Since his death, there have been countless articles speculating why a man as rich and famous as Prince would “allow” himself to become addicted to painkillers. But no one plans on becoming an addict. I know this because I, an educated stay-at-home mom, am an addict.
Like Prince and the millions of Americans who take prescription painkillers every year, I began taking them for their intended purpose: I was in pain.
When I became pregnant at 31, I knew my body would change irrevocably. I thought my red curls might go straight or my green eyes might reject contacts. I thought my feet might grow. I wasn’t prepared for my body chemistry to change. After my first son was born, certain foods tasted strange. I became allergic to alcohol. Muscle relaxants, which had previously helped my intense period cramps, no longer worked. My whole body felt different. Off. Wrong.
I had looked forward to reclaiming my body after pregnancy, but it was no longer the body I knew. In addition to physical changes, my mental state was also rocked by motherhood.
My son didn’t sleep. His piercing screams woke my husband and me every 45 minutes throughout the night; every morning he was awake for the day at 4:30 am. Depression and anxiety crept into my life until they fully consumed me. It felt like nothing was right and nothing would ever change and nothing would ever get better. And the pain, the unbearable pain that lasted for a week out of every month, added to my inability to function. To want to function. I started many days not wanting to open my eyes. I ended many days thinking about ways to end my life.
When my son was 6 months old, he napped in his stroller while I cried in my doctor’s office. “Maybe you could try Percocet,” my doctor offered. I had tried Tramadol, Soma, Flexeril, Skelaxin — none of them worked. None of them made me feel better. I was still in pain. I was still unhappy. I hadn’t started taking anti-depressants yet and wanted something, anything, to fix me so I wouldn’t kill myself.
Percocet dulled my pain. With just one pill, my period was no longer insurmountable; I was able to uncurl from the fetal position and leave my bed. One pill made it possible to pick up my son without wincing at a muscle spasm. Percocet was the magic elixir I was seeking. It did the impossible: It made me feel better.
While tragic, Prince’s death is not unique. His death is the perfect example that yes, it can happen to anyone. My addiction is, as well.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 44 people die in the United States each day from an overdose of prescription painkillers. In fact, drug overdose is now the the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, surpassing car crashes, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
I remember telling a friend that I didn’t understand why people got addicted to painkillers because I didn’t feel high, just better. But I quickly realized that when you are desperate and suicidal, better is preferable to high. You can’t function when you’re high — you can when you feel like an improved version of yourself.
Percocet made me happier. It quelled my anxiety. It made me chattier, able to talk to my friends without breaking down into hysterics. Although I could no longer drink, it was similar to having a glass of wine — its warmth relaxed my body and helped turn off the terrible thoughts that had been taking over my mind. Once I knew it was possible to feel like that, I never wanted it to end.
Almost immediately, I began taking Percocet daily, whether or not I was in pain.
A few months later, I sought treatment for my post-partum depression and started taking Lexipro, an anti-depressant. It helped. My psychiatrist also wrote me a prescription for Ativan, a benzodiazepine (similar to Xanax) for anxiety. That helped, too. I started to feel more human.
Although I was no longer suicidal, I was still depressed and didn’t feel good or even normal. Percocet made me feel as close to good as I could get.
It wasn’t long before I started taking Ativan daily, too. The Percocet made me feel better; the Ativan made me not feel. Although Percocet was my drug of choice, for the majority of five years (excluding my second pregnancy and the months I spent nursing), I took any opioid (Percocet, Vicodin, Tylenol 3) and any benzo (Ativan, Xanax, Valium) that I could get prescribed, beg, borrow or steal.
For more than a year, I had four different doctors prescribing Percocet to me. None of them checked to see if I was getting prescriptions from anyone else. No one warned me about the dangers of addiction; in fact, a few times my doctors apologized for having to write me a physical prescription instead of being able to call it in to my pharmacy. These new laws, my obstetrician complained, they make it harder for regular people like you to get your pills. Regular people like me.
I didn’t take pills to get high. I wasn’t out of control. I didn’t nod off and I wasn’t unable to take care of my children. Because of that, no one suspected me of being an addict. Why would anyone suspect me? I was a normal-looking, put-together, caring mother. Mothers aren’t addicts, are they? More and more often, we are.
I used my privilege to “pass.” My life as a stay-at-home mom was the perfect disguise. There are millions of us addicts disguised as regular people. We’re not all rock stars: We’re your neighbor or your sister. We’re in the pickup line, waiting for our kids. We’re on the PTA.
For years, I’ve known that my experience of motherhood has been defined by depression. But only recently have I realized that it has also been defined by addiction. I used to think that Percocet made me a better mother, that Ativan made mothering bearable. I am learning that I was wrong.
Addiction is exhausting. Every month, every week, I needed to hustle. I needed a plan to get my pills. No matter how big my stockpile was, there was never enough. Every few days I told myself I would quit; I swore every prescription would be my last, but I couldn’t do it. I would start to feel sick if I missed even one pill, let alone tried to stop for an entire day.
I had many “rock bottom” moments, but my last was when I helped my childhood friend clear out her father’s house after his funeral. She cried on the couch while I raided his medicine cabinet. I told her I loved her; I hated myself. It was years in the making, but stealing from a dead man made me finally admit the truth: I was an addict and I needed help.
Although I was afraid of telling my husband, when I did, he was supportive and understanding. Last June, my family cared for my children so I could go to rehab. Since then, I’ve been in group therapy and individual therapy and have gone to 12-step meetings. I see a therapist and new psychiatrist who specializes in addiction recovery. Through this help, I have found a combination of prescriptions that works for me: an anti-depressant, a non-addictive anti-anxiety medication, a mood stabilizer, and Suboxone, an opioid blocker that reduces cravings.
The past year has been extraordinarily difficult. It’s strange how not doing something is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But it’s vital for my family and for myself. I’m learning that while there is no magic fix for feelings, there are also non-medicinal ways to cope with problems and stress. I’m learning that it’s imperative to be open and honest, to take responsibility and let other people, other moms, know they’re not alone. I’ve been there. I know how you feel. It can and will get better.
You don’t have to die from this like Prince did, but you do need help.
My name is Jen. I’m a stay-at-home mom. And I’m an addict.
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