In late October of 1996, after spending two weeks curled up in the fetal position in excruciating pain from a Crohn’s disease flareup, I shook my husband awake at 2 a.m. and in complete seriousness asked him to bring me a big kitchen knife.
“Huh?” he asked, groggily. “What for?”
“I just need to cut this out of my gut right now,” I told him.
He bolted awake, took one look at me, and called my gastroenterologist’s emergency line. A few hours later, I was in a San Diego hospital being prepped for a six-hour surgery in which I would lose a couple of feet of my intestines and gain a belly scar that still serves as a daily reminder of how mind-bending pain can be.
I have one other lasting memory from the pain that led me to that night, though it’s one I don’t much like to talk about: what happened when I took doctor-prescribed Vicodin.
Vicodin is what Tiger Woods says he was prescribed after back surgery in April. He had recently been experiencing back spasms, he told the police in Palm Beach who arrested him Monday asleep at the wheel of his car and unable to walk a sobriety line. He told police he didn’t know where he was, and asked how far he was from his house, according to the police report. He was charged with a DUI on the spot, but a breathalyzer confirmed his claim that he had not been drinking alcohol.
“Sounds like sleeping pills,” an editor said to me this morning.
“No, it’s Vicodin,” I told her.
Of course, we won’t know what Tiger Woods took until the toxicology reports come back. But it sure sounds like the pills I took in the two weeks of pain before my surgery.
“I’m flying,” I told my husband after taking my first dose of Vicodin, “as in really flying.”
I told him that I could still feel the pain in my intestines, but that I just didn’t really care about it anymore. I even joked about how that one pill got me so stoned that I couldn’t believe it didn’t come with an anesthesiologist to oversee its delivery.
Maybe she’s a lightweight, the doctor told my concerned husband when he called. “Have her just take them ‘as needed,’” the doctor advised.
And need them, I did.
“Here’s the thing about Vicodin: I felt stoned and then, after a few doses, I didn’t.”
Here’s the thing about Vicodin: I felt stoned and then, after a few doses, I didn’t. I started to take them more frequently because I couldn’t feel them working. At bedtime, I would double up the dosage, hoping for a decent night’s rest. If the pain persisted, I took more a few hours later.
There were times when I couldn’t move ― I even needed help standing to get up and use the bathroom. My husband began nagging me to see the doctor, but I was afraid of the surgery that I knew was waiting for me around the corner. I just had to get past this flareup and I would be fine, I insisted.
And then there was the night when I woke up on the bathroom floor. And just like Woods told the police, I had no idea how I had gotten there. I remembered nothing and could only surmise that I must not have wanted to ask my husband to help me into the bathroom. Hours later, when he found me and asked if I was OK, the first words that came out of my mouth were these: “Is it time for me to take another Vicodin yet?”
I had only been following doctors’ orders and had a real need for pain relief, but within just two weeks on Vicodin I was well on my way to what could have become a dependency with a drug that cures nothing. It masks pain and provides fleeting relief ― relief that becomes elusive unless you take more of the drug, and then more of it again.
We don’t know exactly what happened in Woods’ black Mercedes on a highway in Palm Beach, but for many of us who have used strong opioid painkillers on the orders of a doctor, his explanation sure sounds plausible. Familiar, even.