filling my legal prescriptions. Never mind that my normally buxom, muscled 5-foot-8 frame was down to a mere 125 pounds. That, strangely, I kept fainting. That I was missing deadlines and not answering the phone – for days.
Seven years after my accident, one of my doctors – a therapist, actually – finally put two and two together. I’d gone to him just because I thought I was in a slump. When he said, “You are addicted to these pain pills,” I was truly stunned – the thought really had never crossed my mind – and then in the next instant I burst into tears. The truth of it rang in my ears. He demanded I seek treatment, and, because I didn’t want to live the way I was living one more day, I followed his advice.
But here is one more thing: Many people in my life – my mother, my closest girlfriends – thought the doctor was overreacting. They were the ones who had seen me in the days after my accident, remembered how I had to learn to walk again, how certain they were I would eventually be an amputee. What is wrong with taking a pill if it means you can relax and escape the clenching sensation of pain? In treatment, though, I met so many people just like me – a car accident, a back injury, a nerve problem, and years later, a dependence on drugs that seemed to help less and less and harm more and more.
All I can tell you is that in my heart I know I could easily have suffered the same fate as Prince. I was lucky someone saw my problem in time. I was luckier still that he said it in a moment when I heard it.
Even though there is a growing awareness of the problem of pain killer addiction in the medical community and society at large, the solution has been to limit the pills, when what is really needed is a new approach to pain management. Cannabidiol, extracted from marijuana and separated from the high-producing psychoactive THC, shows promise, but research efforts are bogged down in the controversy surrounding pot use. Acupuncture offers some relief, as does massage and biofeedback forms of meditation. In fact, most alternative therapies that show promise aren’t covered by most insurance plans. Pain pills are. And that is a relief I just can’t afford.
My solution has been to take advantage of therapies when I can, but otherwise accept that I will live with a slow, dull pain much of the time. In fact, I started writing this at 4 in the morning, awake because my leg was throbbing. I avoid doing many of the activities I once loved, like the kind of serious equestrian pursuits I used to enjoy. I don’t dance often. But I make it a point to laugh a lot, and hug tight the son I had after I kicked pills. And I try to be grateful for all beauty around me. Look, the jacarandas are still in bloom.