Roberta Messner had been using prescription opioids to manage her pain for years. Here's what she learned from opioid withdrawal.
- Posted on Aug 7, 2018
This past spring, the medication I’d been prescribed for 28 years for severe chronic nerve pain was discontinued by my physician. It was Oxycontin, an opioid. My new doctor at the pain clinic told me there was another medication that specifically targeted this difficult-to-treat kind of misery and recommended that I try it.
Two days into the transition, I found myself in flagrant opioid withdrawal.
What I experienced was precisely what addicts go through when they enter withdrawal. There’s a name for it: dope sick. It’s the worst kind of misery I’ve ever been through. And the scariest.
When I described my plight to people afterwards, I was met with stunned expressions and responses. But ultimately they cared deeply. Here’s what I wish others had known about opioid dependency and withdrawal:
1) Over time, any patient prescribed opioid pain medication will develop a tolerance to the drug and dependence on it
This is not the same as addiction. It simply means their body has gotten used to the medication and cries for more when it is taken away. And when that medication is abruptly discontinued or a weaker medication is prescribed in its place (as in my case), symptoms of withdrawal develop. The accompanying body aches are ten times worse than having the flu. You also experience nausea and vomiting, explosive diarrhea, and agitation that is so extreme, it makes the term “climbing the walls” seem minor.
2) Offer to help in non-judgmental ways
The person in opioid withdrawal likely feels embarrassed and/or ashamed, even if the medication was prescribed by their doctor for a medical reason. In my case, I had experienced never-ending head and facial pain since the age of 13. Trials of other lesser forms of pain medication had caused serious complications and couldn’t be continued. Oxycontin, a final resort, allowed me to function in daily living as well as a responsible career. Still, when it was stopped and I went into withdrawal, I was too fearful of what others would think and too weak to reach out myself. I was also concerned I would disappoint the people I loved. So I needlessly suffered in silence until a few friends and family members made the first move. They asked specifically how they could help rather than “Call if you need anything,” and didn’t pressure me to explain. I’ll always be grateful for their bold and compassionate form of caring.
3) If you plan to provide food, ask what the person feels like eating
Opioid withdrawal isn’t a pretty sight to say the least. Because of the gastrointestinal symptoms, the person may not be able to enjoy typical comfort foods, no matter how well-intended. In fact, they may not be able to eat at all. The first four days, all I could take in were scrambled eggs, raisin toast, and coffee. I became weak. Later into my withdrawal when a friend offered homemade potato soup, both the gesture and the nourishment were most welcome.
4) Offer the gift of hospitality
This may be in the form of your car to run an errand or to deliver something (hospitality on the go) or in the case of my dear friend Sue, your home. As an extravagant gift of hospitality, I stayed for ten precious days at her bed-and-breakfast-worthy home. Sue’s accepting attitude and generosity helped me to be at peace and joy in every space, even at my sickest. Sue’s husband Bryan, who has his own health concerns, told me every day he was glad I had come to their home to get better. He even offered to give me his beloved recliner. And her kids and their spouses dropped by every evening to check on me. This kept me connected to the outside world and coaxed me back into the land of the living. In addition, their entertaining stories calmed me and made me laugh, which was healing in itself. Another friend, knowing of my love of writing, dropped off a pretty journal and pen. Scrawling on its pages helped me feel more in control, and when I read my entries later on, I saw God’s helping hands via earth angels at every turn.
5) Pray! Pray! Pray!
This is the best gift of all to offer someone in withdrawal. I was so ill initially, I could barely speak the name of Jesus, let alone pray for myself. Then one day, I began to feel inexplicably stronger, courageous, and had an assurance in my spirit that things were turning around for the better. During this time, I hadn’t read emails or retrieved voice mail messages or snail mail from my rural mailbox. Nor had I reached out to anyone besides my small inner circle. After I finally returned home, I checked out all my messages. I was stunned to learn that precisely when I began to feel better, friends all over the country had sensed I was in trouble and had been fervently praying for me. The specificity and creativity of their missives to heaven were absolutely amazing. They were for my deepest withdrawal needs, some of them never verbalized to anyone. The power of prayer literally saved me, and led to a miraculous healing that continues today.