10 Years After My War on Drugs

This April, I published a long-form essay on Odyssey in three parts describing “My War on Drugs.” Today marks ten years from the inciting incident as described in this essay. For the first time, please take the opportunity to read this long-form essay about my recovery from prescription opioid dependence in one piece.

My War on Drugs

My toes dug into the well-padded forest green carpet that extended the length of the bathroom as I reached with shaking hands towards the towel rack to pull my purple bath sheet down to cover my nakedness.

My legs spasmed out. I pulled them tight into myself in a fetal position trying without success to control the jerking.

The next spasm nearly kneed me in my naked chest. My undergarments had been discarded at the base of the toilet when my stomach began to spasm uncontrollably.

I was one colossal spasm. I cried.

I prayed for it to stop.  

Pain previously unimaginable seemed to take over my body. Struggling to contain my shivering, I closed my eyes and prayed once again that the pain in my lower abdomen would stop. Once the spasms slowed, I crawled the short distance from the master bathroom of the single-wide trailer into my bed where I continued to shiver and shake.

It was August 2009. I was experiencing the results of physical dependence on an opioid medication that had become unavailable to me after my physician discharged me without notice. I was experiencing what I had feared for more than seven years: I was in withdrawal.

Seven years before, in late autumn 2002, I visited my family doctor for continuing pelvic pain six months after my third bladder surgery. My urologist had discharged me with a mysterious malady by the name of “interstitial cystitis” as a diagnosis but no one seemed to know exactly what that was.

My family doctor had been prescribing a large number of generic Vicodin every month in an attempt to control my continuing pelvic pain. They didn’t help my IBS. My irritable bowel didn’t make my bladder happy either. The sleep that the combination of opioids, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication brought was fitful and I was waking several times a night not only to use the bathroom (another symptom of the interstitial cystitis) but also to take pain medication.

After months of very little sleep, I went to see my doctor. She suggested a pain medication I wouldn’t have to consciously take continually. My family doctor assured me of minimal side-effects. I had no idea then my body was beginning a seven-year dependence on the most powerful opioid prescribed. That medication was Duragesic, a brand name of fentanyl.

I wanted relief from pain, but even with the patch I changed every three days it was necessary to take Vicodin as a “breakthrough pain” medication. Breakthrough pain means that extreme discomfort that is felt even when using a medication for a chronic or somewhat ‘stable’ level of pain. When Vicodin damaged my inner ears, I was changed to Percocet.

With each increase in dosage, I became more frustrated and more irritable.  My mood changes necessitated the addition of antidepressants. Then anti-anxiety medications and additional antidepressants were prescribed to assist with sleep. In 2008, when my daughter graduated from high school, I was taking 19 different prescribed pills and one patch every day. Most of the pills were for the side-effects of the patches or other pills.

Most of my life I had wanted to be a doctor. When I was a child, I wanted to be a James Herriott. When I became a mom at 17, then again at 19, I settled on the one medical job I could train for without a waiting list at my local community college: Medical Assistant. Medical research became a hobby when chronic illnesses had hit my oldest son and husband. I respected the medical field, I was comfortable there. I had worked in both of the local hospitals and for a local doctor before life circumstances necessitated me retraining in the computer programming field.  

I worked for the State of Washington as a programmer for seven years before the pain in my lower abdomen became the focus of my existence. My life had been reduced to living in my bed and in the bathroom. I stared at a television playing reruns of shows I used to enjoy, now checked out by the season from the library. A sad nostalgia I shared with the shows. I prayed daily for it to end. Then a friend asked me if I had ever tried ‘pot’ for my pain.

I responded I didn’t believe in medical marijuana. “They’re just using it as an excuse to get high. Not that I don’t think cancer patients should get high as much as they want.” I joked, not having a clue how misinformed I was.

My friend frankly pointed out I had already lost what I had previously thought of as a life. I had become disabled from the brain changes the fentanyl caused. I was angry all the time. I yelled at my teenagers and husband in my frustration as my teenage son took over dinner preparation. I lived in bed. I had no more life left.

In the summer of 2007, I sat on the table in the exam room in my urologist’s office. The paper was crinkling under the gown that covered my butt as I looked in a daze across a small blue clinic room at my urologist. I listened as she informed me I wasn’t a good candidate for a pain management program. Then she went on to say she didn’t feel I would ever be able to manage my pain without morphine-level pain relievers. Since I was allergic to morphine, the fentanyl patches were her preference over the long-acting oxycontin pills also available.

Her words took a few months to sink in. At my next visit with her, I requested a copy of my records be sent to a clinic that specialized in medical cannabis. I was nervous and averted my eyes to the powder blue wall when I asked.

When she answered I looked back at her in shock, “I don’t think it would do any harm.” My urologist did not feel the side-effects of cannabis would be any worse than those of the medications I was already using.

In 2008, after my last bird flew the nest and she was safely situated in a dorm room at her university, I became a legal medical marijuana patient. I had found that a few puffs off of a pipe filled with the pungent herb called cannabis was more helpful for more than just the nausea that caused me to try it. It helped my pain level more than any of the pills I had been given. I was not alone.

In the second edition of his book, Cannabis Pharmacy: The Practical Guide to Medical Marijuana, Michael Backes explains, “Cannabinoids can relieve pain through a variety of mechanisms, including producing analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects, through the modulation of neurotransmitter release, and by stimulating the release of the body’s own natural opioids.” Using cannabis, my body was helping to relieve the pain itself.

For the first years I used cannabis, I smoked it. I was shocked at the amount of pain relief I felt as well as the feeling of well-being. There were times when I did feel the euphoria everyone seems so scared of, but it wasn’t like the angry, mean, high I had from the narcotics when I started them. Just like the opiates, as my body became accustomed to the cannabis, the euphoria left. What stayed was decreased inflammation and increased analgesic properties as well as a change in my moods for the better.

One year after I became a medical cannabis patient, in August of 2009, my pain was manageable with the prescribed medications and the herbal addition. As Backes describes in Cannabis Pharmacy, “THC was found to both displace opioids from the receptor to which they bind, while also allowing for reductions in the dose of opioids necessary to treat high levels of pain.”  This could have contributed to my pain being able to stay under control while maintaining the same dose of the fentanyl and Percocet from 2007-2009.

A few days before the withdrawals began, I had driven to my Urologist’s office in Tacoma. It was the same route I’d driven between Olympia and Tacoma every month for the previous six years. Every trip reminding me of the legalities of these strong pain medications: They couldn’t be called in or mailed. I had to pick them up each and every month. The ironic part was I probably shouldn’t have been driving on fentanyl.

I pulled the Town Car into the tiny parking lot next to St. Joseph’s hospital nose first, knowing even to back it out when I was leaving would be delicate, but I was tired and wanted to get back home. The heat of late August seemed to sap the energy right out of me, and I slowly shuffled to the elevator and pushed the circular button indicating “2.”

As I opened the door, the fountain on the wall made me laugh. How would any office decorator believe it was a good thing to have the sound of running water in an office where people who can’t control their urinating? In what world does that make sense? It seemed cruel. I dismissed my mental rantings and proceeded ahead to the desk.

“Hi, I’m here to pick up my prescriptions.”

The young blonde receptionist who I was used to greeting me with polite smiles and friendly words looked towards me in disbelief. She turned from her seat at the front portion of the wrap-around desk, leaned into me and spoke in quiet words, “You didn’t get the letter?”

I replied in confusion, “What letter?”

“I’ll print a copy for you. You’ve been discharged. You are no longer a patient here.”

The words rang in my head. My hands began to shake. How does something like this happen?! What would I do now?

My family doctor had changed practices and was no longer accepting patients with Medicare. The clinic where she worked wouldn’t take me back as a patient because I was a chronic pain patient. I had no primary care doctor and now my specialist who had been prescribing my medications for over five years had discharged me. I was on the last day of my final three-day patch. I was a chronic pain patient without a doctor.

Since 2002, for seven years, I had been using the opioid patch to keep my pain at bay, but I had occasionally experienced bad patches. One out of every twenty to thirty of the patches would malfunction causing me to experience the symptoms of withdrawals. The idea of going through them “cold turkey” filled me with fear. I started shaking, and I felt my face and ears turn red as tears welled up in my eyes and my chin quivered.

Experience taught me not to take it out on the front office staff, so as I started to get upset, I walked out the door. They could mail the letter. My own experience working in the medical profession had taught me it was not their fault, whatever had happened.

The next weeks were filled with cramping and spasming. In 2009 there were no dispensaries in Washington. I had no idea how to obtain the herbal medication that could eliminate the pain and the withdrawal symptoms that had me alternating living on the toilet and in a fetal position for days and nights seemingly without end. Eventually, I was able to make a connection and with the first shaky inhale, the spasms began to calm. My anxiety about the withdrawals eventually settled. After a few months I was happy to be free of the opioid crutch that had been my nemesis for almost a decade.

Early in 2010 I learned to infuse butter with cannabis. When I ate the herbal medication, I found much longer-lasting relief from my pain as well as the spasms that remained in my legs and lower abdomen. In his book, Backes mentions, “Swallowing cannabis preparations containing THC increases the length of time they are effective for analgesia and for sleep, and increase their perceived potency” 247. I also noticed the nightmares from my PTSD had ceased. This was a relief from a different type of pain. A different type of side-effect as well. Instead of taking 19 pills for the side-effects of a patch, a year later I was experiencing relief of multiple symptoms and disorders while using cannabis to treat my pain.

In the intervening years, I’ve been shocked at every mention of Fentanyl in the news. The deaths of Prince and Tom Petty broke my heart as a music lover. As a person who lost seven years of her life to fentanyl, I know their murder weapon intimately. As a cannabis advocate, I wished Tom had “Rolled Another Joint” instead.

I Have Her Name

Margaret Ellen Savage was born in a little town called Entwistle, outside of Edmonton, in Alberta Canada on May 11, 1919, one hundred years ago Saturday. She was my maternal grandmother, my mom’s mom. Although both of my grandmothers names are “Margaret,” my mom named me after her mother, giving me both her first and middle names.

Adult woman with white hair and a bandage over her eye standing next to a young girl in front of a beach
Grandma and me after she had a cataract surgery, standing in her front yard in Union on Hood Canal

My grandma, who I simply called, “Grandma,” but whom everyone else called by her middle name, “Ellen,” was my confidant when I was a growing girl. It was with her that I saw my first music video on a late-night television show after Grandpa went to bed. I told her my secrets, she listened to my hopes and my dreams and fears.

When I was a young parent, still living with my mother and my infant and toddler sons, my grandparents moved into Olympia from Union, a tiny community on Hood Canal where they had lived throughout my entire life. I missed the front yard ready to swim in every summer, but I enjoyed having my grandparents closer. When they moved into a house only a block away, I thought we had forever.

Life moved on and I would announce my upcoming marriage to my grandparents while helping them move on Easter into another house a few doors down from my mother. I had moved my boys into an apartment with my fiance, no longer walking distance from my grandma.

Playing games one Christmas

I was her first grandchild, it was a special feeling. As a grandma now, I understand a bit differently. Each grandchild has a special and different relationship with their grandparent. I remember Grandma as my best friend. I had her to myself for three and a half years before my cousin and then a few weeks later, my brother, were born. I was no longer her only grandchild.

She never stopped making me feel special. She still hasn’t. When my mother and I visited my grandma’s birthplace in Alberta, Canada, in August last year, I felt closer to Grandma than I have in years.

Grandma passed away when my daughter was only three. It was April 1993. Her last words to my grandfather were indicating the pain that overwhelmed her body with the lung cancer that took her quickly after a Thanksgiving diagnosis the previous year.

This wasn’t the first instance of that particular disease in her family, her brother who had inhaled years of second-hand smoke while serving in government, Charles Savage, had passed several years earlier also from lung cancer.

I’m thankful Grandma’s passing was fairly quick after her diagnosis, but it didn’t minimize the affect her loss had on the family that she had acted as a strong matriarch of. We missed her. We still do.

Margaret “Ellen” Savage Rebman
May 11, 1919 – April 23, 1993

I felt her spirit join with myself and my mom many times in our journey last year to Alberta. I feel her near right now. I know that Grandma watches me and I hope that she is okay with me sharing this. She never called a lot of attention to herself, but I always felt she should. She was an amazing woman.

Happy 100th Birthday, Grandma. Love, your namesake.

She Read Me

I am not at a loss for family members. My mom is still around, I gave birth to three children (and they have produced four grandchildren) who are still on this earth, I have a brother who I spend time with anytime we are both available, and I have cousins galore. One of these cousins passed away last month and I attended her celebration of life last weekend.

Our Facebook Friendship

Christena “Tena” Lynn Simpson nee Savage, was my second cousin on my mother’s side. We were connected on Facebook from 2010. I loved the fact that she carried our great-grandmother’s name and the same way she spelled the shortened version. It was a unique part of our Savage family.

I’m not certain we ever met in person. Tena would have remembered if we did. If we had, I would have been very young, I do wish we would have spent more time in person while she was here.

You see, as her husband confirmed for me at her celebration–she read me. Of all of my family members, my second cousin read the words I posted: Screaming or celebrating–And I post a lot...and she kept him up on my travels and tribulations.

When her “big guy” shared that little fact with me, I teared up. I had interacted with my cousins and my mom at the celebration, hoping to hear more stories of Tena’s life, but I felt distant. I hadn’t spent time with her in person.

Talking about being equally yoked to her “big guy” for 35 years…

But we had spent time together. I realized that fact shortly after her death when I didn’t want to post any of my writing. I had recently started to write for an online site called Odyssey and I am relatively excited about all of the stories I have written…so why wasn’t I more eager to share them with my friends?

Then it hit me: I didn’t want to post because there would be no “like” from cousin Tena.

In previous years, I could count on her “like” on my Facebook shares of my blogs, as one of the first. Almost no matter what I wrote. In the past six months, as she became more ill, her likes came at odder hours and with more time between them. But they came.

As a writer constantly in search of her audience, her likes were always appreciated. As the daughter of a family full of drama and strife, the fact I could count on my second cousin to read the words I bled out of my fingers meant more than I understood until she lost the ability to push that like button.

Yes, Tena, I had you set on “see first”

I miss you, Tena. I love you. The interaction that we had from day to day, the support you gave to this writer who simply wants people to read her words, was invaluable and sorely missed. I am glad you are no longer in pain. I regret not spending more time with you here. I hope to do better with our family that remains.

Peace be with you.

A bookmark made as a remembrance by her niece representing Tena’s love of reading

Every St. Patrick’s Day I Wonder Where in Ireland My Family is From

When my daughter and her husband bought me a DNA test for my birthday a few years ago, I was thrilled to confirm that I was almost as Irish as an old boyfriend had though (he said I looked a lot like one of his relatives, still in Ireland). That made me happy.

My first estimate from my Ancestry DNA test

The combination of my (once) dark hair and blue eyes with red-headed glow-in-the-dark skin, are some of my most striking features. It was easy to fall into the “goth” fashion during my teenage years and young adulthood. I have loved my “Irishness”ever since I first learned of my heritage, but I had no idea where in Ireland my family originated.

One of my paternal great-grandfather’s names is “Foley,” which seems like a simple link to my Irish blood, right? Not so much. I have been unable to find any records of the original Mr. Foley who immigrated to the United States. Family rumor says that I have him and his (wife?) to thank for my native blood. Mr. Foley reportedly married a woman of Aboriginal American descent, who belonged to the Cheyenne Nation.

My furthest ancestor on the Foley line who I am able to identify is Pleasant Foley, my second-great-grandfather on my father’s mother’s father’s side. If his father came from Ireland as rumored, he would be one of three of my third great-grandparents to come from the emerald isle.

Sarah Thornhill, my daughter of Henry and Rebecca

Sarah Thornhill, my third great-grandmother, also on my father’s side, but this time on his father’s side, was born in Ireland in 1828. Many sources confirm that fact. I have been yet unable to find where in Ireland she was born, but her parents left Ireland after some of their children were born and settled in England. Her father, Henry Thornhill, was born in County Fermanagh in Ireland, but is laid to rest in Manchester, England (not too far from where a Facebook friend of mine lives!)

Although I’ve been unable to find a surname for Sarah Thornhill’s mother, “Rebecca Thornhill” was born in 1808 in Londonderry, Ireland. Again, she is laid to rest in their adopted Manchester.

Margaret Thornhill Walsh (my great-grandmother) and her sister.

Sarah Thornhill immigrated to Canada. Her death record indicates that she died at age 50, on 15 April 1878, six years after her husband, John Walsh passed away. I found her cause of death oddly familiar: “Constipation of the bowels.” Many things seem to have been inherited from my Irish ancestors…

John Walsh, Sarah’s husband, was born in Birr, County Offaly, Ireland in 1812. His father was possibly Tom Walsh (with names like “John” and “Tom” without personal accounts, it is difficult to discern if it is actually my ancestor), and John’s mother was most likely Ellin Muleahy, both who lived all of their lives in Ireland.

John and Sarah (Thornhill) Walsh made their home in York in Ontario Canada and both passed away in their 50s. Even though their deaths were over a century ago, as a 52-year-old woman, it causes me to reflect.

The other side of my father’s father’s Irish line are the Cullens. Yes, I was more than mildly amused when this ancestral surname was co-opted by Twilight’s writer as the vampire clan’s chosen surname.

Thomas Cullen, born between 1802-1805 in Strokestown, County Roscommon, Ireland was possibly the son of Patrick Cullen (1783-1865) and Bridgide Hill or McGinn. Again, some of the details have been difficult to nail down. But what seems clear is that County Roscommon can be added to the counties from which I descend. Thomas is my fourth great-grandfather.

My fourth great-grandmother, Thomas’s wife, was Jane Bentley (1805-1881) from County Longford. Her parents were Christopher Bentley and Frances Cox.


Jane Bentley (1805-1881), my fourth Great-Grandmother

My mother’s line has been a part of the building up of the United States of America since the early 1600s, so attempting to find her Irish lines was a bit more difficult. However, I was able to find a few who were born in Ireland in the 1700s.

Here is an interesting fact: My father’s Irish lines emigrated to the American Continent in the 1800s, and my Irish lines on Ancestry seem (30%) stable, but those parts that have changed (both my estimate and my mother’s Ancestry DNA estimate changed after our tests), seem to be from the Irish lines that emigrated in the 1700s. Ancestry is now calling those lines “English,” but they are not.

Isaac Highley was (most likely) born to Thomas Highley and Margaret in Ireland in 1772. He is my 5th great-grandfather on my mother’s mother’s side. The Highleys married into the Parrs married into the Savage line on my mother’s line.

When Sara Christena Parr (my great-grandmother) married William Duncan Savage, she added more Irish into my mother’s line. William Duncan’s great-grandfather, William, my fourth great-grandfather, was born in Ireland in 1797.

William Savage and his wife Harriet Eisnaugle, married and raised their family with much of my Irish ancestors in the Ohio valley before the family moved to Wisconsin.

Ancestry.com updated both mine and my mom’s DNA and our Irish turned English!

Although my mother’s Irish line has now been replaced by a generic term on Ancestry.com, this is one day that I would like to pick out those particular ancestors of hers that were born in Ireland and chose America to start over. William Savage and Isaac Highley chose a different life for their families and for generations to come.

As someone who has known that her heritage included Irish from the time she could look in a mirror, it is WONDERFUL to have County names to associate my heritage with. I now understand that I not only come from Ireland, but I come from County Roscommon, County Longford, County Fermanagh, County Londonderry and Birr in County Offaly.

Somehow, knowing all of this means a little more on this St. Patrick’s Day.

The Reason for The Season

On my other page Slightely Mormon, I am sharing 25 days of service in scripture form. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has once again put out a program full of wonderful videos and ideas about how to serve our fellow humans on this planet.preview

Some of the ideas that have been shared already are intriguing. Mormon.org put out a video showing a special vending machine that the church had built to allow people to donate everything from chickens to towels to people in all areas of the world. All around the social media outlets, the #LightTheWorld hashtag is taking over the netwaves.

I am happy to be a part of this effort. I have never written blogs for every day of a 25 day stretch and writing extensively is not likely, but I am pleased to share the images I am creating with photos I have taken.

As the days progress, I am eager to observe the varied projects that people come up with to serve others. I think this is going to be a particularly enLightening December!