By Marika Delan.
I came out of my hole to see the things that hurt me in the light of day.
I was frightened of my shadow and went back inside to hide.
I’ve been here for so long now, it must be that winter has come and gone away.
Punxsutawney Phil came out of his burrow and saw his shadow today.
The forecast is 6 more weeks of winter.
. . .
Vicodin, Oxycodone, Percocet, pick your poison — there was no shortage of top shelf pills for the pain. Just make sure to follow the instructions lest you cause liver failure, or worse, stop breathing and die:
Take one to two tablets every 4-6 hours as needed for pain.
Do not operate heavy machinery. May cause drowsiness (and nausea, epic constipation, anorexia, withdrawal that will make you think you are Leo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries, and deep dark soul sucking depression that might explain why people ruin their lives over what doctors are doling out like candy).
Do not drink alcohol while taking this medication.
Pick a shelf, pick a drug, my medicine cabinet was full of whatever you could possibly want because there was nothing I wanted less than to take opiate narcotics. I had seen the true meaning of the word painkillers. I had seen them kill more than the pain.
White man’s heroin they call it, which I thought seemed ridiculous at first. Two brutal sleep apnea surgeries in two years left my husband with his face literally sawed apart and pieced back together with titanium screws and plates. Nerves in his face were severed, and his jaws were wired shut as he healed.
Me being a nurse didn’t do much to help him. If taking care of him had been my job (it was), I would have been fired (that happened later anyway). They don’t prepare you for the day the patient is someone you love. There is no overtime pay or relief from being on call and I was weak and tired. I clocked out and let him fend for himself telling myself all the while, it couldn’t be that bad.
I recalled a recovering addict who had come to talk to our class when I was still in nursing school. She told us how she started stealing opiates from her patients on the job. How she would chart that she gave the meds while she swallowed them herself. She didn’t care the risk, she said, once you got on the stuff everything became about how to get your next fix.
The drugs had made her do things she thought she could never do, she explained. Nothing was sacred, whatever it took to keep withdrawal from kicking in. She just kept popping pills until someone caught onto her gig. Nurse Jackie wasn’t on when I was in school, but if it was, this lady could have played Edie Falco’s character. She said there were so many just like her. There must be, I thought. Showtime made a show about it.
The darkness moved in slowly over time, just like the way Nursing School Jackie said it happened to her. My husband, the man I knew so filled with optimism, was slowly being siphoned away by the pills and the pain. It stops feeling like living when living depends on a countdown to the next dose. Two years of opiates left him a burned out shell, a remnant of the man he had been before his surgeries.
One weekend when he was going to run out before we could get his prescription refilled, we rationed what he had until Monday morning. That ominous nickname had not crossed my mind again until I was covering a sobbing, 300-pound man with a blanket while he shivered and sweat on our bathroom floor.
Where had my husband gone, would he be able to come back from wherever he was and more importantly, did he even want to? The pills had that wonderful quality of making it easier to disappear. Just wanting to make the pain stop is what comes right before the part where you stop giving a shit.
I had been a heartless bitch, and in the pain he was in, it’s no wonder he didn’t take more than prescribed. I understood now how someone might do things they never thought they could do. I had seen with my own eyes now why everything depended on when you get your hands on the next dose.
After the night spent on the bathroom floor, he wanted off by his own volition. We returned to the pain clinic to tell them the news but they looked at him like he was crazy when he said he wanted off the ride. They said no one ever came saying they wanted to get off them, they only came back to see how they could get more pills.
It took methadone to get him off the OxyContin, my husband, the man who had always been scared to do anything harder than weed. I had mistakenly thought methadone was for heroin addicts but now it was clear how Oxy had earned its nickname.
No one was immune to its spell.
No one, not my husband, not that nurse.
No one, not even me.
. . .
I woke up on Valentine’s Day in a hospital room pressing the red button on my Dilaudid PCA pump, delivering relief right into my vein. My surgical pain was intense, but with the push of a button it was gone within 60 seconds or so. My two other back surgeries over the previous 2 years had been cake compared to this, I had even been able to go home the same day. Having my spine fused was undoubtedly more painful and a PCA (patient controlled analgesia) pump was my very good friend for a 3-day hospital stay.
Our furry friend Phil had forecast 6 more weeks of winter that year having come out and seen his shadow, but I was busy making plans for a fast and flawless recovery. I didn’t know I should be preparing for the winter I was already in—one that would hang on for 2 years.
I refused to take the pills unless I just couldn’t deal with the pain, and even then only through gritted teeth. I was scared to take regular doses as prescribed and consequently, rarely found much relief from the pain. Four months passed and after a promising start, my recovery had unexpectedly stagnated, I needed more pills when I should have been needing less. My pain started to increase in inverse proportion to my mobility despite following my post op plan to the tee.
I didn’t know why I was getting worse and was in denial that it was even happening. I had done everything right and had planned it perfectly– I would be able to recover in just in time and go back to work just in time enough to keep my job. My doctor had assured me that my recovery would likely be fast since I was young; my body was healthy and strong. I had done the prescribed physical therapy with gusto and added yoga, prayer and meditation in the mix for good measure. I kept the walking schedule they gave me like clockwork but despite keeping my body as strong as I could, I had to start using more of the pills. It wasn’t that I needed one here and there, I needed them just to keep from crying. I needed them just to make it through the day.
Time had run out, along with my insurance, and a job that couldn’t hold my position waiting for my recovery anymore. They had been patient, but I couldn’t hold up my end of the deal– getting well in the allotted time.
Now I was broken and fired but still held hope, I saw no reason I wouldn’t be getting better. Some people take longer to recover, I was told, so I waited, said a prayer, I took a drink to world peace.
And then one day some friends stole a bunch of the drugs I had stockpiled in my medicine cabinet amidst my increasingly painful struggle to which they were personally and intimately privy. When someone wipes out the inventory I hoarded for nearly 4 years, my first thought was, how could you? But after the shock wore off, I remembered; swallowing the shadows like a sacrament is part of the rite of killing the pain. I remembered the quivering man on the bathroom floor to whom I had vowed to care for in sickness and in health, and the words of Nursing School Jackie as they reverberated like feedback in my ear:
“It’ll make you do things you thought you could never do.”
I wondered if that thought would ever cross my friend’s mind, every time they popped one or five of the stash they had taken, what must have been close to 200 pills.
. . .
My spirit feels almost as bone bare as my medicine cabinet since my pain has exceeded its seasoned threshold. I have endured with minimal reliance on pills for four years, but have since succumbed to its warm and woozy charms. It helps the pain, but not without cost; the side effects alone are a sickness. You lose pressure as apathy floods in and bleeds from grey to black, hemorrhaging into the blurry edges the shadows.
I’m awake and writing at 3 am, as is often the case these days. The difference tonight is I’m writing to calm myself because I mistakenly slept through my next scheduled dose. My hands are still shaking as I try to type before the medicine takes full effect. I should know better than do that on meds this strong, this is no measly 5 mg hydrocodone.
My stomach feels like twisting knives and my hair is drenched in sweat. If I could still my breathing long enough I’m certain I would see my heart pushing up against the flesh of my chest as it pounds underneath my soaked nightshirt. This is what its like, I think in a shiver. I only need a blanket on a bathroom floor to cover myself. I should have asked back then but was too blind to see, so I ask myself now; Is my karma cleansed yet or is this only just the beginning?
I can’t relax now until I feel the warm rush of opiate receptors soaking up the sunshine they crave. I wait it out at the keyboard while my body breaks down the components it needs held within the tiny half of a pill I just swallowed. I keep writing to avert a panic attack. I wait. I say a prayer. I take a drink to world peace.
It’s in the darkness the things we say we could never do make liars out of us. That’s why I’m afraid to swallow a full dose of the pills, but I’ll choke down a whole bottle of sadness and shame. I swallow all of my reservations, all the fears hidden and simultaneously magnified by the pain.
Punxsutawney Phil came out his burrow and saw his shadow today. They say that means 6 more weeks of winter, but I think it’s a bunch of bullshit. I realized something today standing in the sun.
A shadow is cast when light cannot penetrate a solid object, but the solidity of your body is an illusion. Though the mass of your form casts a shadow, there is a light that illumines the spaces between the darkness. Beacons cloaked in opaque hush, from the outside you cannot sense their glow. Like the nests birds build of hair and trash, their mansions wait in cover until winter claims the last of fall’s leaves.
But there will be no more winter here for now.
It is colder than it’s been all year and this storm is due to last for days,
but can you feel it?
Spring is on the way.
Did you notice the days are getting longer? I keep reminding myself it won’t be so dark in a little while. I can’t see very well yet with the light so dim and the storm has yet to pass.
But time is wise and it tells me without my noticing or seeing, there’s a little more light each day from here.
My alarm goes off at 6, its blaring Sonny and Cher.
I get up and make the coffee and eggs.
I get up and say a prayer.
I pray the dark doesn’t make a liar out of me,
and for all the others who pray the same familiar prayer.
I say a prayer with a pill in my cheek, I cock my head back and drink to world peace.
Marika Rosenthal Delan is a scientist/nurse by trade and an artist/freedom fighter by birth who once choreographed her little brother and his friends in a rousing rendition of Divo’s Whip It as performed by Alvin and the Chipmunks when she was only 9.
Since being sidelined from nursing by her lower back she finds her zen in music, her children, and getting lost in words of all kinds. She works with her husband, Peter, finding that service is joy, through their non-profit, Tree of Life United Ministries.
Her essays have appeared on Jennifer Pastiloff’s The Manifest-Station, as well as Elephant Journal and The Huffington Post. You can find her blogging at www.bestillandstillmoving.com where she practices the art of being still while still moving, even if stillness means getting a move on at 4 am. Luckily she has found, that even at such a dark hour, someone will always leave the light on for you.