Whole chunks of my life have been given over to narcotics. When I was first sick with pancreatitis as a child, I was so drugged for months on end that I basically remember none of it. Or I remember tiny sensory details, like the weird modern geometric pattern on the curtains in my rooms at Children’s Hospital in DC. I remember that because I would literally spend days lying in my hospital bed, tracing the pattern with my eyes through my drug haze, trying not to think about my pain or my fear or my guilt or my nausea. I also remember that I would get little sensations in the tips of my dry fingers, where the fingertips meet the nails, like a spontaneous tightening of the skin. Probably also because of the drugs, I thought this sensation meant that God was with me, in the room at that moment, that the skin tightening signaled a divine presence. Honestly, I just needed to latch onto whatever my crazed mind came up with to comfort me.
But I don’t remember conversations with doctors or nurses or the social worker whose visits brightened my days. I don’t remember a single other child from the hospital, although I know I used to play with them in the common rooms. I don’t remember any of my many surgeries or procedures, or the recoveries afterwards, which included such specific medical humiliations as NG tubes and incision staples. Of course, maybe no one really has specific memories from when they were nine years old. And maybe I wouldn’t have remembered this anyway if it had happened at a different time in my life. It’s just odd to me the insignificance of the things I do remember, the things that escaped my drug-induced fog. I remember the slippery tactile feeling of the balloons we kept, deflated and flattened, in my sort of scrapbook about my time in the hospital, but I don’t remember the people who gave them to me. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel that the drugs are to blame.
Narcotics have been both the necessary evil and the saving grace of my medical saga. There is no way to survive acute or chronic pancreatitis, countless procedures and surgeries, or certainly pancreatic cancer, without painkillers. When they work, they’re the greatest relief you could possibly imagine. You take a pill or push a button on your PCA or get an IV push if you’re lucky, and slowly, your insides turn frothy and everything fuzzes until your edges are indistinct and your pain melts down into some inaccessible place you suddenly don’t worry about. It’s probably not gone, it’s just that you can’t reach it. There’s a buffer between you and the pain, like pillowy quilt batting. This cotton moat fuzzes its way into your brain too, until you forget to even think about your pain anymore. You might remember that there was something bad not that long ago, something that gave you a yucky feeling. But right now all you can get to on the inside is candy fluff and a low, gentle hum of complacency.
But when they don’t quite work, you’re left in the limbo of simultaneous pain and dissociation. When you don’t get enough or the drug isn’t a good fit for you, your pain is still there, persistent and obnoxious, but it’s harder to figure out how you feel about it and what to do about it. You’re left in some kind of suspended state, where you can’t lower yourself down into blissful oblivion, but you’re still far from clear reality. In those times, you hate narcotics, because they’re a tease, because they were supposed to make you feel better but somehow you just feel ickier, or angrier, or sadder.
Also, you inevitably have to deal with the side effects of narcotics, whether they work or not. After a while, the flip side of the coin comes to call and you have to pay up, maybe with constant itching, or with nausea and motion sickness, and certainly with constipation and digestive trouble. Then, the more you take, the more your insides get stopped up, the more your body slows down into something halfway like hibernation. The weird thing, though, is that narcotics actually raise your heart rate. When I’m on painkillers more than just occasionally, my pulse can rarely get below 100. So you’re pushed down into a dreamlike confusion of slowness and fuzzy edges, but your heart is working harder through it all. Really, they’re evil things, opioids.
This is why I’m seriously considering medical marijuana. It’s legal now in Maryland, and the last I heard, the oversight commission is reviewing applications for growers and dispensaries. So it’s not available yet, but it will be before too long. And if anyone ever qualifies for medical cannabis, it’s probably me, with pancreatic cancer pain, chemotherapy side effects, etc. etc. I don’t know much about medical cannabis, or the forms it’ll be available in, but I do have high hopes that it could help relieve my pain and nausea without causing the kinds of burdensome side effects that opioids cause. (It would be nice to have something to treat my pain that doesn’t also render my brain practically inactive, but maybe that’s too much to ask. Because of course, pain is all in the brain, so treating pain from any source requires targeting the brain.) If you know anything about medical cannabis, especially in Maryland, please share it here, for me and for others.
Ashley M Scurto
8/7/2016 11:35:01 am
This is so well written! The detail definitely brings me there with you. Your description of the pain killer as "pillowy quilt batting" reminds me that painkillers don't do the best job with such severe, chronic pain. The procedures are scary and invasive. And quilt batting is often cheap and worn, falling out a tear in an old quilt, incidental.
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children's librarian, Smithie, writer, reader, cook, gardener, cancer patient, medical oddity, PANCAN patient advocate, #chemosurvivor, #spoonie