By Caleb Anderson
When I was little, my favorite uncle was injured on the job and prescribed a prescription painkiller. He’d suffered back pain for years and finally decided he’d accept the extra help to manage the pain. Though he was eventually able to return to work and all appeared to be back to normal, he just didn’t seem the same anymore. He didn’t joke and play with me the way he used to, instead always resigning himself to a quiet spot apart from the rest of us at family dinners.A few times he even dozed off in the middle of our meal. Then he stopped showing up to family functions altogether. Though I was too young to understand at the time, my uncle had developed a serious opioid dependency that had quickly taken over his life.
My family spent a painful few months trying to get him help, and it led to some tough calls. My aunt refused to let him live at home while he was using, and he was no longer invited to our family gatherings unless he was sober. My mom stopped answering his calls because they inevitably led to him asking for money and refusing to consider treatment. Though my uncle was finally able to find sobriety, it took some tough love on my family’s part — a strength that many loved ones face each and every day.
Addiction is a major battle for anyone, but it can be especially dangerous for someone with chronic pain who becomes dependent on their prescribed medication. When it happens to a loved one, you must find the balance between offering your support without enabling their addiction. It’s a complex situation, but there are ways to help — first, you must identify and confirm the issue, then help your loved one overcome their addiction and find healthy ways to conquer their chronic pain.
Is it Addiction?
Many with chronic pain see their pain medication as essential – something they “need,” but it’s a slippery slope to addiction. And the longer they are taking the medications, the more likely that they will develop physical dependence and possibly psychological addiction.
It is very difficult to tell if someone is addicted to prescription medications when the medication is prescribed to them, but, there are some ways. Watch for warning signs such as:
- A lack of energy or drowsiness. Your loved one may seem like they could fall asleep at any moment, which may be a pattern that seems to happen throughout the day.
- A lack of concentration or motivation: As much as opioids can help someone, they can also interfere with an individual’s thinking and can lead to tolerance, which means that a person requires more of the same substance in order to achieve the same level of relief. If your loved one is addicted to their medication, they will probably begin to miss a lot of work, leave work early, and may even begin performing poorly at their job.
- Changes in their social life: It is inevitable that your loved one’s social life will be interrupted by their addiction. Due to the way they feel and act, it may create disagreements and challenges in maintaining friendships. They will usually become more isolated and disengage from their previous social behaviors.
- Changes in their appearance: You may have trouble telling if your loved one is misusing their medication. Some of the signs that a person has taken too much medication include slurred speech, an intense calming, nodding of their head, a flush neck and face, drooping eyes, itching of the legs, stomach, or arms, or pupils that are constricted, even in dim lighting conditions.
- Increased secrecy: Your loved one may seem to be hiding something from you. It may seem like they’re leading a double life. They don’t want to let people know that addiction is taking over, but sometimes by trying to hide it, they make it more obvious.
You Can Only Do So Much
You can’t take away your loved one’s chronic pain, and you can’t “fix” their addiction. This is something you need to face so you can move on and give as much assistance to them as possible. When it comes to your loved one’s addiction, one of the best things you can do for them is to let them know you are there for them when they need you. Sit with them, listen to them, or offer to take them to their doctor appointments. Don’t give them lectures or judge them. Encourage them to lead a healthy lifestyle and to be honest with their doctor about everything. This includes previous or current addictions or substance abuse problems.
As for the chronic pain? There are many things you can offer to help with that may ease their burdens. There are also things that you can do together to take their mind off of their pain or other problems, such as taking an exercise class or working out together at home. Low-impact aerobics have been shown to be very helpful for those with chronic pain. These exercises include stretching, swimming, or biking, among other things.
You could also think about a yoga, Pilates, or a strength training class. Even walking together provides an opportunity to talk while also doing something good for your body. Many doctors recommend walking or participating in some other form of exercise for at least 30 minutes each day.
Don’t let your loved one forget about the importance of deep sleep. It is crucial for them to get adequate REM sleep, which is the time the body uses for rest and rejuvenation – thus, adequate sleep will only help them feel better throughout the day. Another idea might be to take a cooking class together. You both can learn about what kinds of foods are healthy, and you might even discover foods that can reduce pain and inflammation.
Time Apart to Heal
It may be necessary to give your loved one some breathing room initially. Let them work on their recovery and get through the healing process alone, if need be. You can still be there for them simply by letting them know you’ll be there when they need you. Hopefully at some point during their recovery you’ll both be ready to spend time together and engage in healthy activities such as daily walks or a group exercise class.
Never forget that one of the most important things you can offer is your love and support. Let them know that while you may not be able to totally understand their struggle, you love them and are cheering them on. With your compassion, your loved one can get back on track and find the way to a happier, healthy life with limited pain.