Editor’s Note: This article is a part of an Op-Ed series, “Second Opinion,” where patient experts share their take on current research, news, and trends in health and medicine. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the opinions or views of HealthCentral.com.
September 18 – 24, 2016 was declared “Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week” by President Barack Obama.
And I feel more stigmatized than ever because I use opioids to treat my chronic pain. What’s worse is that this heightened awareness and association with the street drug heroin has also created my own self-stigmas about how I manage that pain.
Managing my pain
I use opioids as a tool to manage my daily chronic pain from rheumatoid arthritis and spondylitis. I have lived with this pain for 24 of my 31 years. That’s a very long time to deal with pain! And there is no end in sight for me.
For the last decade, I have diligently worked to improve my physical function and quality of life, and am happy to report that I am doing better than ever. I am able to work part-time again, exercise, care for my family by doing chores and cooking, and pursue hobbies and goals.
None of those things would not be possible without my large toolbox of pain treatments. It includes heating pads, ice packs, music therapy, acupuncture, meditation, mindfulness, massage, float therapy, social interactions, exercise and stretching, medications to treat my disease, and… opioids.
The changing perception of opioids
When I say “opioids,” people get weird. Let’s face it, the media has led the general public to believe that anyone who takes opioids has failed morally. When really, we are just individuals failed by our medications, a lack of research in chronic pain, and a lack of insurance coverage for “alternative therapies.”
Ten years ago when I said “opioids,” people assumed I must be dealing with a serious illness or disease. Now, people hear “opioids” and shield me from their sons and daughters. They assume that because I take “that medicine,” I will be careless with it, become addicted, and eventually turn to the street drug heroin.
For the record, I have been using opioids off and on for 15 years and have never considered using heroin.
The only story we’re hearing is about drug addiction and overdoses. Statistics on addiction are thrown at us near daily on the nightly news. Because I take opioids, I am lumped into those statistics. Just as I am not equipped to discuss addiction and heroin usage, the media is not equipped to understand and accurately discuss chronic pain and opioid usage.
All users of opioids are not the same, and do not face the same problems as addicts. I have not been able to find any statistics that separate WHO is using WHAT, WHEN they are using it, and WHERE they are getting it from. This information was just not readily available when I went searching for it.
Guilt and self-stigma
The problem with all of this is they’ve gotten in my head: I now self-stigmatize my use of the very medications that allow me to be a contributing member of society. I feel guilty about having to use opioids. I second-guess myself, my strength, my disease, my very existence.
These are moments where I am struggling to move, I’m hurting too bad to shower or make myself food, when the pain is so consuming I can’t concentrate enough to work. And yet, I hesitate to take the drugs that would help me.
Luckily, I have a good support system around me that reminds me, “I love you, but you’re a dingbat! Take care of yourself.” I know many don’t have this same support though, and I fear for their mental health as they struggle to get through the day in chronic pain. When people’s pain isn’t adequately treated, this is when they become desperate, turn to alcohol or street drugs, or in the worst moments become suicidal.
The truth is, people in chronic pain only become addicted to opioids one quarter of one percent of the time. Yet the only problem our government is attempting to solve is overdose and addiction. Legislation is making it harder and harder for folks in chronic pain to have access to the opioids that give them quality of life.
To solve the “opioid crisis” without harming the large population of people living in chronic pain, we need to go back to the beginning. Once we have reliable statistics, we need to look at how health care approaches pain. We need to allow physicians the space to treat chronic pain patients using the medication they judge is best. Next, pain treatment should include mental health, and putting alternative treatments on an equal playing field as opioids, with health insurance coverage.
We have a long way to go.
But for now, let’s change the conversation and stop demonizing people for diseases, injuries, and pain they didn’t ask for. Those of us who live with chronic illness are already hard enough on ourselves, we don’t need the media and government adding to that.
To put it in perspective: not everyone who drinks a glass of wine becomes an alcoholic. Opioids are not all bad. They, in fact, allow many people to live.
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