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Painkillers, Heroin, and the Road to Sanity: Real Solutions For Long-Term Recovery from Opiate Addiction

An excerpt from Painkillers, Heroin, and the Road to Sanity by author and interventionist Joani Gammill

The Brain on Opiates: Heaven and Hell

Painkillers, Heroin, and the Road to SanityFirst let me say that my brain on opiates felt like pure heaven: euphoria and a sense of well-being enveloped my existence, and I felt truly happy for the first time in my life. But being on opiates also dragged me down into a state of absolute hell.

Like most addicts, by the end of my using days, I was just trying to keep up with the amount of opiates my body demanded to not feel sick. This is called "tolerance", as a user physically needs more of the addictive drug just to function. Eventually I was as sick on the opiates as off; I was close to the end. The "jumping-off place" that the book Alcoholics Anonymous tells about was upon me.  I could not live with or without the drug--which is the point at which many addicts/alcoholics take their own lives. My heaven had turned to hell. The drug took away my passions and made me feel as though my body was possessed by an entity that wanted me all alone so it could strangle me to death.

My first experience with opiates occurred on that hazy night during college, but it wasn't until I was on the job as new registered nurse that I felt the powerful influence of the drug. Here I "diverted," a sanitized word for stealing, my first Percocet, which along with OxyContin (one of the common prescription painkillers prescribed today) contains oxycodone, a derivative of the opium flower. When I took this drug, I felt complete, happy, and confident for the first time in my life.

But fate had me move east, and I began working in the newborn nursery in a local hospital, where there were no drugs to steal; many years would go by before I used opiates again. Like a lot of opiate addicts, my use started with chronic pain caused by a back injury. I ultimately ended up having spinal fusion surgery and then became addicted to pain medications. Over the next ten years, I made many attempts to get sober with short in-patient stays at rehab centers, outpatient treatment, private detoxes, and just the sheer agony of trying to quit opiates on my own. Again fate interceded, and Dr. Phil McGraw, the psychologist and TV show host, did an intervention with me. This was the beginning of my sustained recovery. His was a no-nonsense approach of telling me what my future looked like if I stayed on the same path, the consequences if I did not agree to treatment. Very importantly, I was given the opportunity to undergo inpatient treatment for three months.

There have been multiple studies telling us that the longer addicts stay in inpatient treatment for addition to any drug, the higher the rates of recovery--but how many people can afford this type and length of stay? (Insurance coverage plays a huge role in our nation's addiction problem, a subject we will discuss in a later chapter.) Without intensive treatment that includes a rigorous recovery management plan, addicts will continue to experience intense cravings for opiates long after they stop using--cravings that lead to the high numbers of relapse. Even with many years off of opiates, I still feel the lingering need for them. For me, the cravings grow stronger at certain times of the year and I need to plan for this. Now, every fall you can see me riding my bike hard, with my Chihuahua, Lucy, in the front handlebar pack. While daily exercise is a part of my recovery plan, in the fall I increase the sweat. During this season, my cravings always set in, so off Lucy and I go on the bike. I run from the devil while blasting motivating music in my ears, telling myself that my brain is just playing tricks on me. Parking my bike by a recovery meeting, I go in and drink shitty coffee and sit among supportive people just like me. And for that day, I am safe.

It wasn't always that way. When I was under the influence of drugs, my ability to reason about right and wrong was completely misplaced somewhere in the chemical maze of my screwed-up brain (as we discussed earlier, opiates affect the functioning of the brain's prefrontal cortex). There's no more dramatic example of this than my continued use even after I had my first child. I also became a shoplifter when I was on opiates. It was easy: I was a new mom with a stroller, and there was lots of space in that stroller to slip things into. New moms are not profiled as shoplifters--at least they weren't until recently.

My husband would come home, and I would proudly show him all the loot I had lifted that day. In my delusional state, I thought he would be impressed with the nifty skill I was developing and be proud of me! Instead, he would say, "Do you want me to come home and have to pick you up at the police station?" But I just did not get it: My drug-addled brain was unable to see the reasoning; I was temporarily mentally ill. Fortunately, with the help of my Higher Power and professional treatment, this condition was only temporary for me.

It was an ordinary morning when, as the sun was peeking over the hilly Texas landscape at the rehab center Dr. Phil had sent me to, a subtle but important shift occurred for me. I had been in rehab for six weeks, during which I vacillated between being emotionally flat and overly sentimental, breaking out in tears at odd moments. And then it happened. All alone in the community room that early morning, I heard a beautiful sound. It was music coming from the TV. The words elude me, but I remember how the melody affected me and I began swaying to its tune. As I closed my eyes, I got goose bumps--my passion for music was returning. I thought to myself, "Joani is coming home." It was a spiritual moment, like God was near and my brain chemistry was normalizing. Some cynics will say the experience was brain chemistry alone, but who or what unseen energy created that complex web of neurons in our heads? Is it science alone, atoms and molecules, the big bang--but from where? Everyone has an opinion.

The million-dollar question is this: Why do some people get addicted to opiates and others do not? Is an addict born or created? This is a question to which no one knows the definitive answer, but we've learned a lot about what predisposes some people to become addicted to a drug like heroin with their first use, while others can take it or leave it.

Excerpted from Painkillers, Heroin, and the Road to Sanity: Real Solutions for Long-Term Recovery from Opiate Addiction by Joani Gammill, R.N. An average suburban mom on the outside, Gammill was secretly addicted to multiple forms of opiates and amphetamine for years. Through the life-changing intervention staged by Dr. Phil, she not only committed to getting help, she went on to become a professional interventionist herself, helping thousands of others in distress.

Painkillers, Heroin, and the Road to SanityPainkillers, Heroin, and the Road to Sanity
Softcover, 208 pages

Recovery from prescription painkiller or heroin addiction can feel impossible, especially considering that those who have gone through typical 28-day treatment programs often experience relapses and, sometimes, fatal overdoses. But there is hope.

In Painkillers, Heroin, and the Road to Sanity, recovering addict and prominent interventionist Joanie Gammill offers a radically effective approach for those struggling with opioid addiction, sharing sometimes-controversial tips that have worked for some people are in long-term recovery. Gammill examines the scientific explanations for the low numbers of people sustaining recovery from opioid addiction and taps the pioneering work of treatment professionals whose new approaches are changing the way we think about opioid addiction to offer practical steps for creating a realistic and effective recovery plan.

Gammill affirms that recovery from opiate addiction is a process, not an event. This honest and trustworthy guide reveals that, although getting well from this disease may not happen in one detox or treatment experience, a healthy, drug-free life is possible.

List price: $14.95
Online price: $13.45

Recovery Matters, August 2014

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