In the next couple of weeks, I will be writing on the topic of opiate drug use. Particularly prescription pain meds, heroin, pain management, overdose and the loss of some really decent people. I think that people try to whitewash this topic out of embarrassment, shame, fear. And that is understandable. But it also will not help slow this epidemic. Brutal, honest conversations are where we need to start so that we can figure out how to break free from this fucking mess. New FDA pain medication laws are not helping. I do not have the answers. But I am going to ask the questions. I am going to speak the truth as I know it. And I am going to do my best to show you that these victims of addiction are not any different from those you love…or yourself.
When I realized that my father had a pretty serious drug habit, I felt little to no compassion. I loved him but all I could think about was how he was choosing it over me. He didn’t love me enough to get his shit together and be a father and that really pissed me off. I didn’t think about his spending months in a full body cast as a kid or the numerous back and knee surgeries he had throughout his life. I never considered the pain he was in or the frustration he must have felt when he could no longer stand or sit for any length of time let alone play the sports he once loved. I just knew that he would come in and out of my life as he pleased. I just knew that through my anger, I still had to be his defender. I just knew that I was never going to have the dad that I needed. And then, at the age of 46 (when I was 23), I sat in a room – just the two of us – as he took his last rattling breath.
He was a big, strong guy but even he could not survive his addiction. He didn’t OD like many. But had it not been for the drugs, he would have been able to meet his grandchildren. His addiction started with a prescription, a genetic predisposition to dependence and a long sought need for relief. I did not understand or develop my compassion until much later.
My dad had many legitimate causes for his chronic pain. I was told that he was a hypochondriac and that he just felt sorry for himself. And I suppose that may have been true. But his pain was real and he had many scars to prove it. That’s one part of having chronic pain that can be so frustrating – the need to constantly prove to others that it even exists. As if hurting wasn’t enough but having to constantly deal with people who think you are full of shit or weak or pathetic – yea, I was not the only one lacking compassion. Our society is a cold, heartless bitch.
I remember my dad showing me his bottle of pills that he kept in the kitchen drawer with the hand towels. “Just ONE of these would kill a horse! Never, ever touch these – got it?” he warned numerous times. Even in my pot years, I was terrified of pills – so that warning was plenty to squash any tiny curiosities. As time went on, the horse killing pills were no longer enough. And they probably became harder to come by as doctors grew increasingly frustrated with him. I knew he was trading pills and belongings for something else. I didn’t know exactly what – even though I found spoons in the bathroom and saw marks in his arms. Towards the end, I learned he was a methadone patient and that is when all of the oozing dots became connected.
To this day, I have guilt. To this day, I think to myself, “If I had been a better daughter…” To this day, I wish he had just loved me enough. But I know that is irrational. I know now the power of these chemicals. And I know that those drugs killed the father I knew long before his body gave out. As I child, I remember his flaws. But I also remember his hilarious humor, his energy, his creativity and how very fun he could be. Slowly, those parts of him began to disappear. I will miss those parts for the rest of my life.
He died in the late 90s. So far, this year in Milwaukee County alone, 189 people have died from overdoses. Many of these people started with a legitimate reason for taking prescription pain medication. There are many people you speak to every day – people you love and respect – who need daily pain relief. And this country treats many of them like criminals – if they treat them at all. There are also those who no longer need prescription relief but became addicted in a very short timeframe after an accident or a surgery. And once that prescription runs out, the patient is left on their own with very detrimental alternatives.
This is complicated. This isn’t about blame. This is a difficult tightrope for everyone involved. But let’s talk about it. Too many people are being lost and it simply does not need to happen. There is no “meant to be” in this fucked up scenario.