Until more people from different backgrounds share their story, we’re just giving everybody the right to continue thinking drug addicts are the worst of the worst. I am not the face of the stigma, but the stigma has to end in order for more people to seek treatment.—Marie, 44, medical coder, Suboxone patient of Dr. Ira Mandel.

In my late 20s I started having really severe headaches. My family doctor gave me Vicodin. First and foremost the Vicodin took the headaches away when nothing else could, but it also made me happy and gave me energy. It was like a breath of life.

Within that first week, I was watching the clock. I was supposed to take one or two pills every four hours but I would take them sooner. By the second or third month I just wasn’t getting the same high — I hate to say that word but that’s what it was — until I took a third pill or a fourth pill. I started running out of my prescription too early.  My doctor gave me warnings to be more responsible, and I had to go in for pill counts. But he kept prescribing it.

When I was between prescriptions, I wouldn’t wish what I went through on my worst enemy. My body ached from head to toe. Even my fingernails hurt. I would get goosebumps and feel cold but would be sweating at the same time. Emotionally, I was sooo depressed and sooo angry. By this point, the pills were just to feel a baseline and not suffer withdrawals. The euphoria had gone away. The worse my withdrawals got, the less  time it felt better when I re-medicated. In my chart it actually says “iatrogenic substance abuse.” I looked it up and it just means it’s due to the medical treatment I had.

If my prescription ran out early and my insurance wouldn’t pay I would pay with money I should have been using for bills. I was taking “legal” drugs, and I never bought them off the street, never snorted or injected them, but I was lying, taking money out of my (now ex-) husband’s wallet. I had adopted all the behaviors any addict would. I would do anything I could to get my next “fix.” I never thought of myself as a drug addict until I couldn’t have any more, when, after about three years, my doctor said, “That’s it, we’re cutting you off.”

I managed to get [Vicodin] through my dentist or the emergency room. But then pharmacies started linking their databases, and when I couldn’t get it by legal or safe routes anymore — no one in my circle was doing street drugs or I am convinced I would have gone to that level — I was frantic.  I did research and learned about Suboxone. Withdrawals are just as bad if not worse than opiates, because they last longer, so I am not out of the woods yet. I have to complete a physician-monitored taper.

I work in an orthopedics practice and I see people being prescribed drugs who don’t need drugs and I see 90-day refills. And that kills me, it absolutely kills me.

I don’t want to blame any doctor for a person abusing what they have given them, but I do think if they could spend more time on family history or behavior, or potential for abuse, and exhausting every other line of defense before prescribing narcotics, maybe more people wouldn’t fall through the rabbit hole.

As far as my headaches, the best guess now is [the jaw disorder] TMJ from grinding my teeth when I slept. I got a mouth guard and was getting pressure-point therapy that was working too. If I had never taken that first pill I think I could have gotten through the pain without becoming the addict that I became. It worked so genuinely well on my headaches I didn’t want that to ever stop, so I, Marie, nobody else, began abusing it. But the doctors would refill it for a month at a time even though I was running out early, so there is shared responsibility.

I worshipped the drug for the longest time. I had dreams I could photocopy it. But once those withdrawals start, or the person realizes they are not in control anymore, the same thing I loved I quickly hated. My hatred for the pharmaceutical companies comes in part with my anger with myself, but all the wishing in the world doesn’t change my brain chemistry or family history [of addiction]. There are many people who might have a tooth pulled and can take a pill and can use it as prescribed, but I think it is a very slippery slope because for all those people who can take it there are an awful lot who can’t.

Whatever that opiate does to our brain receptors, at least the brain of an addict, it flips on a switch of pleasure that is unlike any other. It makes real pleasure — like kayaking with friends or hearing children laughing, which is genuine, not going to kill me, and free — seem not as enjoyable. I worry that I will not be able to feel that again, but I hope so.

Knox County Recovery Coach Program: 691-3697.

Mid-Coast Recovery Coalition (for community members wanting to help): info@midcoastrecovery.org, 701-1181.

Non-medicated therapy includes Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

To donate much-needed funds to the Hospitality House homeless shelter, call 593-8151.