My Journey With Opioid Addiction: How I Used Alternative Medicine to Heal
As a licensed health care professional, I often cringe whenever I tell my story of my dependency on opioids. However, if my tale can help just one single person, it’s worth it. My journey of addiction began with an innocent day in the kitchen where I was tending to my sick boyfriend (who, like all men, was whining about having a basic head cold). I decided to open up a new pressure cooker to make some homemade soup for him. We were nestled in his tiny New York City apartment watching a World War II movie, just steps away from the kitchen, where my homemade soup was soon to be finished.
I walked over to the pressure cooker and unlocked it to take off the lid when—BOOM! The lid flew off the handle, and water, steam, and the contents of the soup exploded in my face and covered the room. Veggies were everywhere, and I was completely soaked in hot water. My boyfriend ran in and immediately rushed me to the bathroom to douse myself in cold water. Then the pain—an unbearable, seething, burning feeling—started to sink in.
We immediately rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital, which, luckily, was just a few blocks away. The woman at the front desk kept telling us to “please sit down ma’am” until finally a nurse saw my face begin to blow up and peel off, and she rushed me to the ICU. They gave me a dose of morphine for the pain, but then said they weren’t equipped to handle my case and were transferring me to the Cornell Burn Unit, an intensive care unit for burn victims.
Almost instantly, I was in an ambulance, flying uptown. At this point, I was in complete and total shock. My face was swelling, and I could barely see. We got to the ICU burn unit and a new group of doctors was there to meet me with another shot of morphine.
And that’s when I almost died.
My Near-Death Experience
My heart stopped. Doctors would later explain to me that it happened because I was given two shots of morphine in less than an hour—a dangerous oversight due to miscommunication among the two facilities.
I vividly remember my near-death experience: It was very blissful, white and glowing. There was a sensation of this grandiose spirit calling me. But I remember looking down at my body in the hospital bed, my boyfriend and my family around me, and knew I couldn’t leave yet. Then I woke up.
I was alive, but still had to deal with the third-degree burns covering 11 percent of my body and face. Soon, I underwent skin graft surgery where doctors took skin from my buttocks to cover burned areas on my body. I was in the ICU for about three weeks, jacked up on painkillers the entire time. They were the only thing that could get me through the torturous pain.
Interestingly enough, I never took pain meds of any sort as a kid; my parents wouldn’t even give me or my siblings Tylenol or Advil to reduce a fever. But now, when I finally got to leave the hospital, the painkillers came with me.
My First Recovery: Losing Myself to Pain Medication
Over the next few months, I slowly healed my burned body. Nothing was easy; I was still covered in bandages, and even the simplest thing, like sleeping, was difficult. Every position irritated a wound site, and I couldn’t even sit for too long because the donor site from my skin graft was still raw. The painkillers helped, but they went down with a bittersweet taste. Each pill stopped the pain from being all-consuming but it also took “me” away with it. On the meds, I was jittery and paranoid, nervous and insecure. I had difficulty focusing and even breathing.
Then there was my face, a face I no longer recognized. I remembered when a mere pimple would be reason enough to hide in my apartment—but there was no putting on zit cream and concealer in this situation. My whole face was burned, and everybody knew it, especially me. My self-confidence crumbled and wilted like a dying flower on a hot, arid day. There was no pep in my step and I could not see a bright future ahead, no matter how many people told me that I was looking better every day. I wanted to look and feel like I had before the burn, but that would only be a reality in my dreams.
Soon I started having panic attacks: in the car, in the shower, right outside my apartment building, at every stop sign while attempting to cross the street. My boyfriend insisted I go to his primary care physician, so I did—and he immediately put me on Paxil, a prescription medication for anxiety. After a few weeks, I stopped feeling anxious (and wasn’t having any panic attacks)—but I also stopped feeling anything.
At this point, it seemed like everyone in my life wanted me off the meds. My boyfriend described me as a “shell” of my former self and begged me to consider going off of this pharmaceutical cocktail I was relying on every day. I promised him I would try weaning off.
The next morning, I woke up, nestled in bed, and looked out of our high-rise bedroom window—and for the first time, thought to myself that it might be easier to just jump out into the sky and let it all be over. I walked to the window and pulled it open. Luckily, the rush of cold air and honking sounds startled me back to life. What was I just about to do?! These drugs were turning me into such a zombie that jumping, somehow, for a moment, seemed like an option.
I walked to the bathroom, took the bottles of pills out of the medicine cabinet, and threw them down the garbage chute. It was over. Later that day, I went into a deep hole researching all the side effects of both opioids (like Vicodin) and anti-anxiety meds (like Paxil). It turns out, all the side effects I experienced—from difficulty breathing and lack of emotion to detachment of self—were common when on these meds.
Regaining My Power: How I Used Alternative Medicine to Heal
I decided, at that moment, to turn away from synthetic medicine and turn to the exact thing I was studying: alternative medicine. Before the pressure cooker exploded, I had just started school at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) school in New York City. Although I already had such a strong interest in traditional Chinese medicine, I hadn’t actually put it to use in my own life yet—but now I had the perfect opportunity.
With the help of my professors and other TCM professionals, I started meditating, focusing on loving myself (scars, pain and all), going to acupuncture, trying color therapy (simply painting colors on canvas), and taking Chinese herbal formulas prescribed by my professor.
I took corydalis, as well as ginger, turmeric, licorice root, and frankincense. My herbalist gave me an assortment of herbs to take to help calm my anxiety, like rhoidola rosea, licorice root and mimosa tree bark.
I started noticing that my diet mattered too: If I ate processed food, I would have shooting pain at the site of my deepest wounds, the skin grafts. I started monitoring my sleep and stress levels because those would both have direct impacts on my pain level. After a while, I didn’t need to take the herbs constantly. My pain levels decreased. My scars slowly healed. I began to appreciate my life again.
On opioids, life spiraled by, days blended into nights, events became a blur. After the fog had lifted, I began appreciating the present and because I wasn’t consumed with myself and my pain, the kaleidoscope of details in life was once again available to me.
Meditation taught me to breath into the power of now and accept the present. Acceptance brought with it compassion and love for myself, which allowed me to not only be nicer to myself, but to let myself be loved by others. I no longer judged myself or compared myself to an older version of me, or to others. Instead of looking externally for others to validate my worthiness, I meditated on my deeper self and surprisingly, found it very gratifying! This took a long time to accomplish, but has been one of the best lessons in my life.
Using My Knowledge to Help Others
In 2004, I graduated from TCM school with a master’s degree in acupuncture and herbology, and I have been practicing alternative medicine for more than a decade now. I’ve watched herbal medicine help my patients. That, coupled with my personal experience and research on the side effects of all these pharmaceutical drugs, made me think: There needs to be an alternative available so people don’t end up in the same position as I was.
But you can’t just go grab herbal medicine at the drugstore. So I decided to make my own company, IN:TotalWellness, which makes herbal healing formulas accessible to anyone. While there’s no guarantee that everyone will experience the same results from Chinese medicine as I have, it gives me comfort to know that if they want to try it for themselves, they now have that option.
I often reflect on the day I almost took my life, and it haunts me. I will forever be grateful to my alternative medicine team for helping me withdraw from prescription medications. Now, I look back at what happened on that day in 2001 as a blessing because it has given me the opportunity to help other people heal with natural medicine.
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