by Suzannah Gilman
You watch the news. You know the abuse of prescription painkillers is an epidemic. Opioids, which bring a high (painkillers like Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet, methadone, codeine, and fentanyl—which comes in handy-dandy lollipop form as well) and benzodiazepines, which are depressants (like Xanax, Valium, and Ativan) have become middle-class America’s drugs of choice. The problem is that when a legitimate use of these drugs becomes a habit, which is what started this epidemic, those taking the drugs don’t think of themselves as drug addicts. They have a legitimate prescription. That’s their name on the label. Doctor’s orders.
When I saw August: Osage County the other night, I was disturbed. The level of gross dysfunction didn’t shake me; I grew up with dysfunction on a grander scale. What bothered me is something that is so narrow, so seemingly unimportant that most others would ignore it if they noticed it. Since seeing the first trailers of this film, I looked forward to seeing it. The movie is even better than I’d hoped, with some of the best acting I’ve seen. Streep’s portrayal of Violet Weston was so powerful as to cause me to mishear her character’s name as “Violent” more than once. But there was a flaw in her portrayal.
Two women who are close to me have been addicted to the prescription painkillers that Violet Weston is addicted to in the film. One of these women is still addicted and, like Violet, says she needs them because she’s in pain. She refuses to admit her addiction. The other shopped for doctors to get the huge amount of drugs she took daily, and she got caught. She faced either criminal charges or going to rehab. She chose rehab. When the one who still takes the drugs ended up in the ER after an accident, I was shocked to learn of the drugs she was taking and the doses.
There’s no way Violent Weston could have been taking more than this woman, and she probably wasn’t taking as much. But there was never a time when I could detect that either of the women I know very well were high on prescription painkillers. In contrast, Violet Weston slurs and staggers, appears to go in and out of daydreams, and generally looks like a mental patient when she is high. My beef is that addicts who are already in denial will be further in denial after watching Streep’s performance. We all know what an expert actress Streep is. We really believe her. Her performances are gospel. I can hear my addict friend saying, “I’m not like that! I don’t act like her! I don’t have that kind of problem.” But she does.
The woman I know has been taking the pills (I’m guessing conservatively, because she hid it) for at least 15 years. But there’s never been a physical indication that she’s high. How many of us loved the Hugh Laurie House character? He charmed us into loving a stone-cold Vicodin addict, glamorizing the addiction and never looking high. That depiction was realistic. Those addicted to prescription painkillers can be smart, charming people and when they weave in and out of our lives every day we don’t suspect that their body chemistry is altered.
August: Osage County has been made. It’s been nominated for several Oscars. No one is going to change it, and Streep’s portrayal, incorrect according to my knowledge and experience, is going to be seen by addicts all across this country and the world. They’re going to add it to their arsenal of justification for denial. So what? This is not a letters to the editor column where I just chime in and bitch righteously and sign my name at the bottom of my rant. This is real. So here we go.
The addict I know is my mother.
The rehabbed addict is also a family member.
And I took Vicodin for fourteen years.
I knew after only two weeks of taking Vicodin that my body was addicted. I had a serious back injury that required months of rehabilitation. My back has been screwed up since and will never be anything other than “a bad back.” Two weeks after being admitted to the hospital, I still couldn’t stand. I couldn’t yet begin to think about physical therapy, and after a few days home from the hospital I barely made it back for the first of the remaining two epidural injections of steroids. We put a twin mattress on the family room floor, where I spent most of my hours. I didn’t want to miss out on my children.
On the day I learned I was addicted, I couldn’t lie still. I had the twitches. It was just after Valentine’s Day, so I assumed I’d had too much chocolate. “When is the last time you took your pain pill?” my mother asked me over the phone. I couldn’t remember. “Bite off a little piece of it and that’ll take the edge off,” she said. I did, and it did. Two things failed to cross my mind that day: 1) to ask the doctor for a planned program to stop once I didn’t need the medicine for this extreme pain, and 2) how in the HELL did my mother know that?!
After I went through physical therapy and could stand and walk, I went back to college to finish the three years I had left. I had academic scholarships all the way through, top grades, and from there I went on to law school—on drugs.
I know the self-righteousness of saying “I’m not an addict.” A friend who is a fervent member of AA—but who smokes a ton of pot instead—preached to me several times about my addiction and how I needed to quit. I took his advice from where it came: a hypocrite. He didn’t know that I knew he was smoking pot. (Does that still make him a hypocrite? Even more so. He’s kept the addict’s characteristic of withholding information if not telling outright lies.) To try to justify myself to him, I told him I needed the drugs for my pain. Sheesh. Some people! But I was in pain, every day and every night for all those years I took Vicodin, and as time passed, I realized my pain had gotten worse.
My body was addicted to the drugs. I didn’t try kidding myself about that. But I didn’t feel like an addict because I didn’t feel psychologically addicted. To me, that fine line was enough to separate me from everyone else. With the knowledge that my body was addicted, I was careful not to graduate from Vicodin to Oxy. I verbalized my hesitations to my doctor. I don’t want to get into trouble with painkillers, I’d say. She’d sign another scrip for Vicodin.
What changed my mind about taking pills was my real-life version of Scared Straight, that 70s documentary where juvenile delinquents are taken into prisons to get a close-up experience with the convicts so that they will choose a better path. When my mother was in a motorcycle accident and ended up in the ER, I found out the drugs she was taking. Big bad Oxy and lots of it, and some other drugs I can’t remember the names of. She was screaming and moaning in pain and yelling (think Streep’s portrayal of Violet here, and I’m talking about the mean Violet), “Suzy! Make them give me something! They’re just letting me lay here in pain! I cannnnnn’t staaaaand this pain! Make them help me!”
The doctors said they were afraid that her heart would stop if they gave her more. They couldn’t fathom someone being able to handle the amount she was already taking, unacceptable doses in their view, the doses prescribed by her long-time doctor. But my mother was in severe pain. That was apparent. I felt sorry for her, looking at her bloody, bruised, broken, and swollen body. “Wouldn’t the ER be the best place for her heart to stop, theoretically?” I asked the doctors. “I mean, I don’t know that much about medicine—I only have training as a lawyer—but it seems like you’d be able to give her Narcan if it turned out to be too much.” They ended up giving her a lot more drugs.
The doctors assumed, as I hoped they would, that I had a little experience in litigating med mal and wrongful death cases, and that’s why I mentioned Narcan, which wasn’t true. I learned about it while giving birth to my first child. I had some Demerol and it put me to sleep. They gave me Narcan and reversed it like I’d never had Demerol; that’s the only time I had drugs in my four childbirths. Had my mother’s doctors known the source of my knowledge, they probably wouldn’t have been persuaded by me to give her more drugs. Had they known that I had a bottle of Vicodin in my purse and that I’d been taking it for thirteen and a half years, they would have laughed in my face. Worse, they would have said we were a pair of mother and daughter drug addicts enabling one another.
I wasn’t enabling her, but I took the loving, sensible stance that though my mother was addicted, given her serious injuries and honest-to-goodness pain, they would have to make her as comfortable as they could so she could deal with getting well; getting clean would come later. Three years later, she’s still on the pills, no matter how many times I’ve talked to her about it. But I got clean. And that still didn’t sway her.
I got clean because I didn’t want to be like her. I didn’t want to be called a drug addict, and I didn’t want that to be true of me, either. I didn’t want to be afraid of being in unbearable pain before and after surgery, as she was, and I didn’t want to turn into a yelling, paranoid woman who looked like a psych patient, as she did. I’m a stubborn woman, an endearing trait I got from my mother, but it looks like I’m the more stubborn of the two, because I decided I was not going to let any doctor have the power over me that those doctors had over her. I would be stronger than her in this situation. I would be an example for her to follow.
I didn’t tell my pain doctor I was going to quit. She wrote prescriptions, she didn’t guide patients through detox, and I felt that quitting my regular visits to her would be in some way a rejection of her and all she tried to do for me. I felt like I was going AWOL, but it was liberating, I must say. I got my last prescription, which would normally last two months if I was lucky, and I made it last a year.
No solitary confinement prisoner or survivor of a shipwreck ever rationed what would keep them alive as carefully as I rationed my pills. I had always been in pain while I was on the pills and I was in pain for a long time while getting off the pills, but I noticed a gradual reduction in pain. It’s amazing what our bodies will do to heal themselves if we let them. I told my mother this while I was quitting. That did not sway her.
Many, many nights I could not sleep because my body would not stay still. To hide my shakes and twitches from my fiancé, I’d move to the floor, saying that it was better for my back. True, sometimes I was on the floor because of my back, needing the stiff support and changing positions frequently to try to alleviate the pain, so that was the perfect cover for my withdrawal. I didn’t actually need cover; he knew what I was doing and supported me enthusiastically and fully. The symptoms of withdrawal embarrassed me, though. They seemed to be a sign of weakness or a sign that I was a sinner who needed to make atonement. The aftermath of addiction was my secret shame. But I would not, as my mother had advised me fourteen years earlier, take an extra bite of a pill to make the shakes go away. That would be weak. That might make me run out of the remaining pills too soon. That could make me go get more pills. My resolve to get through the long process of rehabilitating myself proved to me that what I had been saying all along was true: my body was addicted, but I was not psychologically addicted. My mind was strong. My strong mind got me through, as it has gotten me through so many other things. How grateful I was for the strength. How naïve and arrogant I was, too, to think that my example could sway my mother.
Back to Violet Weston. One of the many things Streep got right was the venomous look when she was furiously angry. Something about that coupled with her cheekbones reminded me of my mother when she was at her angriest, decades ago. Streep’s exaggerated portrayal of an addict shook me because the character reminded me so much of my mother in other ways.
I know that when my mother sees the film, she’ll dig in and say even more fervently that she is not an addict. What will it take for her to admit it, though? What will it take to sway her? Not her experience with all those doctors and nurses who told her she’s addicted. Not being told by her daughter that she’s addicted and not by seeing me work through addiction. (Her first reaction to my news of getting off the pills was “It might sound like I’m not happy for you, but I am.” That was her only statement on the matter.) And certainly Meryl Streep cannot sway her. Why was I so ready to put on Hollywood the burden of getting my mother’s head straight? Only because I love her. Only because I feel sorry for her and I am looking for something or someone to blame for her not getting clean. Because I wish I knew what could make her strong. Stubbornness makes me strong.
My mother is stubborn, too, as Violet Weston is, but she also shares another trait of Violet Weston: they both decide when to be strong and when to be weak. They throw on that big, floppy hat of victimhood like it makes them glamorous and blameless, excusing them from the agency they have in their own lives.