Not a day passes that I don’t hear a reference to the burgeoning opioid crisis — way too many people dying from overdoses. Yet the primary source of this life-threatening pandemic is the beautiful and innocent-looking opium poppy, and the history of civilization is rich with stories of opium or its derivatives being used for beneficial medicinal and other health-enhancing purposes.
I have always had an affinity for opium-derived medicines, beginning with the morphine injections that made life bearable when I was hospitalized following the traumatic plane crash that paralyzed me in 1965. Not only did morphine relieve my pain, it also calmed my anxiety and fear of an uncertain future. But I became addicted while hospitalized. Twice. Each time, however, I was able to gradually wean myself prior to being discharged.
During the drug-laden late 1960s, when I was struggling to find my way as a paraplegic in a wheelchair-unfriendly culture, an acquaintance of mine offered me opium, a dark, tar-like substance the size of a golf ball. We smoked some, and I immediately felt its effect, which was similar to morphine. Under its influence, all seemed well with the world.
Opium has been around for thousands of years. Today dozens of products derived or synthesized from opium are available, almost all of them legal. Got a toothache? A dentist will prescribe Norco or Vicodin (hydrocodone). Oxycontin (oxycodone) is also popular and available. Headache or cough? Codeine comes to the rescue with no prescription. Diarrhea? The over-the-counter product of choice is the opioid Imodium. Even those poppy seed muffins you buy at Costco get an assist from opium. Eat enough seeds, you can get high. Then there are the heavy hitters: heroin, morphine, fentanyl, meperidine, methadone.
Due to hospitals and doctors routinely overprescribing opioids, there are now numerous initiatives aimed at making opioids harder to get. Unfortunately, those of us who have chronic pain and know how to use these drugs responsibly have been caught up in the rush to demonize opioids. For us, they provide effective and inexpensive (mostly) relief. A bottle of 50 hydrocodone-acetaminophen tablets, for example, costs $6 on my Medicare Advantage plan. That’s 12 cents per pill.
The truth is many of us feel entitled to our pain pills. They provide needed daily relief, and we know how to use them safely. But do we, really? Most medicines, when taken several times a day, tend to build up in your bloodstream. And continual opioid use does lead to dependence and addiction.
Before long, we want stronger doses, more pills per day, relief now. Do you find that your mind wanders to the pill bottle in anticipation of pain, even when you know it may be temporary? We are the quick-fix culture, smart phone addicts who demand results with one click. But our pain is here to stay, and we must learn to accept it.
If you are maxed out on pills, cut back now. Take a break from thinking you must always be pain-free. Maybe today’s the day you can be satisfied with less, rather than no pain.