Nightmare of withdrawal hit quickly
Medford retiree Rosemary Harrington, who has spent half her life in the Rogue Valley, including as a radio personality and a volunteer for St. Vincent de Paul’s homeless ministry, said a recent firsthand experience with prescription opioids gave her a sobering look at the realities of addiction.
Harrington had knee surgery Dec. 17 and was prescribed oxycodone. She said she was appalled at how quickly she became addicted to the pain pills.
Harrington said her doctors told her that some patients can become addicted to the pills after just a week of use. Recovery from major surgery, however, can take at least six weeks.
Despite years of encountering addicts and seeing media coverage of the growing epidemic, Harrington said any preconceived ideas she had about the ways people become addicted were shattered after her own experience.
“I knew that people got addicted to pain pills but, of course, I couldn’t have imagined it would ever happen to me. I was having to manage my pain levels after knee surgery, which involves cutting through bone and muscle and everything, so it’s very, very painful.”
Harrington said when she had a knee replacement operation on her other leg, she learned she had limited options for pain management.
“I’m allergic to morphine, and I can’t take Percocet — it makes me puke — so I was grateful and thrilled I could take this oxycodone. Even on an empty stomach, it didn’t make me feel sick,” she said.
“It didn’t make me ‘high,’ It just took the pain away. I didn’t feel like it was doing anything beyond pain relief, so it never dawned on me for even a minute that something could happen,” she added.
In a social media post, the 70-year-old recounted how she had taken 10 milligrams every 4-6 hours, as prescribed, for two weeks after surgery, then tried to reduce pill usage to days when the pain was worse or when she was unable to sleep.
“As days went by, I took the 10 (milligrams) only when the pain made sleep impossible, and always for physical therapy, and occasionally in between. I did notice that occasionally I felt that skin crawling — also known as the heebie jeebies,” she wrote in her post.
“(Three weeks ago) I probably only took one a day. Then I took one before PT and then decided I just didn’t need to take anymore because I realized I wasn’t really having pain, just discomfort, and Advil was enough. By 7 p.m. that heebie jeebie feeling was in full force. I didn’t sleep one bit that night, and Tuesday I realized I was in full, 100% withdrawal. It is HELL. I honestly thought I was going to die.”
Harrington said she contacted her doctor, who agreed she was in “full blown withdrawal.” She opted to suffer through the next several days with her skin crawling and other symptoms.
“Boy, I tell you, I could see how easy it is to get hooked on these things for the long haul. It’s really just like you see on TV, where people are twitching and clawing at themselves. I couldn’t sleep. I was moaning. Poor (husband) Garth. There wasn’t anything I could do but stay awake,” Harrington said. “I really wasn’t sure how I was going to get through it.”
Nearly as shocking as her withdrawal symptoms, Harrington said, was the community response to her story. Her online post yielded nearly 200 comments and half as many private messages from local people who had faced the same issues, lost family or friends to addiction or who otherwise found themselves without resources.
Harrington said she talked with her doctor about “coming up with a plan” so that patients know how to wean themselves. She said the overall attitude about pill usage leaves some patients feeling uncomfortable discussing their issues. Colleagues who shared their own stories, in fact, applauded her willingness to speak publicly.
Prior to her withdrawal symptoms, Harrington recalled being “treated like a pill seeker” when she contacted her doctor’s office for a refill.
“If you call to tell them you need more of this medication they told you to take, they treat you like you’re a pill seeker — like a drug addict. They basically don’t say, ‘Here, this is how you get off of them,’ but they get you started and then treat you like you’re an addict,” she said.
“I believe with every prescription of narcotics, providers need to talk about what the plan should be to ease off completely without the nightmare of withdrawal.”
Harrington said she hopes her story will help others and encourage a change in the way things are done.
“This has been an eye opener for me. I am a very strong woman and was reduced to crying, almost screaming in agony. I’ve heard that once you’re on pain pills and can’t get anymore, people go to cocaine and meth,” she said.
“My heart just breaks for people who did not have the strength or the ability to ask for help like I did. I was able to have a support system and to be able to call my doctor and say, ‘I think I’m in real trouble here.’”
Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org.