My Introduction to the Pills
The first time I took a pain pill was when I was 19 years old and had just had a root canal. I remember the feeling that came along with the pain reduction. I was not sure if I liked it. It was quite euphoric and made me laugh a lot, but I think I just passed out. I don’t remember taking any more of the prescription after that. It was not too eventful. Fast-forward 20 years.
I was looking through the cabinet for some Advil or Tylenol. For years, I had prided myself on the fact that I never needed pain relievers of any kind. I was tough and could make it through anything. However, I had an ingrown toenail that was tremendously painful. So, there I was scavenging through the medicine cabinet and I came across some Vicodin that belonged to my wife. The doctor prescribed it to her but she never took it. So I looked at my toe, swallowed my pride, swallowed the pill, and soon it began to swallow my life.
This was after my move back to Oklahoma to help take care of my mother who could no longer walk or talk. It was also after my sister’s suicide. I look back now (though then I would have never admitted it) and see that I was depressed. I was less active, less energetic, and I was just plain sad. It’s understandable, I know. And maybe it is understandable why I took that Vicodin. But the understandability became the bane of my existence which was to begin to siphon the life right out of me, ravaging myself and everyone close to me.
This time the pill had a different effect. It was better. Much better. First, the pain was gone. However, something unintended happened: I was not depressed. And for a depressed person who does not know they are depressed to come out of the depression, this will be the first time they realized they were depressed before! (Did that make sense). Let me put it this way — this is what I said to myself: “I’m happy. Wait . . . I guess I was depressed before.” As I continued to take the pills, they gave me a tremendous amount of energy. I was up working on the house, doing projects, large and small, that I had neglected for a long time. I also became “super dad.” I loved talking to my kids, taking them places, and doing all the things a dad should do. I had no idea of their addictive power. To me, these were “super-pills” and I was glad that I had found them.
Of course, the pills ran out. And being a noob to pain pills, I did not think to get any more.
My Adolescence With the Pills
My back went out for the first time when I was 21. For those of you who know what that feels like, I need not say more. Over the years, it would progressively go out in the same place. I was accustomed to it. In 2006 I felt for the first time the radiating pain go down my left leg. I was sitting at some Christian conference with my pastoral team from Stonebriar Community Church. It was painful enough and I could not find relief. This went on for the next four years, growing in frequency and intensity.
Getting back to our timeline . . . The next time I went to the doctor after I had taken my wife’s pills, was for my back. I think it was the first time that I had ever bothered to go to a doctor in years. They checked it out and said I had “severe degenerative disc disease” and a lot of other stuff I don’t know how to spell. Short story: they said my back was bad. They gave me a script for muscle relaxers and Vicodin. “Hey!”, I thought to myself, the “acute anti-depressants.” So I was back in the game.
Over the next few months, I took these pills like candy. I was oblivious to their danger. Sure, there were warnings on the side of the bottle, warnings from the pharmacist, and warnings from the doctor, but didn’t all pills have these warnings? I would just be careful. Refill after refill my life was reaping the rewards: the absence of physical pain and the absents of emotional pain. But soon the refills ran out and I had a crash.
If you have ever taken any type of opioids for an extended period of time and then stopped cold turkey, I need not say more. But to those of you who have not, I cannot describe a worse experience to go through. Your life falls apart, your thoughts are all dark, the physical pain is tremendous, every second feels like hours, and you don’t believe it will ever end.
For some reason, during this time, I did not like the doctors cutting me off from the pills with my crash. I don’t know why I was so low. I just thought I was having a mental breakdown like my sister did before she took her life. I thought to myself, “I finally understand why Angie is gone and I don’t blame her.”
My Rationalization of the Pills
I slowly came out of my depression and moved forward not thinking too much about the pills. A year later, I looked back and realized that the Vicodin had more to do with my breakdown than I cared to admit. But my back was still bad and getting worse. So, I went back to the doctor and they did some more tests. After the tests were done they confirmed that (in short) my back was bad and it was getting worse. They did not advise surgery at this time and just offered me some pain pills to tide me over. I remember that moment. It was a turning point as I see it now. I hesitated. Gulped. And then said, “Why not; I have no other choice?” It had been a while since my breakdown. I will just be more careful this time, I thought to myself. Besides, who knows whether it was the pills that caused the last breakdown. I did not want to blame the pills. I actually wanted the breakdown to be depression for depression’s sake. They were becoming precious to me. So I took them and was off to the races again. It was amazing.
You must understand, I felt like I thought better, talked better, was a better father and a better husband while on the pills. I would go over to my dad’s house and help out with my mom more often. I felt like I could teach better, write better, and encourage people more. After all, a happy face encourages a happy face. So, I continued to rationalized. “God, I thank you for these pills. They have helped in every area of my life including my relationship with you.” I actually believed this. I mean really believed it.
At this point, no one knew the deepening dependance these pills were affecting in me, including myself. I was more careful this time though. I would only take them off and on, maybe one week out of the month. I would get a refill use them for a while and then throw the rest away. I figured that if I took them this way, I would not have the crash that I had before. I also only took them at night. I felt it was all under control.
My Addiction to the Pills
Eventually, me and my family had to move in with my mother. She had further complications that required me to deadlift her for showers, diaper changes, and all the necessary movements so she did not get bed sores. This caused my back to deteriorate much more quickly. The pills that I was taking were, by this time, having less and less affect. My tolerance was skyrocketing.
Though we did not have much of a relationship, I loved my father and wanted to be there for him. I knew how depressed he was having lost a daughter and a wife (more or less) within such a short period of time. He never expressed much (if any) faith in Christ, so he had limited coping options. He chose the bottle. I did as much as I could for him. I would be his ride to and from his bars (so he would not get his 8th DUI) and I would watch movies with him when I could. He was the first to notice my problem. We would be watching the television and I would fall forward slowly closing my eyes, bobbing my head all the way down. “Mac,” (my nickname) he would say, “Wake up. You really need to back off on those pills, son.” I respected him and because of this, kept my addiction at bay.
But he died suddenly in 2013. I don’t think I have shared this with anyone and am more ashamed than you know to share it now, but when the doctors came in and said we should take him off life support, my first thought was “Good, now I can get my mom on these pills and take them myself.” I was a Christian leader, running a world-wide theological development ministry called Credo House Ministries. Taking these pills from my mother was extremely illegal. But I did not care. They were precious to me.
My family and I stayed with my mother, choosing not to put her in a nursing home. Looking back, I can see that the driving force for this decision was so I had an excuse to keep taking them for my back. Because my tolerance was so high the doctors put me on something stronger — much stronger. By now, I was taking these day and night. They helped my back enough as long as their strength kept increasing. But they stabilized my mood and the rest of my body as well. If I did not have them, even for a day, I would begin to go through withdrawals. And this happened a lot due to the fact that I would go through a whole month’s worth in a week.
Soon enough I was on one of the strongest prescriptions available. However, all that they could do now was get me back to zero. I was, as Bono put it, running to stand still.
I would continue to teach my classes, preach when asked, and coast on clout that I built upon everything else. If I did not have any pills to take before I taught, I would cancel class. I wasn’t too repentant to God as I still saw most everything I was doing as justified. And if it was wrong, what did he expect? He is the one who allowed all of this hell in my life. What did he expect? If I had no strength to get through it, he was the one who didn’t give me the strength. I would have many moments of clarity where I would call out to him for help, commit to quit, but then change my whole attitude the moment the withdrawals began.
My ministry was falling apart, my body was suffering, I was depressed worse than ever, and my thoughts were consumed with how to manipulate the doctors to get more pills. I never intended or wanted to be the person I was. I was so far gone . . . but things would get worse.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]