Opiate Detox: No Pain, No Gain

The day before I entered inpatient opiate detox, I confessed everything to my mom. She stared at me in disbelief. She would tell me later in a letter that she felt like she was sinking in quicksand. I knew the news would devastate her, and that alone kept me from revealing my closely-guarded secret.

She also told me in the letter she later wrote to me while in treatment that she considered cutting me off and leaving me to my own devices. Fortunately, for me, she didn’t. I don’t know how I avoided overdosing, but I did. I certainly tried to overdose on a regular basis, even welcomed the prospect of death.

Deep down, I recognized my time was limited. The average opiate junkie actively uses for 2 ½ years. In the druggie world, that’s not long. Junkies either sober up, go to jail or die early. I’d had periods of sobriety before. But when in treatment, the thought always persisted that I wasn’t that bad. I just drank and smoked pot. This thought was usually inspired by the IV/needle users. Now I was that bad, and I knew the clock was ticking. Death waited for me in a burnt spoon with a mixture of water and heroin.

Jail became, as addiction progressed, a frequent pit stop on the road to rock bottom. Serious car wrecks. Dangerous cop chases. High stakes poker games. The list of my criminal past could go on, but I’d rather not see the inside of a jail cell again. As Discovery Place recovery guide Bob Overton later said to me, “I hope I’ve been to just the right amount of jails.”

This was my past. Not something I am particularly proud of, and surely not the future my mom envisioned for her son. I had left high school with honors, mock trial MVP, varsity golfer and on my way to a prestigious four-year college in an honors business program with a healthy scholarship.

A little over ten years later, I stared into my mother’s teary eyes and told her I was addicted to heroin. Fear conspired to keep me from divulging the truth for months. When the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change, I will change. On that day in late May, my option was twofold: death or recovery.

A fellow junkie once shared an observation with me, “No one ever gets sober from opiates or heroin because they can’t get through the dope sickness.” The memory of our conversation on opiate detox and withdrawal floated ominously through my head as I wondered what the next few days would bring. By the time my opiate addiction became full-blown, a day didn’t pass without access large quantities of heroin or oxycodone. I had experienced some minor discomfort here and there, but never full-blown heroin and opiate withdrawals.

Frantic Search for Opiate Detox and Treatment Options

May 24th, 2012

The following morning, my mom and I explored options. We called several hospitals, and all detoxification units were at capacity. You may or may not know that opiate addiction in America has reached epidemic levels. More people die from heroin and opiate addiction than all other drugs combined. By the time I showed up at the methadone clinic, I was already shaking and shivering. My body temperature felt completely whacked, transitioning from hot to cold with no happy medium. Sweat poured off of me, and I waited impatiently in the clinic’s line. The receptionist told me no appointments were available until Tuesday. It was a Thursday. I turned to my mom and said, “I won’t make it that long.”

Finally (and luckily), we found availability at a local hospital. I learned later that methadone was not an ideal substitute for heroin. Methadone detox is notoriously difficult, some say more so than opiates and heroin. After some paperwork and payment, I was admitted. Withdrawal symptoms were full-blown, and I was immediately administered suboxone. My internal struggle with addiction caused a dramatic deterioration in physical appearance; I wore a wintry hoodie, even though it was summertime, and my beard looked like I had been hiking the Appalachian trail for many years. But I wasn’t a rugged outdoorsman, I was a heroin addict. A junkie. Plain and simple.

May 25th, 2012 at approximately 2:30am

In a futile attempt to battle morbid thoughts that characterize acute heroin and opiate withdrawals, I found myself reading an old book of short stories. If memory serves me correctly, the story was called How to Build a Fire by Jack London. To this day, the experience of that sleepless night stays with me as a strong reminder of the very real dangers of heroin and opiate addiction.

I held out hope the main character, who encountered life-threatening situations deep in Alaska’s snow-steeped landscape, would emerge from the wilderness unscathed. Much to my disappointment, the “unnamed man” did not escape the Alaskan tundra. He met his demise. He refused to listen to the advice of others. Would I share his fate? The thought sent shivers through me, not that I needed any help shivering. Opiate withdrawal shivers, similar to having a high fever (though much more pronounced), would become the norm for me over the next several weeks. Hot and cold. Hot and cold. Cold and hot. There was no comfortable medium as my body temperature punished me for years of opiate and heroin abuse.

Looking back, I see how similar my story was to the “unnamed man.” We both chose a path littered with problems, despite the stern warnings of good people. Both of our chosen roads led to one fate: an untimely death. Yet both of us, in spite of our flaws, could chart a different course – one where success replaced failure.

The previous day, I made the decision to heed the warnings given to me by close friends. I chose to plot a fresh path where freedom replaced bondage, where life replaced death. I would not be the “unnamed man.” So I began an opiate detox.

Minutes seemed to pass like weeks, with no end in sight. Time starts to inch forward progressively slower as opiate withdrawals increase in severity. I spent the entire night shaking and sweating. Sleep was an elusive fugitive, and just when it seemed like I would get some rest, a newly-minted morbid thought would arise from the agony of withdrawals. I wandered the hospital’s detox unit like a cemetery ghost, and it felt like all hope was lost.

The suboxone provided little comfort. Someone, like myself, who crosses the addiction threshold and uses dangerously large quantities of highly potent heroin cannot expect relief from something like suboxone.

My therapist later told me that one of the nurses had expressed her fears about me to him. She said she was concerned, possibly due to my grossly unkempt appearance, that I was going to be a threat to patient and staff safety. Knowing what I know now, I understand where she was coming from, but I don’t remember saying much while I experienced addiction’s ruthless revenge. For the most part, I kept to myself. My therapist reassured her that I was going through a very difficult opiate detox, and I was not a threat to anyone. I doubt his words reassured her.

May 26th, 2012

I finally got some rest thanks to the one-two punch of seroquel and suboxone. 48 hours had passed without sleep. 48 hours of shaking, shivering, incredibly restless legs and a constant barrage of morbid thoughts had taken its toll on me. I remember taking the seroquel-buoxone concoction, starting to nod off and thinking to myself, “this is the last time I will ever nod off, so I better enjoy it.”

I began to appreciate the truth of my fellow junkies’ statement, “no one gets sober from opiates or heroin because they can’t get through the dope sickness.” Day 3 brought some periods of relief, but time still trickled like drips from a faucet. My appetite returned for brief moments, and phone conversations with an admissions coordinator from Discovery Place, where I would be going upon release from the hospital, gave me an inkling of hope. These phone conversations gave me hope and relief in a time of no hope and relief.

Even with the seroquel-suboxone cocktail, sleep continued to be a luxury. I felt alone in the sheer pronunciation of my withdrawals. No other addict in the unit looked like I did, and they weren’t sweating, shaking and shivering like I was. I still looked and felt like a wilderness orphan. I guess, in some ways, I was.

On the Way to Drug Rehab… Again

May 27th, 2012

Four days after checking in, the hospital released me to the care of Discovery Place. I figured that, for the most part, I was out of the woods. I was wrong. Suboxone and seroquel cast a temporary spell that alleviated my withdrawals, but as nighttime Discovery Place guide John Potts later said, “Everyone has to pay the piper.” And pay I would.

For now, however, the prospect of admission to Discovery Place kept my mind off the intervals of depression and discomfort. I rode to the main campus with my Dad at the wheel. He was justifiably angry. Before we left the hospital, he looked at me and said, “Either do this (recovery) or don’t bother contacting us (the family).” While those words may sound harsh, they were long overdue. I’d been putting them through the ringer since preschool. I was a problem child from an early age.

I’d been here before. Silence in the car on the way to rehab. Thoughts running through my head like Usain Bolt, while regret and misery stood knocking at my door. This was, most definitely, familiar territory for a guy like me. I swore it would never happen again. I swore things would change, yet here I was, all messed up again. Little did I know, the worst pain was still to come.

Finding Recovery from Heroin and Opiate Addiction at Discovery Place

My first few weeks at Discovery Place were difficult. I had never seen myself through the opiate detox process. The first group I remember attending was facilitated by a volunteer named Curley. Curley was an older man who loved whiskey and drinking. A self-professed alcoholic, he began guiding me through the pages in the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous. Not this again. Please not this again. I tried this before. It didn’t work. These were some of the first thoughts that popped into my head. Despite my best telepathic attempts to get Curley to shut up, he persisted. Finally, the old man turned to me and said, “What’s your conception of a Higher Power.” My opportunity to bring some chaos and dissension to the group had arrived, and I responded, “I don’t BELIEVE in God” with all the sarcasm I could muster.

Then something very strange happened. Curley didn’t try to correct me. He didn’t preach to me. He didn’t tell me I was going to hell because I was a non-believer. The old-timer turned to the next guest and calmly asked him the same question. I was outraged. Why didn’t he try to argue with me? Did he think my opinion didn’t matter? Dammit, I want a debate. I want to show him I’m right. My opinion matters. This old man doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. Me. Me. Me!

A few nights later, while on my suboxone taper, I was lying down to go to sleep. That’s when a stomach ache like I’d never known hit me with incredible force. I’ll spare you the details, but do admit that Discovery Place’s night guide John Potts kept 911 on standby.

The pain of opiate detox, coupled with the compassion of Discovery Place’s staff, provided more than enough motivation for me to start taking sobriety seriously. After several months in the long-term recovery program, I emerged with a memory I hope never departs. One day in the long-term program house, a strange thought entered my mind, “I’m going to do whatever these people (Discovery Place staff) tell me to do.”

I’ve been sober ever since.

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