It started in the spring when long-standing pain in my back, dating to my high school football days, led me to go in for a complex -- and, as it turned out, somewhat risky --surgical procedure. The operation, called a lumbar fusion, took nearly 10 hours; the attending team of doctors were amazing; it was successful. For the first time in a long time, my back was pain-free.
There were, however, complications. Many of those who undergo this surgery suffer a temporary motor neuropathy -- diminished use of one or both legs due to nerve damage -- a setback from which they generally recover quickly. A much smaller percentage take a hit in one or both legs for a longer period of time, sometimes indefinitely.
As it turned out, I fell into that latter category. Recovering even partial use of my left leg would require a strict routine of extensive physical therapy and rehabilitation for at least a year, the doctors told me, maybe more, combined with severe limitations on travel and mobility. And while the long-standing back pain was gone, now there was the excruciating pain of post-op recovery.
As bad as the back pain had been, the agony following surgery was worse. My doctors prescribed OxyContin and Percocet, which were amazingly effective. Unfortunately, they also proved horribly addictive -- which I knew posed a risk in some ways greater than the surgery.
I am an addict, and have been my whole life. At the time of my surgery, I was 14 years clean and sober -- but addiction isn't something that goes away just because it's dormant. (There's a reason recovering alcoholics live by the dictum "one day at a time.") While the surgery had been a success, now my sobriety and, in a very real sense, my life were on the line. I elected to check in to the Hazelden Betty Ford Center Pain Management Program to help me get off the meds and to treat my pain.
At Betty Ford I discovered that, ironically, I was one of the fortunate few. My long history of addiction notwithstanding, the pills did not get their hooks into me all that deeply. Back in the halcyon (read: perpetually stoned) days of the '60s and '70s, I'd been exposed to drugs that functioned much the same as OxyContin and Percocet, but my drugs of choice were alcohol and later cocaine. Now, in 2015, I had little difficulty prying myself completely off the meds as my post-op recovery progressed. I never felt that irresistible gravitational pull that had nearly killed me many times over at the height of my destructive affair with alcohol and cocaine.
I was lucky. Many others I saw at Betty Ford were not. It was appalling to witness. One after another, I encountered a steady procession of fine, otherwise healthy people coming through the center who, unlike me, had never in their lives been addicts or alcoholics, good people who had done nothing but follow their doctors' orders and taken the meds they were prescribed to take—and as a result had now plunged off the cliff into addiction.
There are millions like them. The problem of prescription-induced addiction, I've come to learn, is at epidemic levels in the United States. In June a Time magazine cover story called it
"the worst addiction crisis America has ever seen." Two months later, to my utter amazement, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of OxyContin for children 11 and older
Ostensibly, the doctors prescribing these drugs are well-intentioned; they don't mean to create addicts. They simply don't have the education to know better. During their four years of medical school, doctors receive no more than an average of eight hours' training in addiction, according to a survey
in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs
. The bitter irony here is that not only are these meds fiercely addictive, they also aren't an especially effective solution to the problem they're used to treat. Dr. Peter Przekop, director of pain management at the Betty Ford Center and one of the nation's leading authorities on pain management, says, "There is overwhelming evidence that opioids are not effective for the treatment of chronic non-cancer pain. Indeed, they have created a wealth of unwanted problems and suffering."
According to Przekop, research over the last two decades says chronic pain is a disease of the brain, and that adequate treatment that addresses the brain and mind, as opposed to simply attempting to dull the pain signal, can be accomplished with non-pharmacologic methods. "The time is long overdue," he says, "to create novel research-based treatment options." We need to do everything we can to support research into more effective approaches to chronic pain.
Meanwhile, we as a nation need to do a much better job of regulating these substances -- and our medical schools need to get serious about teaching our physicians the true, often life-shattering impact that opioids are having in people's lives. Millions of American are addicted to these opioids. More than 16,000 died from overdose in 2013
-- that's 44 a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's a national tragedy -- one we can and must change.