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Life After Tramadol Part 3

Nov 08, 2009 - 9 comments

Nine weeks and one day.  How much time is that?  Not much in the big scheme of things.  But still, to me, it might as well be an eternity.

Sixty-four days.  1,536 hours.  92,160 minutes.  Going on forever.

In comparison with the amount of time I was taking tramadol, it’s not much.  Fred once related his success to failure ratio and this reminds me of it.  I might as well have been born yesterday.

In a way, I sort of was.

Just read an incredibly important book called Necessary Losses (by Judith Viorst).  The book considers the human lifespan and human development in terms of stages, during which we have to “give up” something – sometimes Some Things – in order to get to something else, something we really need.  In order to grow and be well.  And I know this to be true from my own life: we are constantly having to relinquish our attachment to something.  That never ends.  Way before we are ready sometimes.  But we have to if we are to grow, to thrive.  Even when it hurts.

I lost a lot of my life to tramadol, and now seems like a time to reflect on that.  On why.  Not because I want to beat myself up because I definitely do not want that.  No point at all in excessive self-reproach.  Rather, because I do not care to repeat my past mistakes even one more time.  And looking back on my life, I have done that so many times.  I have made huge mistakes, terrible judgments, and I have learned something from it – and still managed to do it again at the next opportunity.  I am smarter than that, but I have done it.  I suspect I am not the only one.  Invincibility fable, perhaps.  Or maybe I tried to do it again believing I could somehow change the outcome, even though I knew I couldn’t.

We get so many chances in life and we blow and awful lot of them, and usually we learn important lessons through those lost chances.  We learn to value the better opportunities that come later, if nothing else.  To be less cavalier and more careful, more aware and thankful and present in our lives.  To not take things for granted.  Part of this lesson, for me, involves understanding – Really Understanding – that nothing is forever.  That everything we cherish in life can be lost, and ultimately, we are bounded on every side by time, finiteness.  And so we should be careful to not lose even a moment that remains in our grasp.

The Tramadol Lessons are still presenting themselves, sort of materializing as the dust and smoke clear away and things settle, and as my own eyes adjust to their new clarity.  I never realized until now how much I failed to see, or notice, during the tramadol years.  I believed, as many of my fellow warriors did, that the drug helped me live better.  That it repaired my brokenness.  But of course, it didn’t.  It obscured my ability to accept my brokenness even as it kept inflicting more damage emotionally and physically.  Breaking me down further, and further still, until I was sure I had been reduced to a heap of wreckage that was simply irreparable.  A total loss.  Fully lost human potential.  The saddest tragedy in the world.

That was then, though. This is now.  Everything has changed.  I have a new Self, and everything is made new again.

Some of my fellow Warriors have talked about how music helps get us through the hardest hard times.  Music has always been my native tongue, my language when words are just miserably insufficient, as they so often are.  I have played guitar and piano since I was old enough to reach the frets or the keys.  Playing songs, writing songs, singing songs and dreaming about songs.  Nothing could ever replace music in my soul, but tramadol made quite a run at it.  For weeks at a time I wouldn’t get my guitar out of the case, forgetting as I did the joys associated with anything but the poisonous fog that I kept running back to each day, each hour.  Every time something hurt, every time I felt sad, every time I felt overwhelmed or scared or happy or needed to jumpstart myself.  I turned away from people, away from myself, and away from God.  I turned to the one thing that was killing me slowly, cell by cell, pill by pill.  I committed slow suicide, guaranteeing my destruction even as I tried with all my might to patch the holes in myself.  I filled my body with poison.  How could I have expected to be anything other than a toxic wasteland?

There is a fine line between feeling healthy guilt for what I have done, for the price of that refusal to love and respect myself, and I need to find that line and stay on the healthy side.  There are definitely moments when I know I have crossed it – moments when I feel far too much anger at myself, when I think about how there’s no way I can ever get those years back and no way I can repair all the damage I did to myself physically.  The pains are poignant reminders of that.  I’ll never forget, even if my legs never hurt again.  Even if I sleep every night for the rest of my life.  The reminders will be there when I look at the people I love and see that they have aged since I last looked, really looked at them.  When I recall four years ago, beginning a new job, a new life, and wonder who it was that rose to those challenges while I was AWOL.  When I realize that I was three courses short of finishing my doctorate before I got too sick to keep going and had to stop and get better.  When someone asks me how old I am now, and I have to think about it before answering.  Where did those years go?  They are my Lost Years.  Necessary Losses.  What we have to give up in order to move forward, to grow, to thrive.

Three CDs are playing right now in my stereo.  David Gray, Lost Songs and Brandi Carlile, The Story and Give Up The Ghost.  I have them set to repeat, and I will listen until morning, or until I fall asleep. The music has healing in it.  

Another installment in the Life After Tramadol Chronicles.  Some losses are definitely necessary losses.  I am humbled by that knowledge.  I am stronger for learning to hold things, look at them, turn them over, feel them and memorize them, and then let them go.  

And I am so incredibly glad to know I am not alone out here.


Life After Tramadol Part 2

Oct 12, 2009 - 2 comments

Day 37.  Still amazed by that.  Just amazed.

Emily’s journal still brings me to tears.  Good tears.  I read a post last night about how, in the beginning, she was here alone.  Nobody to talk to about the insanity of tramadol withdrawal. Could I have done it without the support I found here (as a lurker in the beginning)?  Don’t know. I had the support.  Now I look at all the wonderful people here posting and sharing experiences and struggles and victories, and…wow.  Amazing.  We really are all in this together.  

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Random weirdness continues, but overall the trend is excellent.  I am noticing that I have more good days (days when I don’t have back pain, leg pain, or major depression) and fewer bad days (days when I have significant pain, pain in places I have never had pain before, depression, and severe fatigue).  The RLS is gone.  I have slept six of the last seven nights.  There is no lingering nausea or migraine pain.  I am feeling generally clear and level-headed, two adjectives I longed to use to describe myself for many years but never thought I would.

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I came so close to losing the people who mean the most to me.  So unbelievably, scathingly close.  Why they stayed faithful to me during the tramadol years is something I will never fully understand.  I do not deserve their continued love.  My personality changed because of the poison, and I became someone I would never put up with.  I became self-absorbed and impulsive.  My obsession with the drug outsaturated my heart for those whose lives give mine meaning.  Everything looks so different in the light of morning.  Now I just want to look at those people and pleadingly, tearfully apologize for who I became.  And assure them that wasn’t me.  That I am still the person they believed I was even when I wasn’t.

But they look at me as if they already know.

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I noticed that several people mentioned the verbal “fog” during tramadol wd.  Emily called it “word hunger” (for lack of a better word) – so perfect!  Well, I have it.  I can’t recall a time when I didn’t write prolifically, either in journals or for school.  Can’t do it anymore.  Writing here is it for me.  This is, though, the most important writing/thinking I can do right now, even if it isn’t Pulitzer Prize material.  For everything there is a season.  This is a season of self-reflection.  I have been forced, by this and other (related) aspects of my life, into a sort of sabbatical.  Too analytical, I am.  Yet there is no such thing as thinking too much about what has happened in the last three years.  Take it apart, examine it, understand it, learn from it, take whatever souvenirs I think will make the future better.  That is my goal.

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I spent three years in a tramadol-induced coma wherein I didn’t examine much of anything.  I was dead in a bottle of pills.  And the frightening thing is I didn’t even know it at the time.  As I type this I hope that my mind will eventually return, or reappear, improved in the ways that it needs to be.  I may not be as quick as I once was, but da&n it, I will be better in ways that count.  Quickness is really overrated, anyway.  

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An afternoon with my grandmother.  She is my hero in every way.  I have always had the “artistic temperament”, oscillating between extremes of hot and cold, but her quiet dignity and calm strength inspire me to cultivate a cooler surface.  Still waters run so deep.  Would I give up the highs and lows for a life in the middle?  I gave up everything for a life that was numb and dull.  The answer is obvious to me.  My perceptions have changed, thank goodness.  Nothing I have endured compares to anything she has endured.  And through all of it she grew kinder, deeper in love for others and more appreciative of life.  I am aspiring, considering.  We share genes and we share these very important moments.  She told someone, who told me, that she is proud of who I have become, and part of that is because of how I have handled adversity.  The first thought was, “she doesn’t have ANY idea how terrible I was.  How weak and pathetic I was.”  Then I realized those are tramadol thoughts.  While she may not know the names of my struggles, she knows how I have chosen to respond to them.  And she wouldn’t have said it if she didn’t mean it.

And that is that.

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I spent at least three-fourths of the summer wearing a sweater and a coat.  Now it’s 50 degrees and blustery and cloudy and I dreaded these days so profoundly.  But they are here and the cool air feels so wonderful.  How did that happen?  My body (and, more importantly, my mind) was so completely messed up by tramadol that I could not function no matter what the environment was.  I will never, never forget why I decided NO MORE.  I am DONE.  Even knowing the he{{ that would follow.  How determined am I?  There is a pill bottle behind my medicine cabinet door with 90-something pills in it.  When I open the door I don’t even flinch.  I would rather cut off my own arms with a spoon than take one.  I would flush them but I don’t want to allow that poison back into the environment in any form.  It makes me angry to think the pills are still being manufactured.  They are destroying so many lives.  Breaking people down.  Creating so much misery.

Some days the dark tramadol lies are almost overpowering.  I think about the most terrible, most terrifying things.  The poison preys on fear.  Are you afraid of something?  Tramadol knows it, and at some point, you can expect it to be used viciously to break you down, too.  It is an unscrupulous enemy.  Write yourself a note to remind yourself on those days…it’s just LIES.  The sun is still shining above the clouds.  It’s just a passing storm.

Because that is the absolute truth.

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There is no more magnificent birth to witness than that of hope where there was none.

37 days out is a Very Good Place to Be.


Life After Tramadol Part 1

Oct 04, 2009 - 29 comments

I am writing this at 29 days out with a determination that I am amazed by.  Just typing “29 days out” brings tears to my eyes.  I was at a point not long ago when I thought I would never be free of tramadol.  I thought I would die before I ever saw this day.

The determination I feel about sharing my story is very powerful.  Like so many people reading this, not long ago I was here, reading Emilypost’s journal, searching for glimmers of hope, words of help and a reason to think I could beat this demonic drug, amazed at the havoc it had wreaked my life and others’ lives.  I had exhausted myself trying to live with it, and I knew that my only hope was to get away from it.  I traveled the road from believing this medicine was my lifeline to knowing that it was, quite literally, killing me.

This is where I found my courage.

My story is long and convoluted.  The short version is this: I began taking the poison three years ago for a sprained wrist.  I found out quickly that tramadol “fixed” the depression I had been struggling with since I was a teenager, maybe even before that.  I will preface all of this by saying that I am not a typical addict, just like you are not a typical addict.  That’s because there is no such thing as a typical addict.  If you swallow this pill, you are fair game.  

The antidepressant qualities of tramadol were too much for me.  The first lie: the drug restored me to normal, or made me normal for the first time in my life.  There are a million ways to rationalize dependence.  And so the destruction began.  Before I could turn around, I was dependent on the medication and its deception, unable to get through a day without it.  

I started out at 300mg per day (prescribed dose), an increased my dose to 600mg per day pretty quickly.  I took 50-mg tablets.

This poisonous drug is an insidious captor.  It took me over quickly and easily.  I became, over the course of two years, a person I hardly recognized.  The shiny, beautiful beginning quickly turned into a nightmare of physical and emotional pain and fear.  I now understand that I was in a state of constant withdrawal as my body needed more of the poison than I could supply.  Running out of tramadol was more frightening to me than dying.  In the recesses of my mind I feared life without this drug, but not nearly as badly as I feared life WITH it.

After running out a couple of times, I knew that I couldn’t – COULDN’T – live through that again.  And that was a huge part of what made me so angry.  Nothing is worth that kind of suffering and anguish.  So, 29 days ago, I decided.  No more.

It was my decision to go off the poison cold turkey.  To me, that is a judgment call we all have to make.  I couldn’t taper and didn’t want to.  I was done with the perpetual withdrawal and the fear.  I was angry and scared, but most of all, I was done.

And here I am.  Sharing my experience may be the most important thing I ever do.

You are probably here because you want to be free; if you’re like I was, you are scared to death of what you know is coming after you make the break.  I have experienced withdrawal from hydrocodone and it was, for me, a walk in the park compared to tramadol WD.  Sure, it is going to be difficult, but you CAN make it through it.

If there is something in my experience that can help you, I hope it will.

You are going to need to give yourself extraordinary latitude in coming days and weeks.  Your body and your brain are going to revolt against the drug.  It is poison, and you are going to feel it.  Understand that you are healing.  Also understand that there is no single way to get through it.  It’s all so random.  You may not have the WD symptoms I had, but you may have some I didn’t have.  You will find on this journal many people whose experiences, while different, contain some truths that are uniquely yours.  Take comfort in this.  You are NOT alone no matter how bad it gets.

If you have someone you trust, tell them.  If you choose not to tell anyone, you may want to consider telling people around you that you have the flu.  You will need some time to be sick if that is at all possible.

Give yourself extraordinary latitude, and make yourself do the basic things you must do to survive.  There may be days when you have to force yourself to eat.  Do it…small quantities.  You may have to force yourself to breathe, to drink, to shower and go to the bathroom.  Do it.  You may have to force yourself to read these posts.  Do it.  You’ll find you are not alone.

Be ready to coach your body and your mind through the ravages of tramadol withdrawal.  YOU are in charge now, not the drug.

There is no magic bullet, but here are some things that really helped me:

Food (specifically water and protein).  Your body will revolt and you may lose your appetite or have severe nausea.  Make yourself eat wholesome foods that are reasonably high in protein.  Also, make yourself drink water.  Your body knows how to survive, but its processes are so messed up from the poison that it may seem like you cannot carry on biologically once the supply stops.  Water and protein, and foods like bananas and baked potatoes that are high in potassium, helped me tremendously in retrospect.  There were days when the physical pain and fatigue were so bad I couldn’t lift myself from the sofa, and after I ate, I noticed an improvement, sometimes dramatic.  Things to try: Slim-fast bars or shakes with protein (you will most likely notice a decrease in appetite for a little while), water, Ensure or other nutritional supplements, and honey (a spoonful at a time) to combat the malaise.  Again, there is no magic bullet, but these things helped me considerably.

Hot showers. This may seem too simple to be true, but it worked wonders for my back and leg pain, which were excruciating. Some days I showered three or four times.  The warm water really helped.

Arm/leg wraps.  If the aches in your arms become unbearable, try wrapping them with an ace bandage or other binding.  Light pressure helps relieve the pain (and chills).

Advil liqui-gels.  It didn’t always help, but there were times when it did.  You will need all the help you can get when the body aches come around.  The good news: those aches are now temporary, not perpetual as they were when you were taking the poison.  As of today, you can look forward to a day in the near future when it will STOP!

Exercise.  Before the poison ravaged my life, I was a runner and was pretty fit.  The medicine created so much physical pain that I had to stop.  From day one off the poison I forced myself to walk.  It was tough.  Some days I couldn’t do it.  Some days I still find it very difficult.  I recall during days 7 and 8, trying to walk and being unable to carry myself more than a hundred FEET.  I had to wear a sweater and a jacket in 80-degree heat.  When that happened, I thanked God that I made it a hundred feet, and I tried again the next day.  And the next day.  And now here I am.  Yesterday I walked briskly more than a mile (even jogged a bit) and couldn’t have felt better if I had run a marathon.  I keep telling myself that my physical strength will return, and I will be able to rebuild myself in time.  

First things first.

Hot tea.  Like many of us, you may have persistent insomnia in coming days.  Hot tea and warm baths help.  At least I could lie in bed and feel somewhat relaxed if I wasn’t sleeping.  Eventually the insomnia will abate, and you will sleep better than you have in a long time.  Expect that the insomnia might happen, and that way, if it does, you won’t be so upset by it.  Grab some magazines or movies.  Sleep when you can.  If you are plagued too much, try Benadryl or even Ambien to help you through the initial WD period.  Your brain is healing.  Know that the insomnia is temporary and you will sleep soon!

Anger.  This one always gets mixed reviews. I don’t think indulging anger is a good thing in general.  For me, though, my anger at the drug, at myself for becoming dependent on it, was a major factor in my ability to break free.  It motivated me to push through the horrific pain and depression that came with going off the poison cold turkey.  It was the only way I could do it.  The anger was the momentum that got me through the first week, after which sheer determination took over.  I was prepared to stand against this monster even if it killed me.  Sometimes I thought it would.  But here I am, strong and clear-minded and determined to share my story.  Let that be encouraging to you, too.

This is the best analogy I can come up with.  You have two choices, only one of which is really a choice: you can keep trying to dance with this monster, or you can turn and walk away from it into the scary unknown of life without it.  I know all too well the fear in that decision.  It feels like running into a dark and scary forest alone at night.  If you “choose” to keep dancing you will be destroyed, both physically and emotionally.  The perpetual withdrawal will continue and you will feel more and more unwell.  If you choose to turn and walk away, you are choosing life and healing.

Your cognitive processes are distorted right now.  That frightening forest is only partly real.  Mostly it is an illusion created by the drug as a way to make you afraid to walk away.  

Personal observations.  I had forgotten what it felt like to feel myself.  I didn’t realize how much I had forgotten.  I had forgotten what it feels like to be interested in living – in the sights and smells and tactile experiences and emotions of life.  One lovely effect of this drug is that it numbs you to pretty much any and all pain (initially, at least), but it also cuts you off from most everything good, too.  Once you begin to feel yourself again, you will be shocked how much of you is still there.  You will be surprised how strong you can be.  You are an expert in living in withdrawal, you just don’t realize it.  You already have an idea what to expect.  WD is going to be terrible.  So is life if you keep taking the poison.  It has turned on you, too, and that is why you are here.  You feel weak and afraid and defeated.  But YOU are stronger than you believe you are.  

Have you ever survived something you thought you couldn’t survive?  A horrible illness?  The death of someone you love?  Traumas, accidents, tragedies?  Do you think of those events now and feel SURE you couldn’t get through them without the poison?  Well, you DID get through them.  You have proven you are a survivor.  You can get through this, too.

Here is part what I experienced, and you might, too:

Pain.  You know this already.  It is going to be tough.  It will be physically and emotionally excruciating.  You may experience terrible arm, leg and/or back pain, as well as horrible headaches and abdominal pain.  It is your body revolting against the poison and breaking free.  This is the forest.  Have you ever broken a bone? Ever had a serious illness?  Then you know what to expect.  Push on!  You can and will get through it.  It’s temporary!

Depression/suicidal thoughts. This is probably the hardest to deal with.  Tramadol really alters the chemical environment in your brain in profound ways (ways I don’t pretend to understand) – thus the antidepressant effects most of us have come to love, then hate.  When the drug turns on you, there is no way out except to get away from it.  I remember day three, lying in the bathroom floor in a fetal position, crying and praying I would die.  The forest.  It’s normal!  You are healing, even then.  When the drug screams at you that nobody can help you, that nobody will understand, that you would be better off dead – remember these words.  I was there, too.  And so were many others.  The drug is screaming lies at you in the effort to get you to take just one pill.  Be smart.  Bookmark the posts here that speak to you, and come back to them when the lies are resonating in your head.  As of today, this, too, will pass!

High blood pressure.  This is a real danger for some of us.  The last time I went to the doctor to get a refill of poison, my blood pressure was very high (baseline for me is normal to low).  I had run out the day before.  Just keep check on it, particularly if you have high BP to start with.

Since I turned away from this poison, I have experienced myself, my life, in small ways and for the first time in years.  I am amazed at how much of me remained under the veil of tramadol, hidden away under layers of fear and anxiety.  I have learned so much about myself.  I still love playing my guitar, reading, being outdoors, talking to people. I want to exercise and eat healthy foods and sleep at night and get up in the morning.  I want to walk and breathe fresh air and feel the sun and the cold and everything else.  The haze is gone.  What remains is strikingly beautiful, although not perfect.  It is good.

Last night my three-year old niece crawled up into my lap and asked me to tell her a story.  We sat in the swing on the porch under a quilt in the cold fall air, and this crystallized in my mind: I am not chilling or shaking.  I am sitting under a blanket in regular clothes, my legs aren’t aching, and my back isn’t hurting.  A 36-lb child in my lap doesn’t hurt.  She laid her head on my chest and I could smell the cool air in her hair.  It had been years since I was that alive, that present in my life.  Tears welled.  How much of my life would I have lost?  Who can say.  I was not one of the lucky ones.  I had to make my own luck.

And I am only at day 29.  It gets even better than this?  That is humbling.  I will take whatever it is.

I have had MANY hard days and will have many more.  That is a deal I gladly accept.  I have also had some really good days, and those days give me hope.  They are the reason I know I will, in time, get through all of this.  For me, days one through twelve were very tough.  Days 13 through 20 were up and down, but things got better overall, gradually but steadily.  Days 21 and 22 I was actually free of leg pain for two consecutive days.  That was a miracle!  The fatigue is still very hard, but some days are better and I hold on to that.  Each good moment is a miracle, and I will treasure those good moments until they become good days, good weeks.  Until I measure them in seasons or years.

Today I can say that I have had three consecutive Very Good Days, meaning no major leg or back pain, no crying jags, no depression and I have slept.  That is so incredible.

This is really a long introduction, isn’t it?  

At this moment it doesn’t really matter why you started taking the poison.  What matters is choosing right now to walk away.  To bury it and leave it there.  This fight is one of the most important you will ever undertake.  Let go of the blame and the shame and let the fight in you take over.  You want to be free or you wouldn’t be here.
Your fear at day one is a healthy reminder that you are up against a vicious enemy, one that will destroy you if you allow it to.  Understand that we are ALL terrified at day one.  We all fear that we won’t get through it.  

Here, I am reaching out my hand to you, from my day 29, asking you to join all of us who are beating this poison a day at a time.  

I am asking you to let those of us here help you get through day 1 and all the days that follow.  It’s going to be hard, but not nearly as hard as choosing to let it keep destroying you.

The forest turns out to be way more beautiful than you can imagine.  When the scales are removed from your eyes, the world becomes beautiful again.  There is life beyond the fear you feel right now.  Believe that and muster up your courage.  It gets so much better than what you are experiencing right now.

I hope you will take my hand and take that first step.