There were 60 pills in the bottle the pharmacist gave me. 60. I know because that’s what it said on the label. At home, with my left arm still in a sling, I popped the bottle open, shook the tablets out on my coffee table, and arranged them into rows of five with my shaking right hand. 60 Oxycodone. I was six years sober and I was about to put a controlled-release prescription opiate into my body. I stared down at the pills. Then, I picked up my phone. I had to talk to my sponsor.
As a long-time member of the 12-Step community, I’ve learned that there are no hard and fast rules for my recovery. My program offers suggestions, and its members share their experience. This combination has allowed me to learn how, to be honest with myself and others, and learn to tell the truth about myself without shame. Going to meetings and having frequent contact with other people in recovery taught me another critical lesson: prescription painkillers, especially the types that I abused when I was in active addiction, can take me straight into a relapse.
However, sometimes taking the pills (or not taking the pills) isn’t really a choice. In meetings, I heard stories about people who navigated root canals and elaborate dental work with nothing but an aspirin. I heard about people who toughed out post-op pain using prayer and ice packs. I knew it could be done. However, when you’re run over by a Ford Fiesta that takes a sudden, hard right turn into you and your bicycle as you ride through an intersection, and the ER doctor says it’s a good thing you’ve been working out so much because otherwise, you’d be dead, and your left elbow explodes inside your arm, and when you try to take your first deep breath and realize that you can’t, because your whole body has been crushed as though a giant hand made of metal and glass grabbed you by the middle and squeezed you as hard as it could—you take the prescription. I wanted to be the person who walked away from a life-threatening accident without any lingering physical problems, but that just wasn’t the case.
“Stop trying to be a hero and take the damn pills,” my sponsor said. “You are not bigger than this.” She was right: I was letting my ego and my fear get in the way. At first, I didn’t want to take painkillers because I was worried that my recovery would somehow be less “pure.” I knew that some people in my community scorned any and all outside help, including therapy and antidepressants. I was afraid that I would be excluded or judged if people found out that I had a prescription for oxycodone.
My other fear was that by taking the medication I was setting myself up for a relapse. I guarded my sobriety so carefully. What if the pills made me feel high? Did that mean I’d lost my recovery? I worried that if I agreed to take them, I was surrendering my sobriety date. The fact that I had several friends who’d taken heavy duty medications, and even undergone surgery with the help of prescription painkillers didn’t matter to me. Their recovery was different. They weren’t heroin addicts.
This scrambled thinking turned me into an emotional mess. Luckily, I had my sponsor to help, as well as several friends who showed up—just because—to lend a hand. All of them offered to keep the pill bottle for me if it became a problem. If I felt the desire to abuse the pills—to snort them instead of swallowing them, to take more than the doctor prescribed, to try and convince the pharmacist to give me a refill when I didn’t need one—I should ask for help, immediately.
I turned the tiny orange bottle over, looking at the black letters on the label. Take with food. Don’t drive. My eyes traced the dosage and the generic name of the drug. Take by mouth as needed. 1 per 4 hours. For once, that seemed like a simple, straightforward instruction. I returned the pills to their container, then carefully took out one, single tablet. I put it in my mouth. Swallowed. Drank some water. The world didn’t end.
What did happen: my pain subsided. I eat a little bit of the chicken soup someone kindly brought to my house. I lay in the bed that one of my friends had made up with clean sheets and breathed, prayed. God, please don’t let the be the end of my sobriety. When I woke up, over four hours later, I didn’t feel the urge to immediately take another pill.
“I think it’s working,” I texted my sponsor.
“It works because you are,” she said.
When the pain subsided, about 10 days later, and the bones in my elbow started to fuse together and two CT scans revealed no permanent damage to my organs and intestines, I got rid of the remaining pills. For me, a heroin addict, letting that more-than-half-full bottle go felt like the ultimate freedom. I was grateful for the help they’d given me—and just as grateful to see them leave my life. My definition of recovery changed. It wasn’t just living a drug-free life. It was living free of the obsession with drugs. Addiction gave me a healthy respect for the power of prescription pills. Recovery gave me the freedom to walk away from them—and move on with my life.