More than an addict, Part 3

Having now decided that I wanted to end my dependence on opioids I had to find how I was going to achieve this. Naturally, first and foremost was reducing my methadone dose. I was taking 60mg a day at this point.

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This was not a high dose compared to many people I had met through the program but high enough that reducing the dose had to be managed over the course of a few months. I went back to my counsellor again and began to work on a plan to reach my goal. I decided that I wanted to undergo the controversial Ultra Rapid Opioid Detox (UROD) treatment and get a naltrexone implant.

At the time I was going through this I was relatively unaware of concerns regarding this particular treatment. I just wanted a way out; something that would just stop my dependence. Essentially, I wanted an easy way out. UROD offered this. I would be sedated then undergo rapid withdrawals overnight. A naltrexone implant that would prevent any opioids from working would be inserted under my skin during this time. I would wake up, be ‘clean’ and unable to use any opioids which would prevent any relapse in the short term. This approach has been criticised as being too puritanical and idolising abstinence above all else. I will agree that this treatment is not for everyone. Stopping problematic illegal drug use is very multifaceted and much more complicated than just not using illegal drugs. Social support from family or friends and finding new activities to fill your day are essential. I was extremely lucky to have a very supportive family environment and university studies to help me through this journey. Without that, this treatment would not have worked. And without this treatment I don’t know if I would have ever broken my addiction.

With the help of my doctor and counsellor I made a plan to slowly reduce my dose in order to reduce the discomfort from withdrawals and get ready to begin my life anew. I booked my appointment for my treatment. I now had an end date in sight. In 6 months this would all be over. Having an end date though was a hidden danger. As there was such a finality about my treatment I began to care less about my behaviour and opioid use. In my mind I thought it didn’t matter if I used lots now because it would all be over soon. After not having used any opioids besides my methadone for a few months now, I began to use again. This quickly spiralled as I didn’t care how much I used. I was using almost every day before long all the while content with the thought that it would be finished before long. Then I got a call two weeks before I was due to go to the centre. The treatment centre had to do renovations on the date I was supposed to go and so had to reschedule my treatment date. The earliest they could do it was a month later. I felt lost. My end date had disappeared and my use of opioids was out of control again. My life was a daily trip to get high and waiting for the day to pass so I would be one day closer to the day I would finally be free from opioids.

During this time I had started university again. I was doing an arts degree as I wasn’t allowed to study science due to my earlier failed attempts at university. I also found I did much better at university this time. One moment I still look back on as somewhat of a turning point was a piece of assessment where we had to present a persuasive argument about any topic of our choice. The title of my presentation was, “All illicit drugs should be legalised”. I had already believed for a long time that one of the biggest reasons illicit drugs could be harmful was because they were illegal. And after all, the very illicitness of illegal drugs was part of what attracted me to them so many years earlier. I threw myself into the task and drew upon all the research I could find. After giving my presentation I was unsure if I would get a good mark. My marks had been, until then, average. When I received my mark I was ecstatic. I got 95%. This really gave me the confidence I had been searching for. I began to believe in myself again and stopped doubting myself. Although I was still using, I felt better about myself than I had in years.

Finally, the day of my treatment came. My mum and I flew to Sydney. We arrived in the early afternoon. I was already in mild withdrawals by this stage as I had used my last dose of methadone two days earlier to get high one last time. We checked into our hotel across the road from the inner Sydney clinic then in the late afternoon made our way over. The psychiatrist was very friendly and reassuring and I got the impression he genuinely cared about me. The meeting took an hour or two as we filled out numerous forms, went over my doctor records, discussed the procedure and discussed the post-treatment counsellor follow-up sessions. That night I couldn’t really sleep. I sat on the balcony of the hotel room chain smoking, listening to music – The Hard Road album by the Hilltop Hoods – and watching the people walk along the various alleyways I could see. I was unsure how to feel. My thoughts were chaotic which was normal for me during withdrawals. I knew I wanted this but I was also hesitant. Heroin had become a crutch; something I could blame easily for anything bad that ever happened to me. I was worried what it would be like to not have that anymore. I was scared of succeeding. I was scared because what would happen if I failed again after initially succeeding? I didn’t know if I could handle that. Eventually, my body finally let me sleep for a few hours.

The next morning I went back to the clinic. I said goodbye to my mum then went into the treatment room. Once there I lay down on the bed and the doctor started to administer the various drugs for the treatment. After the initial sedating drugs they inserted the naltrexone implant under my skin. I remember looking at this bulge under my skin in wonder. This would stop me from using opioids for six months. After that the doctor gave me another dose of sedative because the first had still not put me to sleep. I finally fell asleep for a few hours. The aim of the sedation was to keep me unconcious for the whole procedure so that I would have no recollection of my withdrawals. That was not the case for me though. I woke up again a few hours later. I was very aware that I was in withdrawals by this time but they were not as severe as my first times. I just felt very uncomfortable, I wasn’t in any pain. Given my good state they called my mother who came to drop off my cigarettes and my phone so I could listen to music. There was girl in the same room who was also undergoing the treatment. She was not so lucky. I could hear her cries of pain as she clearly went through severe withdrawals through the night. Early in the morning we both went outside for a cigarette together and talked. She said she could remember it all and the sedation hadn’t been enough for her either. She emphatically said she wouldn’t recommend this to anyone. I could understand why. I could see her pain written on her face even as she sat there at the tail end of the withdrawals. I was thankful I had reduced my methadone dose so low that my experience had only be uncomfortable, not painful. A few hours later my mum came and picked me up. I got a box of post-treatment medication to help with sleep and physical any physical discomfort I might experience over the next two weeks. Then we went back home and it was time for me to start my new life.

After the treatment there were four things that really helped me get past my addiction. The first was my family. They were constantly supportive and helped me in any way they could. Without their support I doubt if I could’ve stayed away from opioids. The second was my friends. I had grown distant from many of them over the years but they welcomed me back with open arms. They helped me feel normal again. I would spend my week studying and working and then on weekends I would go party with them. It was as though none of it had ever happened really. The third thing was university. I had two incredibly inspiring lecturers who gave me a passion for what I was learning. I actually began to apply myself at university for once. I loved researching and learning new things. I doubt they realise how much they impacted on my life but they are the third reason why I was able to keep going and not go back to my opioid addiction.

The fourth is probably the luckiest thing that has ever happened to me. I had earlier been diagnosed with Hepatitis C. After my treatment I decided I wanted to do something about this and go on the treatment for Hepatitis C. I went to the hospital and asked about treatment so they gave me a blood test. They needed to determine the viral subtype I had so they could tailor the treatment program for me. I was watching TV on the couch when they called me. I readied myself expecting to be told I had the most difficult strain to treat but the news I actually received was completely unexpected. I had no detectable amount of virus in my system. The antibodies were there so I had definitely had it before but the virus was gone. I had cleared the virus without treatment. This spontaneous clearance is very rare. Only about 1 in 5 people clear the virus themselves without treatment. I couldn’t believe it. I went in to the hospital to collect my results and looked at the piece of paper. I was so happy. This kind of last vestige of my addiction was gone. It also meant I could drink beer with my friends again which made it so much easier to feel normal.

I never stopped using illegal drugs though. I still frequently used a variety of different illicit drugs. I would often use stimulants such as methamphetamine with my friends on the weekends. Sometimes I would use benzodiazepines when I could get them. I remember in my take home medication pack after the treatment there was nitrazepam. My mother had control of the medication so I couldn’t take it all at once. That didn’t stop me though. I stockpiled my nitrazepam until I had enough to get high. Taking illicit drugs remained part of my life for a long time. While I was at university it remained unproblematic. I often used to smoke ice and then write assignments, including my thesis. I always found it helped me keep several thoughts in my head at once as I wrote. At these times I would binge write, sometimes writing up to 2000 words in a day.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing since then. I’ve had ups and downs and a short relapse where I began using heroin again for a time. However, I have managed to overcome my past addiction and built a good life for myself. Now I live and work overseas. I don’t use illicit drugs anymore. I no longer feel like it. I still drink though and do at times struggle to not drink too much. I’m by no means perfect now but I am happy. My story is not one shared by all people who use illicit drugs. I am also acutely aware that I have been very privileged and that has helped me immensely in conquering my addiction. Not every 'addict' is so lucky but I believe every 'addict' has the exact same potential as I did. People shouldn’t be defined by their addiction. Characterising people as ‘druggies’ or ‘addicts’ dehumanises them and reduces them to the substance they take. This kind of characterisation when taken to the extreme can result in horrible events like the rampant state-sanctioned murders of illicit drug users currently taking place under Duterte in the Philippines. In every person there is the ability to overcome their addiction and make a better life for themselves. We are so much more than our addictions. I am more than an addict.


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