My Story (continued)
In the spring of 1993 I took codeine cough medicine for a cold. A few weeks later I was still taking the codeine each evening. It worked so well; finally I could relax and get some quality sleep! I started feeling more irritable in the morning as the codeine wore off, so I began taking cough medicine in the morning too. By this time I was prescribing myself larger and larger amounts of the medicine. My wife found empty cough medicine bottles in my car and we argued over the secret I had been keeping. I promised that I would stop, honestly meaning every word. I knew I had a problem and wanted to fix that problem. I tried my best to stay busy and keep my mind occupied, but as time went by and my use continued I became more and more frustrated. I had ALWAYS accomplished what I set out to do! By now I was making more money than I had ever imagined, and by all measures I appeared to be a successful young physician. But as my use of codeine grew I became more and more irritable at work, and eventually more and more depressed. The ultimate trigger for seeking treatment came when I was taking a walk and heard birds singing– and in response I cursed them. I had always loved nature and wildlife, and the contrast between those old interests and my state of mind helped me see that I had lost my bearings.
I scheduled appointments with several addictionologists and treatment programs, knowing the type of treatment that I wanted but finding no programs that would go along with the treatment that I considered appropriate. I believed that I was a ‘special case’, after all! Yet all of these doctors wanted to treat me as if I was just another addict—they didn’t see how ‘special’ I was! I had an appointment with Dr. Bedi, a Freudian psychoanalyst in Milwaukee. After I explained what I knew about addiction and how ‘special’ a patient I was, Dr. Bedi began speaking. “I know you very well,” he said. “You sit with your family every night and feel like you don’t belong there, like you are miles away. You feel no connection with any of them; you feel depressed and afraid. There is no connection with your wife. You are only going through the motions.” I felt a chill down my spine as I realized that he was absolutely correct. How did he know me so well?
As I drove home I began to cry, and I pulled off the highway. I suddenly had a wave of insight into something that should have been obvious: I was powerless over my use of codeine. After trying to find will power and failing over and over, I finally ‘got it’; I had no control! As this realization of powerlessness grew stronger, instead of feeling more fearful I felt more reassured. That moment was a profound turning point in my life that continues to play out in unexpected and important ways to this day.
My admission of powerlessness was the start of my sobriety. I soon found a treatment program that let me enter outpatient treatment, and I also began attending 12-step meetings. AA and NA became guiding principles in my life, and over the next five years every area of my life improved. My marriage and family life improved, I became Board Certified, I was elected Chief of our Anesthesia Department, my wife and I had another healthy daughter, we bought a vacation home… what’s not to like?
After five years of avoiding all intoxicating substances and attending AA, there was no doubt in my mind that my problems with addiction and opioids were behind me. Avoiding alcohol was not difficult, because I was never much of a drinker. One afternoon I had some friends over to watch the Green Bay Packers, who had been having a great season. I was serving beer in my home, something that I had avoided for the first several years of my sobriety, but that I began doing after becoming convinced that relapse was not a concern. At some point during the game I asked my wife whether she thought it would be a good idea for me to have a beer. How sneaky– I have since learned that we addicts will do this type of thing on the road to relapse; we set up a situation where we know in advance what the outcome will be—that outcome being the answer that the addict inside our brains wants to hear. We are looking for permission to take a very small chip out of our sobriety. I manipulated my wife into saying what I needed to hear, and a few minutes later I was sipping a beer. From that day forward it was okay to have beer during Packer games. It was then a logical step to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. I found a wine store run by two retired college Geology professors, and tasting wine from different parts of France became an academic exercise. In fact, I was so inspired by the idea of lifelong learning that I began to enjoy this academic exercise every evening at dinner time. At some point I was introduced to port, a fascinating beverage that has a noble history and just happens to have higher alcohol content. When eating Mexican food, margaritas were, of course, more appropriate. And then I found that there is a huge world out there of aged cognacs, which have a history all their own! Wow, I was learning a lot!
Some distorted thinking
You see where this is going. My behavior was an example of cross addiction, where an addict stops one substance but continues to use another, only to find that the previously safe substance becomes the drug of choice. My use of alcohol increased, and soon I was drinking as soon as I got home from work, to ‘unwind.’ When my wife protested I started sneaking small bottles of whiskey and hiding them in places once reserved for bottles of cough syrup. Once again I knew that I had a problem, and I also knew that I was in denial. The funny thing is that simply knowing that I was in denial did nothing to stop the denial. I would pause for a moment and think to myself that there were problems ahead, but I would quickly sweep the thought aside to be dealt with on another day.
In June of the year 2000 our family rented a house for a week in Eleuthera, Bahamas. My son sprained his neck snorkeling, and the spasms caused him to grimace with pain whenever he tried to move. Desperate for a solution, I drove from market to market on the small island looking for something that would work as a muscle relaxant in addition to the several bananas full of potassium that I had already given him. I eventually came across a market that sold, over the counter, a dissolvable tablet that contained aspirin along with my old friend, codeine. I felt a rush of excitement as I purchased a packet of tablets for my son… and another packet of tablets for myself, to treat the headache that I suddenly realized I would probably get later that evening.
I have since learned that this is another common behavior of addicts: setting up an eventual relapse. Rather than relapse directly I carried the tablets in my pocket for about 24 hours, before eventually realizing that I had a headache. In fact, I had a severe headache—so it was lucky I had the codeine in my pocket! I took the codeine with nervous excitement and an hour later was disappointed that the effect was not as great as I had anticipated, so I took a couple more tablets. An hour or two later, I still was not satisfied, and I took several more. By the end of the evening I had used up all of the tablets that I had assumed would last the next four days! So there I was, late at night on a small dark Island, driving on the left hand side of the road back to the market to buy more codeine, ‘just in case my son needed them.’
I learned a great deal about addiction because of that trip to Eleuthera. I was amazed at how quickly, after seven years, I resumed the behavior that I thought I had left far behind. I also noted that I was returning to substances not out of desperation, but rather at a time in my life when things were going very well. Either there was a self-destructive aspect of my personality that needed to bring me down a notch (a big notch!), or I wasn’t as happy as I thought I was—that despite the money and success I was still ‘desperate’ in some way. I eventually learned that both were true—but that and other realizations required further ‘education.’ I continued using codeine during the remainder of my vacation, and I returned to the United States scared to death about what the future would hold.