Sunday, May 15, 2016

I Was Dreaming When I Wrote This: Life on Painkillers

When I woke up this morning, my bedroom was filled with starlight. Phosphenes, like slow-motion fireworks, slid across my field of vision. The ice pack I’d slipped inside my pillowcase the night before had warmed to a useless room temperature. I rubbed my jaw, my temples, the bridge of my nose. I hefted my body from the mattress, closed my eyes, and felt my way to the medicine cabinet.

With a gentle shake of the bottle, I can tell muscle relaxers from triptans. Valium rustles. Lorzone thunks. Imitrex rattles. Vicodin — 90 pills to a bottle, pills shaped like small, yellow canoes — sounds like heavy rain. I open the Vicodin. I scramble into the boat just as pain sluices down my skull.

The migraines began when I was 7 years old but became chronic when I was in my mid-twenties. A little more than a year ago, any therapies that had been somewhat successful at dampening the daily pain stopped working. Acupuncture, a rigid sleep schedule, and trigger avoidance suddenly came to naught. Similarly, CAT scans, MRIs, and hormone tests yielded nothing. “You have a vitamin D deficiency. We know that much,” my doctor offered, after yet another blood draw. So I take vitamin D. And vitamin B-12 and probiotics and NSAIDs and muscle relaxers and triptans and steroids and barbiturates and opioids.

Pain carves you out. At one time, my life was a series of typical ups and downs, the rolling hills of family drama or social pursuits. Then pain came in torrents, forming a valley, then a canyon between my child, my marriage, my career, and me. I can cling to the austere cliffside of pain with nothing but the cold caress of self-purity to comfort me. But most days, I take the drugs. I get in the damned boat and let it float downriver, where I meet my life on the distant shore.

They say Prince was in constant pain: in need of knee surgery and a double hip replacement from years of gymnastic stage routines. There is speculation that he eschewed some surgical interventions because, as a Jehovah's Witness, he couldn’t accept a blood transfusion. So he leaned on a scepter, and we were none the wiser. If anyone is entitled to lean on a jewel-encrusted staff, it would be a man baptized “Prince,” the same man who walked through the world in nothing but high-slung panties or as a lewd Mr. Darcy or, toward the end, as a black power bodhisattva, in third-eye sunglasses and a perfectly coiffed halo of hair.

As a run-of-the-mill suburban mom, I don’t have the liberty of a scepter. Wearing a low-cut blouse or blue nail polish feels like a small act of transgression. I carry a sampling of pills in a tiny breath mint tin. During work or time out with friends, I can slip a pill onto my tongue and gulp it down without drawing anyone’s attention. Often, physical and mental illness are conflated with moral malignancy. “What have you done to get yourself in this situation? Did you eat poorly? Did you think negative thoughts? Have you really tried to get better?” Pain makes you ashamed.

This is America, land of “dust yourself off,” “pick yourself up,” and “lean in.” But what, exactly, are we allowed to lean into? Painkillers, particularly narcotic painkillers, are seen as a cop out. The most effective treatment for curbing my pain is branded by grave-faced news anchors and anonymous Internet commenters as just another weakness. I am, apparently, part of an epidemic. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” they say, just not by those bootstraps.

My youngest sister broke the news by text message: “Just saw that Prince died. So sad.” My son was next to me on the couch, watching a cartoon, while I lay curled in the fetal position, an ice pack draped across my forehead. Through the distant thud of blood in my temples and a light fog of Vicodin, I sat up, staring at my phone. Five-minutes worth of Google searches later, I burst into tears. The only thing I could type in reply to my sister’s message was, “No!” As though she had asked me a question. As though my response could undo what was already done.

When I was about 8 years old, Prince officially became my unicorn, both my Disney princess and my Prince Charming. He was fantasy incarnate. While I dutifully donned my Catholic school uniform or, later, a business casual button down and practical flats, he crooned to me through my Walkman, he riffed on my iPod, preaching the salvation of audacity.

But I’ve never had what it takes to be 10 feet of human in a 5-foot-2-inch frame. In lieu of strutting around in an assless, yellow jumpsuit, I hummed “Controversy” in my car or while folding laundry. “Was I what you wanted me to be?” Prince asks in the song, though it is less a question than a dig, an affront to expectations. Enjoying his music, cheering his one-man battle against convention, was the only thing I had in common with my long-time idol, or so I thought. He, music royalty. Me, the adoring hoi polloi.

But pain is the great equalizer. It wrecks your concentration, suppresses your appetites, leaves you exhausted anxious, and terrified. He sold out stadiums. I hunched over a keyboard in a cubicle. Yet it turns out that both of us were putting on the same show: Business as Usual. Apparently, he found it less daunting to write and perform a song called “Head” than to publicly cop to his physical limitations. Apparently, even Prince had a taboo.

Just as he continued to tour and perform until a week before his death, leaning on both his scepter, and as we would later find out, a lethal dose of opioids, I continue to parent, to work, to run a neighborhood play group, to show up, sometimes glassy-eyed, for social events. My family depends on my ability to function. Prince employed a small army to manage his tours and various business concerns; they, too, depended on his ability to function. We both chose to function. We both quietly chose the drugs.

I am not a addict. I have never taken a single pill that wasn’t in service to alleviating pain. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve taken more than the prescribed dose of a medication, each of those times in an attempt to avoid an expensive, humiliating trip to the E.R., where medical staff never fail to squint their eyes and ask, “So I’m guessing you want morphine?” But I understand why prescription painkillers have become the addiction du jour in America, the reason why, according to the CDC, 6 in 10 overdose deaths are the result of opioid use: The pills make us feel better. For one shining hour after I take a Vicodin, I don’t feel just relief, but actual well-being. And when you are in pain every day, but expected to tough it out, to behave as an able-bodied person would, you look forward to, jones for, that fleeting experience of normalcy. I climb in that little yellow canoe, and I am buoyed.

The judge and jury of the World Wide Web labeled him a “druggie” and a “junkie,” another coddled, Godless celeb. Kinder souls reacted to Prince’s overdose by calling it “a senseless death.” And, in fact, it was senseless, because what catches one in the riptide of addiction is the desperate need to sense less, to not feel. Opioids carry us away from pain. More than that, painkillers allow our friends and family (or fans) to sense less, too. It’s uncomfortable to watch a loved one slog through unrelenting pain. It makes others feel angry and frightened, mortal. Opioids not only relieve my pain, they relieve my family’s pain. “Look at me,” I can say, “a bit wide-eyed, a bit sweaty, but doing the dishes, paying the bills. Situation normal. Just a contributing member of society, living the American dream.”

My tomorrow morning will likely be the same as this morning: the rattle of pill bottles, the trip to the far shore. And by the afternoon, I’ll be trotting after my son as he erratically peddles his tricycle down our street. Pain tells you “no.” I’m just thankful I have access to medication that tells me, “If you must, then, yes.” And I must.


  1. You are so masterful. This piece fully represents your extraordinary gifts as a writer and thinker. Thank you for letting us be audience to tour excellence. AND: I am so sorry for your pain.

  2. I have chills. I wish more people would stand up and speak out like you have done. There is nothing to be ashamed of. You do what you need to do to get through the day. We are just grateful to have you here and to be able to soak up your words when you can and do share them.

  3. Your words are magic. I want to take your pain away and give you a gigantic hug. I understand.

  4. Your words are magic. I want to take your pain away and give you a gigantic hug. I understand.

  5. Thank you. Your words are specific to migraines yet broad enough to connect with other chronic pain. You've captured so much, and balanced eloquence with clarity.

  6. This piece is so perfectly crafted, so incredibly honest. Thank you for having the strength to be so vulnerable to put a face--and normalcy--to what has so often been shunned and damned. Like with mental illness, we need more honest and revealing conversations ... And this is excellent.

  7. My brother has suffered from migraines since he was about 7 years old and sometimes he has a few days off work because of them. I also get migraines but not as bad as the ones my brother gets thank goodness. I feel for all those who suffer from migraines

  8. Well done, Jessica--what a masterful piece. Right now I'm on a triptan thinking of you!

  9. Thank you and brava for this powerful piece.

  10. Thank you and brava for this powerful piece.

  11. I never had migraines as a kid. I never even took meds when I broke bones or sprained thinngs as an active athlete. Then in my 20's I got side swiped 3 times in 9 months. After this I could not get rid of the migraines. Like you some things worked for a while or would allow me to function for a week at a time, but now in my thirties they do not seem to work at all. I still feel the stigma of the pain med police like you and have been required to push through. I can't even get the doctors to proscribe anything stronger than Tylenol or Ibuprofen. The doctors treat me like I'm making it up. So I found your blog today and I appreciate the way you communicated how I feel. I can't even get the drugs that might help the pain (because I could be drug seeking), but I still have to function and then people wonder why you aren't at full throttle when you have had a migraine for 2 weeks and thinking now hurts. SO thank you for being willing to talk about this. We all need to speak so the system can start to change.