How People Accidentally Overdose on Painkillers and Other Thoughts of a Tuesday Night in November

I was addicted to painkillers almost twenty years ago. They gave me a sense of wellbeing.  I’d felt so lousy—so numb or filled with despair or obsessed and angry—for so long, I was absolutely thrilled to feel good. I didn’t care that its source was synthetic.

I don’t remember when I began taking more to get the same effect, but it was inevitable. Nature of the beast. After a couple years, I was taking fourteen a day during the work week and up to thirty on weekend days.

I remember going to bed one night and not being able to sleep. Although usually my mix of painkillers, Tofranil and Zyprexa knocked me out, every so often it didn’t.

So there I was, staring at the ceiling, debating whether or not to get up. All of a sudden, I became aware I wasn’t breathing. I thought it strange I didn’t have the normal sense that preceded the need to inhale. As a minute ticked by and I still didn’t feel any physical discomfort or bodily alarm at not breathing, I decided maybe I should stop contemplating the phenomenon and make myself inhale.

After I exhaled, again my body didn’t inhale on its own. I forced another inhale. This happened a few times before I got nervous. Something was clearly wrong. I figured if I exercised a little, everything would go back to normal. I walked around my apartment a while and finally sat on the couch, confident I was breathing normally again, but I felt too nervous to go back to bed before dawn.

Years later I learned that too much painkiller in your system can stop the mechanism that governs breathing. Your body can become unpredictably toxic from narcotics it hasn’t been able to metabolize. When this happens, your brain just doesn’t get the message to inhale anymore.

Unfortunately, the body doesn’t give you any advance notice that it’s becoming this toxic, so one day you take the same amount of pills you took the day before, but this time when you fall asleep, you don’t wake up again.

I think doctors should tell patients about this possibility and pharmaceutical companies (ha!) should label their painkillers with warnings that the drug may unpredictably stop you from breathing.

***

I’ve noticed that since Jack died, I’ve had this embarrassing compulsion to talk too much. I mean, it’s really excessive and it feels like I can’t stop it. I’ll become aware I’m doing it and say to the person I’m talking to, “Oh my gosh, I hear myself, and I’m talking too much and feel like I can’t stop.”

You can imagine their expression hearing this.

I’ve felt almost powerless over it and it’s demoralizing. I never did this before. I used to be so socially adept. Wha’ happen?

I was reading Victor Frank’s Man’s Search for Meaning a few weeks ago. At one point, he writes about the days after liberation from Auschwitz. He says of another inmate,

“…he began to talk, often for hours. The pressure which had been on his mind for years was released at last. Hearing him talk, one had the impression that he had to talk, that his desire to speak was irresistible. I have known people who have been under heavy pressure only for a short time…to have similar reactions.”

I felt a little better after reading that. I was under a lot of pressure taking care of Jack on my own 24/7 after we moved to Arizona. I was taking care of him in Chicago, too, but psychologically I was always aware his daughter lived nearby if we needed her. My brother’s family was close as well. In our home near Tucson, we had no one. My uncle and cousin were three hours away.

It’s a lot of pressure being a caretaker, especially when the one you love more than anyone in the world appears to be dying.

I’ve released a lot of buried trauma and emotional energy over the years. This unconscious, compulsive release through talking has a different feel to it. I’d like to find another way of releasing that energy than talking incessantly to strangers.

***

The eczema on the bottom of my feet that appeared a month before Jack died has not gone away. I’ve used the usual Cortisone creams and stopped scratching. Still, it remains.

It is not uncommon for those with PTSD to have eczema. When you’re going through trauma or intense stress and you are flooded with stress hormones (cortisol!), the body becomes ripe for inflammatory conditions like eczema.

I looked up remedies on earthclinic.com and a lot of people said applying diluted apple cider vinegar was a miracle cure. I mixed a solution of half water-half ACV and applied it to the bottom of my feet with a paper towel. I rinsed after twenty minutes. I was shocked to find it stopped the itching. I’ve been applying the solution every day. It has not cleared up the inflamed areas, but the eczema isn’t increasing and it continues not to itch. It’s only been a week. I’ll update.

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