Pubdate: Sun, 05 Jun 2016
Source: Orange County Register, The (CA)
Copyright: 2016 The Orange County Register
Author: Sam Dunn


Each spring when the jacarandas bloom and the breezes flutter their 
purple petals through the air, I always hum, "Purple rain, purple 
rain .." So it was all the more tragic - and coincidental  that just 
as the jacaranda petals started to fall this year, Prince, the artist 
behind that song and dozens of other hits that form the soundtrack of 
my teens, was found unresponsive, alone in his suburban Minneapolis home.

That he was only 57 was shocking enough. That he was known as a 
clean-living, serious artist was all the more. Here was a superstar 
who had a reputation for being a teetotaling vegan. Always attracted 
to the spiritual, he became a Jehovah's Witness, forsaking - even 
swearing not to mention - the overt sexuality of his early music and 
stage persona.

Initial reports after his death pointed to a bad case of the flu. 
Still, how could such a vital man just drop dead?

Other reports started to leak out. Weeks after, The New York Times 
ran a thorough and convincing report pointing to pain pill overdose 
as the likely cause of Prince's untimely death. Years of frenetic 
performances - doing the splits, leaping from stage risers only to 
land in those famously high-heeled shoes - had taken their inevitable 
toll on his joints. Even superstars can't escape the laws of aging. 
There was mention of hip surgery in the early '00s. All of this 
points to chronic pain, but those who thought they knew him well 
seemed dumbfounded that Prince had a problem with pain pills. How 
could this happen?

I know exactly how.

And whether they admit it or not, so do millions of us who have 
suffered severe injury or disease that results in the kind of 
long-term ache that gnaws at you, blanketing your life like a cold 
shroud you can't shake.

In a near-fatal horseback riding incident in the mid-'90s, my 
shoulder was dislocated and my left leg was all but severed. 
Orthopedic surgeons reconstructed my crushed bones with titanium rods 
and screws, vascular surgeons stitched a new map of veins and an 
artery, and a plastic surgeon brought skin together into an 
acceptable form. Miraculous. Truly. I published the book "Not By 
Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life," about how I recovered from 
that accident and went on to ride again. Sure, my leg can't take the 
pounding of running or jumping, but I did start to be a serious dance 
enthusiast - a journey I wrote about in another book, "Faith in Carlos Gomez."

But what I have never, ever written about - until now - is the 
ongoing misery that led to years of dependence on Vicodin and other 
pain medication, and the struggle I had to get off them. Advances in 
medicine mean that doctors can put together and make functional 
injuries that would have meant amputation or disability in the past, 
but movement is accompanied by pain. All that time I was writing 
books, riding horses again, taking yoga, even dancing, I was paying a 
price for it no one suspected.

Pain management protocol calls for you to "stay ahead of the pain" by 
taking medication before you start to truly suffer. And so like a 
good girl, I followed the Rx. Except, somewhere down the line, one 
pill stopped keeping the misery at bay. So then I took two, three. If 
I forgot or even if I thought, "I don't need these today, I'm feeling 
OK," when that gnawing ache inevitably returned, it felt to me all 
the more voracious, crippling. So then three, four. I made my own 
twist to the lyrics to an old Jefferson Airplane song: One OxyContin 
makes you invincible. One Vicodin makes you calm. And the Tylenol 
from Savon doesn't do anything at all ...

I didn't start taking pills for recreation, to check out of my life, 
but for physical suffering. My disfiguring scars were proof enough, 
right? But here is where the line into addiction starts to blur: 
These opioids don't only alleviate aches in the body. There is a 
numbness, a wrapped-in-cotton sensation that enables you to function 
but be protected from the sharpness of life. Like anyone, I had my sorrows.

The pills served also to buffer the upset over a divorce, a 
dysfunctional family history, from the ever-present, low-grade 
anxiety over money and career ambitions.

Say "addict" and up pops the image of the junkie with needle tracks, 
the meth head with rotting teeth, the criminal trying to score. How 
could this be me? I lived in Malibu! My articles were on the covers 
of national magazines! I was taking medicine, after all. My doctors - 
by this time I had a few - kept filling my legal prescriptions. Never 
mind that my normally buxom, muscled 5-foot-8 frame was down to a 
mere 125 pounds. That I kept fainting. That I was missing deadlines 
and not answering the phone - for days.

Seven years after my accident, one of my doctors - a therapist - 
finally put two and two together. I'd gone to him just because I 
thought I was in a slump. When he said, "You are addicted to these 
pain pills," I was truly stunned - the thought really had never 
crossed my mind  and then in the next instant I burst into tears. The 
truth of it rang in my ears. He demanded I seek treatment, and, 
because I didn't want to live the way I was living one more day, I 
followed his advice.

But many people in my life - my mother, my closest girlfriends - 
thought the doctor was overreacting. They had seen me in the days 
after my accident, remembered how I had to learn to walk again, and 
how certain they were I would eventually be an amputee. What is wrong 
with taking a pill if it means you can relax and escape the clenching 
sensation of pain? In treatment, though, I met so many people like me 
- - a car accident, a back injury, a nerve problem, and years later, a 
dependence on drugs that seemed to help less and less and harm more and more.

All I can tell you is, in my heart, I know I could easily have 
suffered the same fate as Prince. I was lucky someone saw my problem 
in time. I was luckier still that he said it in a moment when I listened.

Even though there is a growing awareness of painkiller addiction in 
the medical community and society, the solution has been to limit the 
pills, when what is really needed is a new approach to pain 
management. Cannabidiol, extracted from marijuana and separated from 
the high-producing psychoactive THC, shows promise, but research is 
bogged down in the controversy surrounding pot use. Acupuncture 
offers some relief, as does massage and biofeedback forms of 
meditation. In fact, most alternative therapies that show promise 
aren't covered by most insurance plans. Pain pills are. And that is a 
relief I just can't afford.

My solution has been to take advantage of therapies when I can, but 
otherwise accept that I will live with a slow, dull pain much of the 
time. In fact, I started writing this at 4 in the morning, awake 
because my leg was throbbing. I avoid many of the activities I once 
loved, like the serious equestrian pursuits I used to enjoy. I don't 
dance often. But I laugh a lot, and hug tight the son I had after I 
kicked pills. And I try to be grateful for all beauty around me. 
Look, the jacarandas are still in bloom.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom