August 18th, 2016
I’m not a fan of the rapper Macklemore, but I agree with him on a lot of political shit and about LGBT rights and so on. Another piece of common ground: We’ve both battled a serious opioid addiction.
His drug of choice was OxyContin. Mine was street heroin. I injected for years, and it almost killed me many times through overdose. I quit five years ago, after a spell on methadone.
So when I heard that cough medicine had caused Macklemore to relapse, it scared me. Were I ever to need strong medicine for pain, I suspected, I might get pulled back into my own self-destructive spiral.
And that fear kept me from getting much-needed dental surgery for years.
I had needed the awful stumps of my wisdom teeth removed from my jaw forever. Their disgusting, long-festering condition was at least partly due to my old, chaotic lifestyle, and I had put off dealing with this problem long after I dealt with my heroin problem.
If someone as well-off and well-supported as Macklemore could get messed up by cough syrup, what chance did I have if I needed powerful painkillers?
In my current job, working for The Influence, worrying reminders are never far away. As Tony O’Neill wrote here in his memorable piece about what happened after a traumatic traffic accident, “The Anatomy of a Relapse”:
Every time I limped into a doctor’s office, bruised from head to foot, hunched over like an old man, inevitably they would ask if I needed something for the pain, and inevitably I answered yes.
One pill, taken as needed, became five pills chewed and swallowed two or three times a day, my intake increasing steadily until a bottle of 30 OxyContin lasted no time at all.
Pretty terrifying stuff.
Now, I know that most people who have been addicted can use prescribed drugs and be ok. I know there are good precautions you can take—talk to your doctor about your previous problems, for sure, maybe ask someone else to hold your meds. But could I really be sure that it would be ok for me?
I was upfront with my oral surgeon when I went for my preliminary appointment. I told him the horror stories I’d heard about painkiller-induced relapses. He replied that if taken carefully as prescribed, Vicodin would not trigger a relapse. We agreed a plan by which I would have opioid painkillers on hand for the first three days, and then switch them for non-narcotic painkillers after that.
It looked like everything was going to be alright—until I had a chat with the receptionist about the price of my luxurious pain-management plan.
“Wait. Getting put under is more than $500?!”
“Can I just do it when I’m awake and just save the money?”
“Well, usually people don’t do that.”
“But I can, right?”
“Yeah, if you want”
A few weeks later when I came back for the actual procedure, I was nervous. The surgeon—and I’ll credit him for his honesty—said that it was gonna hurt.
“I’ve only had two or three people do this awake,” he told me, without any discernible sadistic excitement. “You are going to hear a lot of crunching and popping and there is gonna be a lot of pressure. You are likely to see blood. If anything hurts too much, tell me.”
He and his assistant applied topical anesthesia to my gums with a cotton swab, and it was time for the needles. I figured I could at least handle those easily.
They jabbed the first one directly through my gums and into my nerves. It didn’t hurt until the local anesthetic got pumped, at which point I felt excruciating shooting pain for a few moments and let out a muffled whimper.
“You alright?” the surgeon asked.
“It’s ok!” I said brightly, preparing for approximately 10 more brutal injections.
“This is usually why people get put under,” the surgeon quipped. The horrifying pain of each injection left me sweating. Soon, though, the novocaine was taking effect and the ache subsided.
“Ok, you are already past the worst of it.”
As the numbness took over, I got back to feeling excited that I was finally getting rid of those rotting teeth.
The surgeon began chipping away at the teeth, crushing them, yanking out pieces and generally chiseling into my skull. I could hear the cracking and feel the pressure, as advertised.
At one point I asked if I could take a selfie (above), which significantly lightened the mood in the room.
The surgeon yanked and tugged, struggling to pull out a stubborn root, cursing under his breath.
He finally grabbed my head and rotated it clockwise while cranking the tooth counterclockwise. At last, the tooth popped out, at which point I let out a muffled series of whimpers.
“Are you ok? What did you say?” the surgeon asked.
“I said, aalllrriiiiiigght,'” I told him, doing my best imitation of the Fonze.
“You’re handling this alright, brother.”
“Well I’ve been through a few heroin detoxes.” I said trying to pretend I am way tougher than I actually am.
Fast-forward a whole other hour of this, and I was free to go home, three wisdom tooth stumps lighter.
My Vicodin prescription had been sent ahead to my pharmacy.
I didn’t fill it at first—I still didn’t want to take a chance I’d slip up like Macklemore—so I took a fuck-load of Motrin instead. As the novocaine wore off, I started to feel pain, but it was manageable.
I can do this without the heavier stuff, I thought.
Then, around 10:30 at night, my entire face swelled up so much I couldn’t sleep. I could almost hear the surgeon chiseling into my skull again. That’s when I popped a Vicodin.
The pain soon went away. I felt a warm and very familiar sleepiness. I thought about what had caused me to inject heroin for three years. Why I would obsess over those tiny moments on smack that were in fact perfect.
Back when I started injecting heroin, I was in state of constant decline, unable to balance school, my learning disabilities or my break-ups. But above all, I just felt that I wasn’t using my creativity, didn’t have a purpose I could recognize. My mind felt useless so I didn’t care.
This time, the Vicodin gave me that similar coziness. I felt good, good that I didn’t have to think about anything. I went to sleep.
I woke up and felt better. I’m in a very different place these days. I’m in a relationship, have a career I’m passionate about, and plenty of other good things in my life. Revisiting opioids felt pleasant, sure, but no longer essential.
Read more from The Influence:
I’ve always felt that I can be a much bigger nuisance to bad cops and worse politicians while off heroin. Also, I never took kindly to the religious and self-shaming aspects of 12-step recovery, so take a certain pride in having quit on my own.
With these things in mind, I carried on popping the pills as and when I needed them for pain, at night when my jaw would swell.
The third evening after my surgery was hot, and my jaw was acting up. I took a Vicodin and went to a friend’s Brooklyn house to hang out on her roof, looking out across Manhattan.
The moon was blood-red as the opioid dissolved. I wracked my brain, trying again to figure out why I had once been so into this feeling that it had almost killed me.
My friends and I stare at the night. I lie on my back and feel the wind’s heat as it slithers over, billowing my clothes. Heroin is something you get lost in. It’s beautiful and empty like the vastness of the sky. I make sure to dwell on this feeling. Then I put it aside.
I hold on to that. I walk home and decide to toss my last two Vicodin pills and drink tincture.