I guess I need to write about this because it happened and it was bad, and in some ways it’s still happening. I can comfort myself with the notion that someone else may benefit from my experiences, but that’s not actually why I write it. I’m on the home stretch of a withdrawal program managed by my doctor to fix my dependency on gabapentin.
I come from a long line of drug addicts. Alcohol has never been a problem for my kin. The pills are our demons. My grandfather was addicted to Nembutal, a powerful anticonvulsant and sedative. Nembutal is a barbiturate, generic name: Pentobarbital. My father became addicted to a powerful cocktail of valium, hydrocodone and Fiorinal which is a combination of aspirin, butalbital, and caffeine. Butalbital is also a barbiturate. My dad spent three weeks in restraints at the detox in Waco, Texas while getting off of those. He got so bad that the psychiatrist would not let me see him and I was twenty four years old at the time, not a child.
In December of 2018, I was hit with what turned out to be a ferocious case of shingles. There were slicing pains and deep muscle aches which itched and seemed to move around in my chest. My skin itched all over. I had chills. I couldn’t even sleep to escape it. It would wake me in the middle of the night and I would stand on my back porch without a shirt on to let the frigid air sooth the sensation for as long as I could endure the cold. I was prescribed a course of Valtrex for the infection and Neurontin (gabapentin) for the pain. Gabapentin is an anticonvulsant and it’s the only drug I know of that helps with this kind of pain. Ordinary pain killers, even the strong ones, don’t address this kind of pain. Gabapentin is a great drug if you don’t overdo it, but there’s the rub…
The prescribing doctor said, “You can’t get addicted to gabapentin.” Newsflash: yes, you can. My symptoms went on for months and I continued to take the 900 milligram per day dosage. After 13 months, the symptoms had improved enough that I felt that I could stop taking the gabapentin, and I did. The first couple of days went OK, but by the third day I was getting really uncomfortable. That third day was a Friday and I couldn’t get in to see a doctor until Monday. That made a rough weekend. I wrote in my notebook:
“Withdrawal – starts with the chills, then queasy stomach begins, then a kind of crawly, squirming distraction of the brain. Then little knives of pain slice across the chest, and slice up and down. Then comes the itching – the peel your skin off with your fingernails itching…”
On Monday, I was able to get in to see my doctor (a different one than the dermatologist who prescribed the gabapentin). I left the office with a prescription for yet another pill to take at times when the withdrawal becomes too great to bear. So far, that is working, but now I have to be vigilant and disciplined to avoid becoming hooked on the new pill. Wish me luck.
Addiction issues are complex – Despite all the suffering I have endured in getting off the gabapentin, I would take it again were I to have another shingles attack of that magnitude. Shingles is worse than the drug dependency, plain and simple. I would go through all of this again to be delivered from that pain were it necessary to do so. Stopping is not always just a simple matter of enduring a couple of weeks of discomfort.
Just because a doctor gives it to you does not mean a drug isn’t dangerous – Notice that in my family’s story, all of the drugs are prescription, all obtained legally for medically justified conditions. These situations were not a matter of some kid going out on the street and voluntarily giving himself a heroin addiction. Don’t take a prescription on blind faith. Every day doctors prescribe drugs knowing that a percentage of users will experience adverse effects. More and more, I am becoming convinced that all pills have side effects and are dangerous in some respect.
The drug plays a mean game of chess – Once you have a dependency or addiction (they’re not the same), the drug will cause you to play head games with yourself. You may convince yourself that you can’t quit, or that taking the drug all the time isn’t all that bad. The rationalizations we can generate are endless. My personal favorite is, “I don’t have to suffer right now.” The fact is that these dependencies form a tax on your life – mind, soul, time, spirit, body – everything, and it tends to get worse as time goes by. You have to decide what you are willing to give up.
If you suspect you have a drug dependency, get help – There are a few rare people who are tough enough to do a withdrawal alone, but most of us aren’t. Be honest with your doctor. Say, “I’m having drug withdrawal and I need your help.” That’s what I did. The doctor will not call the cops or make you stand in the corner. Especially if you are working a job and/or caring for children, you will need professional help to kick.
A Closing Thought
I hope that if you have read this far, you do not feel judged. That is not my intention. You may be dependent on a drug and not be able to stop taking it. Your condition may make the drug inescapable. I feel for you and there is no shame in that. In my case, I decided that I wanted to stop the drug because of its side effects (like forget about having sex) and I judged that I had healed enough that kicking was possible. I believe this is correct. My grandfather never really had a problem with his addiction. He never tried to stop. He didn’t abuse the prescription, and he died at 64 of lung cancer. My father was hospitalized for an infected foot, and cut off from his pill supply, he went into intense withdrawal and the events that followed were dictated by the medical situation. He never got a vote on quitting voluntarily. After that, he put his life and career back together and enjoyed a successful conclusion to his career, but it was a life scared by a lost decade. Every situation is different.
The essence of this is the idea of decision. There is a decision to take the pills and a decision to stop, or not stop. When you’re hurting and feeling bad, that’s a legitimate basis for a decision. When the facts change – like maybe you don’t feel as bad as you did – that’s the time for a new decision. We will make these decisions or the drugs will make them for us. It’s just the nature of the game. I believe that we make better decisions on these matters when we are consciously deciding rather than allowing our head games and cravings to call the shots. That’s why I had to write this.