There Not There | Pushing the Wave

There Not There

Reflections, 17 November 2021
by L.A. Davenport
Prescription Painkillers
Popping painkillers

On 16 October, 2021, I had a small insight into what it might be like to have opioid withdrawal, after a simple torn back muscle developed into agonising pain — an experience I don’t want to repeat.

I think I know what it’s like to be an opioid addict. Not to take heroin or oxytocin, but to end up addicted to opioids and have to live through the awful detox that results when trying to stop them. And like all of these kind of things, it crept up on me without me being fully aware of what was going on.

All-consuming agony

For the past few weeks, nearly two months in fact, my entire life has been subsumed under the terrible weight, the immense pain, of an injury to my back and hip.

Several months after a simple torn muscle in my lower back had been left and left and left, during which I piled injury upon injury over a relentlessly active and busy few months, my hip joint and surrounding tendons and cartilage were left badly inflamed. Worse, my sciatic nerve was trapped both in my spine and pelvis.

The area was so swollen and tender, and my nerve so utterly stuck, that I could barely move without being plunged immediately into extreme and all-consuming agony. I couldn’t even lie down without terrible pain, let alone walk. There was no way of placing my body, apart from in a twisted, barely sustainable standing position, without pain.

Painkillers like sweeties

To get me through that time, I took painkillers. Lots of them. Initially I burned through the various formulations of ibuprofen and paracetamol, on their own and combined, like they were sweeties. I had some codeine mixed with paracetamol at some point, but it didn’t do enough to relieve the pain.

The biggest problem was the lack of sleep. The first week, when the pain was at its worse, I didn’t sleep more than an hour per night.

After that, a kindly doctor who was worried I might have fractured my spine gave me some very strong muscle relaxants and some opioid the name of which I forget but was was much more powerful than codeine.

I took that combination for a week, supplementing them with paracetamol and ibuprofen when they weren’t quite enough, during those times when the nagging, stabbing pain was too much to let me rest, let alone sleep.

I jumped at them

By the end of that second week, I managed to get off the opioid and muscle relaxant combination and had several days of withdrawal.

But I realised after a week of high strength ibuprofen and paracetamol, it wasn’t really working. I needed something extra to reduce the pain and calm down the tension in my hip. So when a friend gave me several packets of codeine plus paracetamol she had left over, I jumped at them.

I should have gone back to the doctor and talked through my situation with her, of course. But instead I took those tablets. Suddenly, life became bearable, the recovery speeded up remarkably, and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. But I was taking between two and four codeine tablets a day, for well over two weeks.

The dangers were there

I knew they were addictive. It says so everywhere you read about them. They tell you only to take them for four days without seeking medical help. And it’s not a joke, that one. Opioid medications are famous for being highly addictive and just because codeine sits at the milder end of the spectrum, it doesn’t mean the dangers aren’t there.

But I wasn’t addicted, surely. Me? Of course not. I was being really careful to take the codeine only when I really needed it, and I felt no desire to take more. The effect when I took them – the stomach cramps and nausea – were enough to make me feel disgusted whenever I did. I took them because I had no alternative. And I knew the time I would taking them was limited and they needed to be spaced out as much as possible.

I should have gone back to the doctor. I know that. She maybe would have given me something else, suggested another route to pain relief other than really strong painkillers and a hot water bottle.

Something else was wrong

But I did get better. Slowly, but surely. Before I went away on holiday to Italy with my family, I went back to my osteopath friend and he was able to manipulate my back enough to release the nerve in my spine.

The nightmare was over, or at least the intractable part of it. (He hadn’t even been able to touch me before, I was in so much pain.) Now the repair to my soft tissues could be completed without any additional damage from the ongoing trapped nerve. I would have done a jig, if I could.

And a few days later, the pain was reduced enough that I could stop taking the codeine tablets. That was on the Monday. I needed one more on the Tuesday and then that was it. And then by Wednesday evening, the problems set in.

I thought it was a virus I had picked up. Actually, I think I did catch a virus and did enough to eliminate it in 24 hours (a tonne of water and fresh fruit juice usually does the trick) but it soon became obvious that something else, something serious, was wrong.

A little floaty

It started with a fever, headaches, dizziness and nausea. Then the stomach cramps set in, along with confusion, the shivers, extreme cold cycling with extreme heat, terrible, pounding headaches, restlessness and insomnia. That last was the worst. After two days – the second night with almost no sleep at all – I was in a terrible state.

By the time morning came, I was delirious, extremely tired and in no physical state to do anything. I told my partner I couldn’t drive or be in charge of anything, as I was aware that my senses were completely dulled.

She’d had her own night of hell, with awful toothache that meant she had to go to an emergency dentist in the nearest town. While I waited outside with our son, I gave him his lunch and we had a nice time. I was feeling a little floaty but I assumed that was to do with the tiredness and lack of sleep.

Through a clear but heavy liquid

By the time we got to Perugia, our destination for the day, I started to feel odd. I was small in my clothes, feeling the material of my trousers and underwear brushing with each individual movement against my cold skin.

The lights were getting brighter, the shadows darker, and sounds surprised and assaulted me. We wandered around, me taking pictures and talking on a kind-of autopilot. And then we sat down for lunch.

I waited at the table while my partner took my son on a nearby carousel. I couldn’t have done it, otherwise I would have vomited. The sun was now hyper-intense, and my head was swimming.

As I spoke to them on their return, I detached from the real world and floated freely inside the space in my mind. ‘Out there’ was sharp and clear but my relationship with it was distant, as if I was experiencing it through a clear but heavy liquid.

Someone spoke and it was a shotgun. An eye looked straight through me, but didn’t see me at all. I floated further back into my own space and could feel nothing. I could see and hear things, touch things and taste things, but I was merely aware of their presence. They had no connection to me.

I went to the toilet. It was there but not there. There was no lock on the door. How interesting. It might matter if any of this was real. As I went through the motions of going to the toilet and washing my hands, I felt every single tiny transaction with the outside world, every minor sensation in Glorious Technicolor, but it had no meaning.

My partner was not there on my return. Or was she? She must have been because I could hear her and see her.

A voice calling out

Now she is definitely not there and I am playing with my son. It’s good that he doesn’t sense anything different about me. He is obsessed with his mother at the moment but very happy when we’re together. It seems he cannot see the thick, clear wall that separates us. Good.

My partner is back, now she’s gone again.

My son is wandering and there is a crowd. Guide him to mama.

The crowd is people, made up of colour, light, sound and texture. But nothing else. We are drifting along the street, maybe I am walking or just floating. How curious all these shapes of sound and light. What shall I do about them?

– Do you want to visit anything?
The voice is my partner’s and her mouth moved. Are the two things connected?
– I’m not sure I won’t vomit in a bin any minute now, so maybe it’s best not to.
– What did you say?

I repeat myself but both times the sound does not seem to have come from me. Surely I would remember having thought it, willed the action of speak and then felt the consequences of speaking. But no, nothing.
A street. A face. A voice calling out.

The clatter of a bin. A shard of sunlight and a car passing.

My son jumping and laughing.

Then nothing.

Unable to feel

My son is right in front of me and I almost trip over him. Not his fault. Mine. Where was I? I don’t know.

We wander on. Aimlessly, it turns out. We try to see a garden but fail to navigate the streets. I look for something on the map but can’t work out how to get there.

My partner suggests I buy a smoothie from a nearby bar and the transaction goes remarkably well. The confines of the tiny juice shop seem to suit my state.

I am surprised and relieved to find my camera bag still around my neck, and my camera inside it. Do I have my wallet? What am I carrying in my hands? Why could I not feel any of them?

I am aware that if someone were to rob me off my bag, I would not be able to do anything about it, or even mind that much. I would be upset in an abstract, distant way, as if trying to sympathise for a character in a book or a film.

It worries me and makes me sad. Is this how addicts are robbed?

Lost in a fractured space

Out on the street again.

Snatched conversations and isolated words falling like hail around me, pelting and stinging me.

A car somewhere, a shop. A glance in my direction. What does he know? Why is he looking at me? What about that man I saw sitting on the floor back down the street? He had the hard, empty stare, of what? A homeless man? What did his stare mean?

I panic. I can’t find my partner.

We call, and eventually meet and I trail behind like another son, disturbed by the crowds and the chatter reflecting off the walls.

I worry about my son. Can’t he see how fractured the space is and how vulnerable we are? He seems so far away. My partner too. And yet I know we are connected and that reassures me.

No memory at all

We wander back up to the square where we started and it occurs to me I have no memory of having been there earlier that day. I know we were but I have no recall of any of it.

I don’t feel anything anyway, so maybe it doesn’t matter, but consciously I know it does. Is my mind slipping away? Am I drifting away from myself? I have always said I have nothing, really, other than my mind. Am I in the processing of losing it and I didn’t even care?

We sit down to give my son his snack. I gaze the incredible rich detail of the trees opposite me, the dragging trail of the clouds as they are blown across the sky, like a child pulling a blanket along behind them.

Signs of me

A flash of my old, real self. My mind razor sharp and connected. I look around and everything looks normal, real, not a collage of light and sound or distant assemblage of unconnected sensations. I am me again.

And then it’s gone and I am back in my private floating world. I stare at my son, eating his banana and staring at the passers by.

I am not anxious anymore. I will pull out of this, I decide. Eventually.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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There Not There | Pushing the Wave