Self

I Was Addicted To Oxycontin — And Went Through Hell Trying To Withdraw

Photo: Motortion Films / Shutterstock
woman having withdrawal symptoms

In 2004, I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast disease. It is a particularly virulent form of cancer; my oncologist gave me a prognosis of 6 months even with chemotherapy and radiation.

Thankfully, that was 18 years ago and I’m still alive. But life has not been a bed of roses. Because of the aggressive form of cancer I had, the treatments for it weree hardcore. It took me years to even be able to do household chores I used to do easily. Also, in January of 2017, my cancer re-emerged.

I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma and scheduled for a mastectomy. 

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Because of the size and location of the tumor — it was against the muscle of my chest and the size of a grapefruit — the mastectomy took not just my breast but quite a bit of the surrounding tissue. I had to have a skin graft to cover the removed tissue, which included part of the muscle of my chest.

This was actually the most painful experience I’ve ever had.

The breast removal was bad enough, but the skin graft was worse. The surgeon removed an 18-inch long by 12-inch wide piece of my skin. The pain was excruciating.

Fortunately, I was prescribed OxyContin.

Unfortunately, this is a form of oxycodone, which is a highly addictive substance. However, there's a reason doctors prescribe it: it works. While there are side effects that doctors warn you about, the pain relief is so welcome, you don’t care.

I was prescribed 160 mg of Oxycontin per day. That’s a lot.

At the time I was relatively ignorant of the side effects. I took a round green pill with 80 mg twice a day. I was told not to skip a dose. There was no danger of that. The drug was a lifeline. I didn’t care about the nausea, the dizziness, or the constipation.

However, I ended up sitting in my recliner to sleep as lying down was impossible due to the pressure on my chest.

Since sleep was sometimes elusive, I watched late-night TV. What changed my perspective? An episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight about opioids. It was a much-needed wake-up call for me.

I had had no idea how addictive OxyContin was. As I did more research, I read about how good people ended up as addicts, through no fault of their own. After all, we trust doctors. We believe them when they say we need a pill. Particularly when we are vulnerable and in pain.

And it’s not that my doctor didn’t try to warn me.

She discussed a tapering schedule I would eventually require, prescribed meds for constipation and nausea, and hooked me up with a pain management clinic that would monitor my dosage and provide the actual reduction over time.

The problem was that she did not really communicate the severity of the addiction. She danced around it.

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The people at the pain management clinic were worse. It became obvious to me that they were happy to make money from prescribing my pills. Maybe I’m being cynical but when I asked about alternatives to manage pain besides an opioid, they had nothing to offer.

Yet I’d been reading about strategies like mindful meditation, yoga, and massage. I was willing to try these techniques but wanted guidance. The clinicians only offered me more pills.

I decided to take matters into my own hand.

The next time I met with my doctor, I told her I wanted to taper off the OxyContin. She was totally supportive and gave me a tapering schedule.

Because I was so determined I needed to get off the pills, I didn’t follow her advice; I was too aggressive. I started to go through withdrawal.

Here are the symptoms I experienced:

  • Anxiety and irritation.
  • My insomnia came back and got worse.
  • I was going through hot and cold feelings, chills and fevers. Sometimes I sweated, other times I shivered and had goosebumps. My teeth would even chatter during this phase.
  • Diarrhea replaced constipation and my appetite was gone.

I was a mess and realized this was not a good place to be. I decided to go back up to the less aggressive taper my doctor had suggested. It would take 6 weeks, but the symptoms were less severe.

I still had all the signs of withdrawal — after only a little over a month on the drug! But I was able to manage them better and I incorporated some of the mindfulness techniques that helped me deal with not just the pain but also made the withdrawal more tolerable.

The reality is that I am extremely lucky.

I could claim some virtue of willpower or doing my own research but the reality is it could as easily have gone the other way. Let’s not kid ourselves. Lots of very disciplined, strong, and smart people end up addicted. They need compassion, not condemnation.

I know from my own experience how tempting it is to want to get rid of excruciating pain. And I do believe even drugs like opioids can be helpful to people who need them. But I think patients should be better informed and educated. They should be told about other techniques to manage pain and be encouraged to tolerate gradual increases in pain to wean off the drugs.

The reality is that many good people have become addicted to these prescription pain pills. Many try to quit but the withdrawal is too much for them. They feel shame and guilt.

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They shouldn’t.

Our medical professionals need to do more to help people who followed their doctor’s advice to cope with severe pain. And society as a whole should have more compassion.

If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction, there are resources to get help.
The process of recovery is not linear, but the first step to getting better is asking for help. For more information, referrals to local treatment facilities and support groups, and relevant links, visit SAMHSA’s website. If you’d like to join a recovery support group, you can locate the nearest Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings near you. Or you can call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-799-7233, which is a free 24/7 confidential information service in both English and Spanish. For TTY, or if you’re unable to speak safely, call 1-800-487-4889.

Shefali O'Hara is a cancer survivor, artist, writer, and engineer. Follow her on Medium.

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