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Inspirational College Classmates

At a class reunion, inspired by the lives of others to keep learning, leading, challenging, innovating and contributing

College reunion

My eyes followed the second hand on the clock hanging on my kitchen wall: 7:55 p.m. Five more minutes.Then I could have my medicine. My pill. But not a second before. I’d promised myself. I picked up the prescription bottle from the kitchen counter and shook it, let the little white pills inside rattle around, as if it would comfort me the way a baby rattle did an infant. Hydrocodone, a cure-all for my pain, comfort through chemistry.

But why was I even thinking this way? If I wanted to stay alive, I had to stop taking these pills. In the past three days I’d slept for a total of six hours, and my mind and body were in overdrive. I’d spent one horrible night at a detox center two weeks earlier. The counselor there predicted that if I tried to get clean on my own, I would fail. I disagreed. I had gotten myself into this mess, and I would get myself out.

Sweat trickled down my forehead. My heart pounded. How much longer? Four and a half more minutes. The second hand had to click 270 more times before I could have it. Nobody else was in the house—my husband, Randy, was at work, and my 27-year-old daughter, Cassie, lived out of town. Just as well. I didn’t want anyone to see me like this, desperately counting down the seconds till medication time.

I’d come up with a plan: I would take only half a pill once a day at 8:00 p.m., instead of one pill every four hours. I had six pills left in the bottle—I’d be off the meds in 12 days. That counselor was wrong. I had it all under control. I wasn’t some junkie.

A doctor had prescribed hydrocodone for me 12 years earlier for chronic back pain. I only took the meds as prescribed, and I could stop anytime I wanted to. I didn’t need the help of any program.

Besides, what would people think if I landed in rehab? Randy and I owned the only grocery store in town and everybody knew us. We were key members of the Chamber of Commerce, and I’d served a term as president.

Sure, I wasn’t very active anymore—I’d gained almost 100 pounds in the years I’d been on hydrocodone, and I didn’t like showing my face in public—but everyone still remembered me the way I was, the energetic woman who ran tournaments for the ladies’ golf association and volunteered around town. Randy and I used to go to every high school football and basketball game—I’d sit with my friends while he did the play-by-play for the local radio station—and I helped organize Falls City’s annual Cobblestone Festival. I used to swim a mile every morning too. Overachiever much?

All that was before my back pain, before those little oblong pills sitting in front of me on the counter came into the picture. I was 38 years old when it happened. One morning at the pool, I bent over to change into my swimsuit. My back muscles clenched. Pain shot through my body like a bolt of lightning.

I hobbled to my car and drove straight to the emergency room. I spent a week in the hospital and another week on bed rest before I could stand up and walk again. Even then, the pain was excruciating. I spent eight grueling months in physical therapy and saw 13 specialists, but no one could pinpoint a cause.

“Try this,” my doctor said, scribbling out a prescription. “Hydrocodone. It won’t fix your back, but it will make the pain more tolerable.”

I filled the script. Took the bottle home. Little did I know the hundreds of bottles that would follow. There was a warning that said the pills were a controlled substance. Yes, but controlled by whom? I found out after the first dose. My pain melted away, and from then on the pills were in control.

Control. That’s what I needed now. Control over the pills. Control over my life again. I put my clammy palms on the green tile countertop, cool against my overheated skin. Three more minutes. I could smell the toxins coming off my body, the sweat of withdrawal. Really, it wasn’t only hydrocodone that had gotten me here.

The first time I had alcohol was in my freshman year at a Christian college. Talk about an eye-opener! I’d been raised in a religious home and always thought I’d become a minister. But when I drank, I felt like a different person. I stopped caring so much what other people thought and became the belle of the ball. I decided the minister’s life wasn’t for me.

I stopped going to church and transferred to a different college. Although I drank heavily, I pulled such good grades that nobody guessed the truth about my substance issue. I thought drinking was a solution, not a problem.

Once I developed the back pain, everyone took it for granted that I needed my pills. But that wasn’t enough. When my girlfriends invited me for a drink or two, I’d have three or four. Just to boost the medicine, I told myself. I needed some extra relief when I went out. Didn’t I deserve to be free of pain?

Okay, not just when I went out. I downed four cans of beer every night even when I stayed home. At least I kept up with my clubs and activities—sort of. Four years into my prescription, I stopped playing golf because it was too much for my back. I stopped going to the Chamber of Commerce meetings and didn’t go to everyball game anymore. I had to take care of myself, didn’t I? I had to make sure the pills kept working. Otherwise, what was the point? The pain would just take over.

Like now. My whole body ached, pain pulsing by the second. I wanted to be anywhere else but this claustrophobic kitchen, waiting for the clock to hit eight. I closed my eyes, pretended I was swimming in a pool, free from pain. I put my hand on my forehead—hot to the touch. At that instant I knew that I wanted that pill more than I had ever wanted anything in my life.

And the truth was that the pills hadn’t made me better. The more I took, the more I drank, the more irritable I became. Defensive. Even paranoid. One day Randy and I were in his truck on the way to the grocery store when he saw me pop a pill. “How many of those are you taking a day?” he asked. “I hope you’re not becoming addicted.”

“What do you mean, addicted? I’m just following the doctor’s orders! Do you want me to sit here in pain?” But Randy’s accusation cut deep. Maybe because it was true. I started to panic at the notion that people would think I was some kind of pill junkie. My anxiety got so bad, my doctor prescribed Xanax to calm me down and Ambien to help me sleep. Pills to deal with the pills.

Two more minutes now. I looked around the kitchen and all of a sudden it struck me how utterly isolated I was. My life was reduced to me and this bottle of pills. A moment of truth when everything else was swept away. I clutched the bottle. It wasn’t quite eight o’clock yet, but close enough. What difference would one minute make? Why take only half a pill? Why not a whole one? Why not just the entire bottle?

In the deathly silence of that kitchen I heard a voice cry out. Mine. “I can’t do this by myself!” My words rang in my ears. I can’t do this by myself. But I’d thought I could. I’d promised myself I could. I could be in control, the way I’d been my whole life. Or thought I had.

Tears fell down my cheeks. No, I wasn’t in control. The pills were. I was powerless. Everyone else was right—Randy, that counselor at the detox center. I was an addict, and I did need help. I set the bottle down on the counter and did something I hadn’t done in a very long time. I dropped to my knees and prayed, really prayed.

“Lord, I know that I’ve been distant for a long time. But please, please give me the strength to get through the next minute because I can’t do it on my own. I can’t do it without you.” I looked around the room. The sink, the refrigerator, the bottle of pills on the counter. Everything became peaceful and still. A newfound strength pumped through my veins, a feeling of relief so profound, so overwhelming and comforting, a feeling no substance could ever compare to.

I gripped the top of the counter with both hands, lifted myself up and glared at the pill bottle as if it was my mortal enemy. “You are no longer in control,” I said. “God is.” And I walked away. I struggled through my self-imposed detox for the next two weeks. My pain intensified, and the toxins that had built up in my body rose out of my skin. It was horrible at times, yet it was at those times I felt God’s strength the most. And those six pills sat on the counter. Untouched.

At every moment of weakness, of temptation, God stepped in. He pulled my hand back and wrapped me in his arms. Randy and Cassie were there for me too. I didn’t have to pretend I was in control anymore. I told them everything. I finally got honest, and honesty was the key to freedom.

One day I reached for the pills…and flushed them down the toilet. I quit drinking and got off the other meds too. I still have back pain, but I manage it in other ways. I walk four miles every day (I’ve lost 95 pounds!). I go to ball games again. I’m active in town. Best of all, I reconnected with life and with someone I almost lost—myself.

*This story appeared in the July 2015 issue of Guideposts magazine.

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