Yes, it’s a terrible pun, but the title nearly wrote itself. However, do not let my use of said pun lull you into thinking that I, too, am going to poke fun at the millions of people suffering from chronic pain who manage their pain through the controlled use of opiates, and therefore suffer from this side effect. You know, the people at whom this ad was actually targeted. The people who are already stigmatized enough by society without having them be called “junkies” by the likes of Bill Maher, to have them automatically be assumed to be addicts by the frickin’ Press Secretary and Chief of Staff, of all people.
Once again, the people who know the least about a problem or condition are the ones who say the most about it. And, the American public having the “if I don’t have it or haven’t ever heard of it, it must not exist” attitude that they do, the ones who say the most about something are the ones that the majority of people are going to listen to. So, Bill Maher tweets jokes about junkies who can’t shit, and gets thousands of likes and retweets. The Press Secretary and Chief of Staff bluster about Rx opiates being the gateway to being addicted to everything else, and the majority of the country jumps on the bandwagon to get rid of the evil drugs. Never once do they think about the people for whom these drugs are intended, the people with legitimate chronic pain issues, caused by documented medical conditions, for whom prescription opiates are the only means by which they can even remotely live a semi-normal life.
I don’t say “normal,” because contrary to popular belief, even prescription opiates don’t get rid of ALL the pain for chronic pain sufferers. However, this medication is able to dull the pain enough to get it down to a tolerable level where one can attempt to live a normal life – to take pain that is usually at a level 8 (I hurt so bad I don’t want to move) down to a level 4 or 5 (I am still really sore, but at least I can walk down the hall and sit up in a chair without wanting to vomit from the pain). It is the difference between being able to have a shadow of one’s former life, and actively wanting to die.
It has already been proven this kind of talk makes Americans uncomfortable. How many different PSA campaigns are there about how one should talk about depression with those who are depressed? How many times are these PSAs blasted out to the public, only to have people STILL refuse to believe depression is real? I posit chronic pain, and the underlying health conditions that cause chronic pain, fall into the same category with most Americans. The majority seem to think if they cannot see it, it isn’t real. If they don’t have it, or haven’t heard of it, it must not exist. So they dismiss it, deny it, make fun of people who suffer from it. This is how comedians can make jokes about “junkies who can’t shit.” Well, Mr. Maher, it seems you have no problem spraying shit from your own mouth about a subject of which you have no knowledge.
You may wonder, “Hey, Toni Snark, what makes you know so much about this?” Because I’m one of those “junkies” Bill Maher so blithely dismissed in his tweet. Although I do not currently experience OIC, I used to. I used to take large doses of prescription pain meds to alleviate the pain associated with the psoriatic arthritis that is currently destroying my thoracic spine and hips – the same condition that for more than 5 years doctors swore I could not have because I was 1) too young, 2) the thoracic spine is an unusual place for PsA to strike (apparently), and 3) some doctors feel my having breasts and ovaries means I am prone to hysterics and do not know what actual pain feels like. So, for more than 5 years this autoimmune condition was allowed to attack my spine and hips with no medical intervention. Now my NEW doctors are having a hard time getting it under control.
The pain was (and still is, at times) excruciating. I would wake up screaming in the middle of the night if I just barely twisted my thoracic spine. I would scream so loudly that it would wake up my teenaged son in the next room. Normally a horde of voracious zombies couldn’t wake up my son once he is down for the night, so I know my screaming had to be loud and very frightening to him for it to actually bring him up from the black pit of unconsciousness he calls ‘sleep’. Just taking a few steps down the hallway at the school where I worked was a lesson in stubbornness and just how much pain one person can take.
I finally asked to see a pain management doctor. First, we tried tramadol, a milder opioid prescription drug. I was in so much pain that we quickly realized I needed something stronger to be able to function and sleep at night. I switched to hydrocodone/APAP, and for the first time in months, I was able to sleep more than 4 hours at night. I was actually able to focus on my students again. Mind you, I was still in a ton of pain, but it brought my pain levels down to a level where I no longer actively counted down the days until my son would turn 18 so I could kill myself without fear of him being shipped off to live with a biological father he had never met halfway across the country. I still often felt horrible, could not bend or twist, and the thought of walking down a long hallway made me whimper, but I could manage it. And the only reason why I could manage it was because taking opioid prescription medication improved my quality of life.
I stopped taking strong opioids several months ago. I didn’t like how they made my tummy feel, and I didn’t like how they made me itch all over. I asked my doctor to switch me back down to tramadol, which is still a prescription opioid drug, but not as strong. I don’t get as strong a pain relief from it, but it lasts longer. I am still struggling to find a balance and drug combo that will allow me to live a more normal life. In fact, I had to resign from teaching last month because my pain levels are too high to allow me to endure the physical aspects required for teaching the students. That was a very hard loss for me. But even harder has been the attitude of former students and people in my life who are supposed to love me. Comments like, “couldn’t you just suck it up and keep teaching?” or “It’s not like teaching is hard to begin with; why couldn’t you keep doing it?” That is a subject I will come back to another day, because the bias and ignorance against both invisible disabilities and teaching in general is so great that it requires a whole post of its own.
Let me end my rant toward the comedians and politicians who automatically dismissed all sufferers of OIC as “addicts” and “junkies” by giving them a little advice. My momma once told me “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I propose we amend it to state, “if you can’t say something nice, or don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, don’t say anything at all.”