A Prescription For Failure

Just out of college, I started getting migraines. I remember one afternoon lying under my desk in excruciating pain, so I took a handful of Excedrin and laid down for a couple of days. The pain went away eventually.

But not for long — every month, the debilitating headaches kept coming back. After a few months, I went to the doctor. He gave me a shot of morphine and sent me home with a bunch of painkillers. After sleeping all afternoon, I felt fantastic. So I took the pills again the next day. It was like there was a light switch that went off in my brain: pills made me feel great and got rid of the pain. What more could I want? Over the next year or two, I started taking pills when I thought a headache might come on. Then, I’d take them when I couldn’t sleep or when I felt anxious or any sort of discomfort. Looking back, I was totally unaware that I was becoming addicted and dependent.

A pharmacist questioned me about a year into it when I wanted to get a prescription refilled early. In that moment, I had a choice to make. Was I going to take this as a warning? Or was I going to continue along this path? Unfortunately, I decided to bluff it a little bit. So, he gave me the pills.

From that point on, I started to come up with strategies to get as many pills as I could. I’d go to different pharmacies and doctors — at that time, the medical system wasn’t networked electronically, so it was pretty easy to get a number of prescriptions filled at once. I went to two or three different doctors and bought the medication with cash so the insurance company wouldn’t know how much I was using. By all accounts, I was a good kid. I had just graduated from a Christian college and got married young. The doctor who gave me the most pills at that time — I loved him, probably because he gave me so many pills — said, “Well, you don’t have an addictive personality, so I’m not worried about it.”

I knew something was wrong. I knew I was lying to doctors and lying to pharmacists and lying to my wife. But I also knew that when I didn’t take pills I felt miserable. I experienced intense physical and emotional withdrawals, so it became more and more important to always have my stash.

For the next several years, I was taking pills, if not every day, every other day. I was always counting down the days until I could get my prescription refilled. Eventually it came to the point where pills became the most important thing in my life. I’d stay home sick from work because I’d be without them. And then, when I would finally get my hands on some, I’d be the old Dave again. I would tell myself, “That guy who’s lying and spending this effort and time to make sure he’s got his pills — he’s not really me. He’s a different guy. I’m just doing what I need to do.”

By then, I knew I was addicted. But very few people ever questioned it. My wife did once in a while, but she also saw me in pain. Because I was a Christian school teacher and a coach and a youth pastor, no one wanted to think the worst of me. They were willing to hear my lie.

A few years into my addiction, Tramadol (or Ultram) came on the market. Up to that point I had been taking Vicodin, and Tramadol was marketed as a non-addictive alternative. But again, I had a sweet, old doctor who had a lot of samples on hand. One day, he gave me about 50 pills. For free. And the drug was perfect: it didn’t make me as high as Vicodin, so no one noticed.

Within a year, I couldn’t go a day without Tramadol.

About every six months, all my lies would unravel. My wife knew I wasn’t supposed to be taking more than a certain amount of pills, and I would always tell her I was staying within the recommended dosage. But, sooner or later, there’d be money missing in our bank account, or a doctor would call the house to confirm my appointment. Or a pharmacy would call to tell me my prescription was ready. When this happened, I’d cry and confess and say that I wasn’t going to do it ever again. I would go for a week or two, and then something would stress me out, and so I’d go get more.

At that point, my wife and I moved up to Washington because I had decided to go back to school. Within days, I found a new doctor; the move made accessing pills much easier because I could start fresh with a whole new group of people. Plus, I had gotten a job as a traveling salesman, which allowed me to constantly visit new drop-in clinics with new doctors. Except that’s precisely what got me fired: often, I wasn’t doing my sales stops — I was at a doctor’s office somewhere along my route, getting pills.

Then, my wife caught me again; I had forgotten about a $700 payday loan I had taken out. So that’s when I agreed to go to rehab for the first time. To be honest, I was so relieved. I didn’t have to hide this lie anymore. I had always wanted to get help, and I did want to stop — just not enough. I didn’t want the consequences of using, but I still wanted to use because it made me feel normal, like I could function. But that day, I didn’t tell her the whole story. I only confessed to what I had been caught for. I minimized how bad my addiction was and tried to find out what she actually knew so I didn’t have to reveal how deep into it I had gotten.

My wife and I both thought that once I went to rehab, I would be fixed. It was the same mentality that got me into trouble at the beginning — you’re sick, you go to the doctor, they fix you.

While I was in rehab, all of the lying and all of the bills started making their appearance. I wasn’t there to shield our financial situation from my wife, like I had been doing for years. And so once I got out, I had to face the numbers. So I started using again to deal with the stress, at first, just a little bit. I’m just going to take one to get me through the day, I’d tell myself. But within six months I was back to the same amount as before rehab: 20-30 pills a day.

When I was using, I did some shameful things. I once left my four kids home alone to fend for themselves. I used my parents’ credit card to buy pills. I pawned my wedding ring.

Though I felt shame, it wasn’t enough to change my behavior. The most important thing in my life was making sure I felt good. And the only way I knew how to feel good was to take a pill. And so began the cycle: I would take a pill to make myself feel better, and then once the pill wore off, I felt even worse because now I had guilt and shame. So to cope, I’d take another pill. And the spiral would just continue.

After getting fired for being a bad salesman, I ended up getting a job working as a camp director for a church camp. It was my dream job. Once I was hired, I told everyone parts of my story, but I left huge chunks of it out, minimizing my problem. I started out pretty strong; I rarely used. But eventually, I allowed myself to get stressed and isolated. I had friends, but nobody who really knew me, and so I started taking pills to cope.

I knew something was wrong. I knew I was lying to doctors and lying to pharmacists and lying to my wife. But I also knew that when I didn’t take pills I felt miserable.

About three years into that job, I was buying pills online. And then I got caught. It was a really public, embarrassing, shameful, failure. But now there was nothing to hide. The whole truth was finally revealed.

So, I got fired. That was the moment when everything changed. I wish I could say that I had been brave and had finally confessed and shared my story. But it took my story being shared by others for me to finally get sober.

And now I had to face the consequences. Here were my little boys, being raised on a camp where they could ride motorcycles, play paintball, go out in canoes, and go to the skate park. And I had to look at them and say, “Daddy got fired because I’m an addict.” A four-year-old doesn’t quite understand that: “Can’t you just say you’re sorry and that you won’t do it anymore?”

I also had to face my wife. I said, “Hey, remember when everything was great? It’s not. I just got fired because I’m still using.” Though she was furious, she never had any intention of leaving me. I thought for sure she would, though, and I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had.

We had nowhere to go. They let us stay at the camp for almost another month, and because of my withdrawals, I was too weak to even help pack up the house. Not only that, I had to be babysat — literally. I couldn’t go anywhere without someone having eyes on me. I couldn’t be trusted. I remember thinking, I’m going to wait five minutes. I’m going to wait five minutes. At the end of these five minutes, I’m going to find a way to get some pills. And then, after I got through five minutes, I’d think, well, I can go another five. That lasted for about two weeks.

The physical dependence did eventually break, and I began to function a little bit. All six of us moved from the camp into my parents’ two-bedroom condo. I miraculously found a job within a month of getting fired for $13 an hour at a local nonprofit. It was the kind of job where I had to clock in and clock out, and I got dropped off and picked up.

For the first year, half the time I was bouncing my leg and sweating because I was still going through withdrawals; I could barely focus. And yet things worked out. I was promoted every six months. By the time I left, I was an upper manager. The first few months after I got clean, I’d think that I would never be able to enjoy life again. Colors were a little more muted, I had no emotion. But within a couple of years, that slowly changed; the things that used to be fun became fun again. I very rarely get cravings but I still crave an easy way to escape discomfort. I still go to meetings. But for the past eight years, I’ve been clean. And miraculously, I don’t get migraines anymore.

My story is a bit different from other addicts because I had the privilege of having the support of my family and by people who loved me. When I hit rock bottom, I hadn’t burned all my bridges yet. But looking back, I was only a few steps away from losing everyone and everything.

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