Percocet, Vicodin, OxyContin. For some people, this sounds like a night of fun, or the perks of having your wisdom teeth removed. Although I've experienced worse ailments than tooth removal, these drugs never appealed to me. Even in my darkest moments, I resisted their allure. It was mostly in an attempt to be "macho" -- above all those other sick people who clamored for them, who self-medicated. Wimps, I thought. I hoped that by willing through the pain, I was making myself stronger and better prepared for life's truly troubling maladies. I also realized what a slippery slope it was. I was afraid I'd take a Vicodin for a serious problem one day, and wake up the next needing it for a stubbed toe.
It wasn't until after my surgery for cancer at 21 that I took my very first painkiller. After a four-hour thyroidectomy, I was beaten down, swollen and sore. Not knowing what to expect, I swallowed down a Percocet. Almost immediately, I felt as if an invisible screen had appeared, shielding my body and mind from the hurt it was enduring. Suddenly I felt light and free; I was Cool-Whip, in female form. I had shaken the trappings of my small stature and clumsy coordination; I was a freakin' ballerina! I flung my arms around my boyfriend, kissed my dog, ran into the freezing January air, just to feel the chill on my skin. Everything was different, and everything was grand.
I volunteered to go to the grocery store, forgetting that I was bed-ridden an hour before. Once there, I skipped through the aisles, ebullient, freed from pain. Food stores usually give me headaches and obscure my vision with their bright lights and irritating music. But today, my knees weren't yelling at me to sit, my head wasn't begging for quiet, and the open ulcers in my mouth weren't clamoring for more Anbesol. I was free of the constriction, the grief, and the weight of it all.
My brain took notice and shifted into fourth gear; I started spouting out ideas for the weekend, trips I wanted to take, places I needed to see. I vocalized a desire to go hiking, which looking back now, was certainly drug-induced. I reveled in this newfound freedom of limb, this glorious transition from swollen and tired to energetic and youthful.
And then... the drugs wore off. When they did, I found myself back in New York, two hours away from my warm bed in New Jersey. In my daze, I had convinced my parents that merely 10 days post-op, I was well enough to watch my beloved Giants in the Super Bowl at my boyfriend's house on Long Island. After the excitement of the big win, my friends went out to the local pub to celebrate. But I suddenly felt exhausted. I rushed everyone out the door and went up to bed, depressed at the quickness of the crash.
Like many others before me, I had made the fatal error of mistaking drugs for happiness. In the back of my mind I knew it was the medicine that was making me feel so great, but a little part of my childhood, innocence and faith wanted to believe that I was cured.
I had let myself hope, after a few glorious hours, that my life had changed. My real life had finally begun. That after 21 years, I had set forth on a new, easier journey. As the pain kicked back in, I realized that I had merely glimpsed at a painless existence; a reality many people take for granted. But to me, pain is as familiar as blinking. It's my spooky sixth sense. It is always there, talking and shouting and yelling and pissing me off. And as much as I wanted it to be gone, I was going to have to live with the fact that it will never go away.
As humans, we all want something. I hunger for health. It is this hunger that worries me, because it forces me to incorporate painkillers as a part of my life as a lupus patient and cancer survivor. I see how easily addiction can come, and how opiates skew my reality and twist my memory.
For me, painkillers will always be a temporary fix for a chronic problem. And while I hate the sensation of pain, I appreciate the honesty it brings. I trust in my body and the ache of my bones; it keeps me grounded, alive. I see now the importance in paying attention to your mind, body and spirit. I no longer see painkillers as drugs for the weak; they make life bearable at times when it is not.
In accepting my limitations as a sick person, I've learned to be more forgiving, to accept relief when it is available. And on those rare days when the sky clears and that black cloud of pain vanishes, I appreciate the sunny freedom that much more.
It gives me the will, the power, and the vigor to survive; to live a full life, despite the pain.