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The Pills

A small wrinkle in the way he held his head was the only open betrayal of his condition.  The many colored papers he was studying were laid out in piles as he moved from one to the other, scouring each for some kind of clue.  His serious but friendly face, rounded in a kind of smile, rarely looked up.  It wasn’t until we had been at the bar for some time that we started chatting, innocently at first.

He gave his name as John, and slowly started talking about his mission.  He had just been to a pain management clinic at the hospital, and there in front of him were all the secrets that help him shove his life, if not his back, into order once again.  The car accident had done its damage, but pill after pill the magic that was supposed to help him cope had its own price.  Liz and I listened intently because a slipped disk in her back had given her the same bottles that rattled in her purse and through her nerves.

This is the world of powerful prescription drugs, a world far too many people enter but can’t leave.  John was working his way out, but just as he must hobble through life with a cane he first needed something else to lean on before he could ditch the pills.

For Liz, the journey started with a sharp pain that came on for almost no reason at all.  After a few days it became clear it wasn’t going away, so an appointment was made at the after-hours clinic, the only place she could get into the same day.  Hardly stopping to look at her, a prescription for Vicodin was written and that was that.  Call us if it doesn’t get better in two weeks.

It didn’t get better.  It got worse over the next few days.

Most people would just pop the Vicodin and hope for the best.  When that failed to materialize, maybe another little pill.  And another.  In a short time the bottle might be gone, but it would be easy to get another.  A serious addiction might result even as the pain didn’t go anywhere.

Liz knew better, and I did my part to watch carefully what was happening.  As it got worse she finally got into a regular doctor who knew immediately what was happening and got her on a course that seemed to repair the damage, not just dull the pain.  The magic pills would not be called on as she braved the pain and learned to manage it the best she can.

This particular evening, the story John told was exactly what she needed.  The universe has a way of providing what anyone needs if they pay attention.  There are ways of treating the underlying condition, managing the pain, and making a few adjustments here and there that aren’t too onerous.

Yet that is not what the medical establishment often provides people with chronic pain.  It gives them pills with incredible addictive power that dull mind and body.  For many people, they might as well give them a loaded pistol.

John is a very strong and brave man who stumbled down this path without realizing where it went.  After years of limping along he was getting the help he needed, but only after he insisted that there had to be a better way.  There, in front of him, were some answers that would help him get back to where he knew he needed to be – away from the magic pills with the high toll on spirit and flesh.  He could reduce and manage the pain without them.  Liz listened to his story and, having balked at the easy path, can take the right one instead.  What the medical establishment didn’t provide her a chance encounter at a bar one cold evening did.

Is this really any kind of health care?

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16 thoughts on “The Pills

  1. While its clearly irresponsible to just give people dangerous drugs the consumers have a responsbility to understand what they are taking. Sounds like Liz (your GF?) had the right plan and I hope she gets better.

  2. I know many people who became addicted to painkillers. It is a serious problem that is not being taken seriously enough. People should know what they are taking but doctors should do a better job explaining how addictive they are.

    • I think they are awfully quick to hand people potentially dangerous drugs and do a terrible job explaining the risks. People in pain are not necessarily thinking all that clearly so it’s hard to tell people to be careful – but they don’t really seem to try anyway. Generally the real solution will come with the patients / consumers, but I think the doctors have some obligation here as well.

  3. I’d say a key underlying problem is that drug company salesmen are, way too much, the ones training the docs. Add to that, that docs apparently have little incentive, in many cases, to spend real time with patients, take a real history, figure out what is actually going on….
    All that said, my partner lives with chronic back pain, takes very few drugs, but also isn’t interested in getting a real diagnostic workup to find out if anything treatable is going in. Of course, that would be expensive and likely involve a depressing struggle with the health care system…..
    No easy answers absent fundamental reforms…..

    • Sounds like a situation very similar to what Liz is dealing with, although I think she’d go for a permanent solution if it was clear.
      It is a matter of doing what pain clinic teach, which is how to manage the pain rather than just pop more pills. There are a lot of skills and techniques involved, as John told us, and I’ll let everyone know as we learn more.

  4. Thank you.
    Jim –
    “clearly irresponsible” is a big understatement. I saw 3 doctors in 4 days, I already was taking a Rx pill, and disclosed all I had consumed/exposed to/bitten(yes, bitten by, it was summer). Each time I got yet another “miracle pill”. Physical therapy is what has saved me, the “miracle pill” only makes the drug company more money.
    Alan –
    Two doctors in the same clinic and one ER doctor, all gave me a Rx made by different companies, so advertising may have added to it. The amount is the real issue.
    Annalise –
    You can make sure that the general population knows what these pills/drugs can do to you. Anyone would fall for it, no matter the intellect. Until you have been there, you don’t know how you will react.
    -Liz.

    • And there she is! I’ll vouch for Liz on this point – until it happens to you, you have no idea how you’ll respond. She’s been very strong through all this but it’s very exhausting to be in constant pain.

  5. Chronic pain can take over one’s life. It took over mine, in the form of a high level of knee pain. It affected my walking, sitting, lying down, thinking, sleeping, personal hygiene, etc. I am so fortunate that most of my relief has come through a weight loss of 200+ pounds.

    The weight-loss itself resulted through several years long work on my relationship with food. I highly recommend the Emily Program for that work. It was never about the right diet. It was much deeper than that. http://emilyprogram.com/

    While I was in the midst of that daily, day-long pain, I struggled to make thoughtful, rational decisions. It’s not as if a patient is able to calmly listen to the doctor and weigh pros and cons. Release from the constant pain is foremost.

    People do get off of those scrips, and there are alternatives. I don’t have personal experience with “pain clinics”, but my clients have told me that there are more solutions offered than simply more meds. Physical therapy is apparently one of the better aids.

    (My clients are people with brain injuries, mental illnesses, and the like. Many had or have addiction issues too. I am a chaplain, and I’ve had the opportunity to receive lots of training. I am definitely not a medical pro.)

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