A year ago, I woke in the night with pain so severe I was crying before I was fully aware what was going on. A 50-year-old cop sobbed like a child in the dark.
It was a ruptured disc and related nerve damage. Within a couple of months, it became so severe that I could no longer walk or stand. An MRI later, my surgeon soothingly told me it would all be okay. He would take care of me; the pain would end.
After surgery, I never saw that surgeon again. A nurse practitioner handed me a prescription for painkillers — 180 tablets, 90 each of oxycodone and hydrocodone.
I was lucky: I already knew how easily opioid addiction could destroy a life. I'd arrested addicts and helped people suffering from substance abuse. So as soon as I could, I weaned myself off the medication. Still, I fell into the trap when my pain returned months later, and I started taking the pills again.
Since then, I've been stuck like a growing number of people in a system that leaves patients beholden to terrible health policy, the horrific consequences of federal drug policy, uninformed media hysteria about an opioid epidemic and an army of uncoordinated medical professionals bearing — then seizing — bottles of pills.
I asked repeatedly for alternatives, but I was told none were available. I started physical therapy and sought treatment at an authorized pain management clinic. My first pain management doctor was terse as she prescribed more hydrocodone for daytime and oxycodone for the night, when my pain was worse. To her, I was just another person in a day of people receiving identical treatment. Later she'd say she had little choice: Insurance companies routinely deny even slightly adventurous prescriptions.
A nearby chain pharmacy refused to fill it, saying, "You can't mix hydrocodone and oxycodone." As my prescription testified, I was receiving the required "close monitoring" by a doctor when taking that particular combination. When I called the pain clinic for help, the staff berated me for bothering them. They asked whether I was seeking drugs. I was — the ones they had prescribed.