The surgery to lengthen my tendon was intended to reduce the unbearable fiery pain enveloping my foot, and in short order I could verify that it had worked. I couldn’t feel my leg below my knee beyond some vague feeling along my shin and a couple of toes that tickled, but the nerves inside that let me know I was in pain were in good working order. I left the hospital on Saturday morning eager to have an evening home with my children before they headed off to Idaho for a week of camping with their father, and I was relatively comfortable within a day of returning home. By Monday, I had stopped taking the pain medication on a schedule and was down to a dose in the morning and a dose in the evening.
While I was out of pain and back to work, the numbness and uncertainty around recovering all the sensation began to get me down as the week progressed. I felt myself losing my rosy viewpoint and began to worry I was sinking into a depression. I was waking up anxious and pessimistic, suffering from cold sweats and goose bumps despite the +90° heat, and felt drained of all my energy. I broke down crying on the phone with my mother Wednesday afternoon and admitted that I was tired of this and really felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. As she is so adept at doing, she lovingly kicked me in the ass with a pep talk that both scolded and lifted my spirits. “You can cry for a few minutes, but then you’ve got to get right back up and do it anyway because you don’t have a choice.” She was right, of course. The decision to start this journey was not one I could change halfway down the road. It doesn’t matter how hard this road becomes; it is the only road here.
Regardless of her advice, I continued to indulge my newly developed habit of breaking down in tears in the evening after returning home from work, and on the following morning when I woke. On Thursday afternoon, I saw Dr. Workman for my post-operative appointment expecting praise for so quickly getting back to my daily routine. She was not pleased with me. My leg was too swollen and she directed me to work from home until the following week. I texted my manager from her office and had his blessing in a matter of minutes. She offered to refill my pain medication, but I told her I was hardly taking any now and had plenty, and at the end of the appointment I made a comment about my concern at possibly beginning to suffer some depression. She looked uncomfortable and advised me to look into counseling. We left without another word about it.
I spent Friday working from home and had the swelling well under control by the time Patrick got home ready to take me out to dinner and the Timbers game that evening. I felt ill, shaky, nauseated and weak, but I dragged myself into the shower to bathe before he got home. As I sat on the bed listlessly drying my hair with a towel, he walked in and could tell I was not myself. I burst into tears again and admitted I wanted to go to sleep for a month until this was over. My muscles ached, presumably from laying around with virtually no activity for so long, and the overwhelming sense of despair and hopelessness that had taken hold of me was physically palpable.
Because Patrick is wonderful, he assured me we did not have to drag ourselves to the game if I didn’t feel up to it, but I convinced him I would feel better getting out of the house and forced myself to rally. My sense of physical illness gradually increased over the next hours as we feasted on tacos at our regular pre-game dinner spot and then lined up in the waning evening heat at the ADA gate. I visibly drooped in my wheelchair as sitting upright made me feel faint. I couldn’t stop shivering and Patrick suddenly got very worried.
“You look miserable,” he said. “Are you okay?”
“No,” I admitted. “I feel awful. I don’t know what’s wrong. I must be getting sick. My head hurts and all my muscles ache.” I was on the verge of uncontrollable tears the entire time. Patrick had brought a stash of medications with him to dole out if my foot began to swell and hurt, so he offered to give me something once we got inside and could find some water to take with them. I agreed, not really thinking it would address what was wrong, but I didn’t want to force him to take me home when he sacrifices so much already every day all day long for me. We made it into the game and nabbed our new favorite seats- ADA seating behind the goal line with an unobstructed view. I remained silent and pensive, and he remained worried, until he urged me to talk to him about what was wrong once he’d found some water for me. He doled out some medication and I stared at it in the palm of my hand as an idea struck me.
Without taking the pills, I turned to my iPhone to google “Opiate withdrawal symptoms” and realized in a matter of seconds what was going on. In the week and a half or so that I had been taking such a high dose of medication around the clock- every three hours- my body had developed a chemical dependency that it now had to withdraw from when I suddenly stopped taking them. The symptoms were everything I had been experiencing over the past few days since I had drastically reduced my meds: nausea, cold sweats, goose bumps, fatigue, malaise and depression, severe anxiety, muscle aches, headache…
“My god, Patrick, I’m going through withdrawals,” I said.
“Of course,” he agreed. “Makes perfect sense.”
I took the pills he had given me and kept reading, suddenly ravenous for more information and how to get through it. I read numerous forums where individuals extolled the virtues of “quitting cold turkey” versus “weaning”, recommendations for various detox secrets, and the inevitable advice to seek assistance from a medical professional. Time ticked by as I read and soon I realized the symptoms had almost entirely abated- about 40 minutes after I had taken my medication. By the time the game started, I felt more like myself. As I do whenever anything important happens to me, I texted my mother, who also happens to be a seasoned ER nurse and my own personal webmd resource. She advised me to take a smaller dose of the medications I had been taking and reduce the dose by a quarter each day or so, in small increments, but fairly quickly.
The next day we developed a schedule for my medication again. I wasn’t taking a high enough dose to completely eliminate all of the withdrawal symptoms, but the symptoms would ease each time I took something. I noticed that I could go about eight hours before I began to really feel miserable, which meant mornings were dreadful if I slept late at all. That weekend was hell as the headache manifested itself in every bone in my face and nothing could make it stop. I was terrified of taking anymore of the pain medication than we had agreed, which meant toughing it out when my foot swelled at the end of the day. The depression would come in waves that swelled over me and pushed me to the edge of complete despair until Patrick would force me to take something and the darkness would gently ebb away.
Patrick stocked the house with supplies as though I had the flu; I was too nauseous to bring myself to drink much water, so he bought me ginger ale and juice to try to keep me hydrated, and soup to entice me to eat. My mother suggested seeing my doctor about a medication for the anxiety, but I hated the idea of taking yet another drug when I was already enduring such an ordeal. I compromised by taking over-the-counter unisom- a fairly benign antihistamine commonly used as a sleep-aid- to calm myself in the evening and help me sleep. I took to lounging in the tub for hours at a time to ease the unrelenting muscle aches, something I had not yet done with my frame for fear of infection. I kept my foot out of the water the first time I tried it, but it was difficult to relax while I held my leg aloft the whole time. I researched how to turn it into a bleach bath- an idea my doctor had already approved- and took to adding a quarter cup of bleach and epsom salt to my bubble bath which enabled me to soak my frame in the water. According to my research, days 3-5 are supposed to be the most difficult part of the detox period, and I reasoned I had technically begun to detox around Monday when I suddenly ramped down my dosage. The entire ordeal could last a couple of weeks, but by the middle of the second week I was feeling significantly better.
My weaning process took about three weeks total before I was no longer taking anything regularly. As I was feeling better, I was also more mobile, which meant more swelling and pain from all the activity by the end of the day. After many discussions surrounding my fear of going through this all over again, Patrick convinced me to take small doses of pain medication when I need it, and ONLY when I need it without a regular schedule to avoid developing a dependency again. I had learned a valuable lesson- addiction is real and the risks have to be taken seriously. I suddenly understood the necessity for strict guidelines around prescribing these dangerous medications, and I wanted to warn everyone I knew how easily and quickly they can become a problem. I wanted to talk about it openly as I realized how common my own situation must be and how many people must be dealing with it silently. So many of those struggling with chronic pain are in this difficult position, but I felt sharply the stigma surrounding the topic in my own disappointment in myself, as though I somehow had any control over how my body reacted to a medication I needed to survive my medical ordeal. If I was judging myself so harshly, I wondered how others were judging me as well.
There is so much in life that we don’t see coming. Even if we cannot be better prepared for the unforeseeable, we can at least be compassionate and have empathy for each other as we all stumble and struggle through our own unique trials. I’m wiser now for this experience, and will know how to avoid repeating the same mistakes, but I’m sure to make new mistakes in my next ridiculous life fiasco. The only thing I can really do is love myself regardless, as much as I would love any other flawed and struggling human being doing their best to survive.
It’s always something, after all.