Google “Kicking Suboxone” and you’ll find an awful lot of entries from people trying to get off the shit. And while it’s got almost unanimous advocacy as a detox drug, it certainly has plenty of detractors as a long-term solution to opiate addiction. The problem for many of those taking it (but certainly not for the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture it and the doctors who prescribe it—many at cash-only clinics) is this: while it’s better than a heroin or Oxycontin habit, it has its own potential for abuse, and getting off can be brutal.
But it can be done. This Justin’s story.
I was like a lot of kids in my neighborhood, getting started on booze and drugs when I was growing up, going from drinking and smoking pot to Percs and Vicodin. When OC’s (Oxycontin) rolled into Charlestown, that was the next logical step. Unlike a lot of guys I knew, I never became a heroin addict, but I was doing two 80 mg OC’s per day, multiple times per day. I never had to resort to crime, because I made good money as a construction worker, and even when we got laid off in the winter, I could both collect unemployment and get access to my pension fund.
I decided to get off OC’s when some major family issues surfaced, but I really didn’t like the direction my life had been going in for some time anyway. So I did what everyone else in my neighborhood was doing: I set up an appointment at a clinic and begged to get on the Suboxone program. I honestly didn’t know there was another way. I didn’t know about AA or NA meetings, so abstinence wasn’t even a thought at the time. I was just too afraid of getting dope sick. So they got me on it, and six-and-half years later, I was still on it.
At first it was helpful for me, because I wasn’t getting high on OC’s anymore. When I first got on the program, I had to pick up my prescription once a week. That meant that I only had a week’s supply at a time, and I had to submit urines to show that I was taking it and not still doing OC’s. But I soon realized that they were overprescribing me, so I started selling the excess to my friends.
Once I started getting my prescriptions (and urines) on a monthly basis, I realized that I could get high for the first few days and still pass a piss test by switching back to Suboxone in time (Suboxone patients must maintain minimal levels of Suboxone in their urine in order to stay enrolled in the program). It was great because I never had to be dope sick and I could still get high. I only did that a few times in the first few years and then I started taking it as prescribed.
Was it helpful? It was but it wasn’t. It kept me off the OC’s but I was still smoking pot and drinking, and my disease was progressing. If I knew I was going out to party that night, I would take an extra one before I left the house because I wanted to get really fucked up. I guess it was not really a solution because my alcoholism progressed. I wasn’t an everyday drinker but there was no “off” button for me when I did. It was drink until the money’s gone or until I passed out. I don’t drink beer; I want vodka with Red Bull and Black Russians.
In 2011, I got fired from a job, mostly for being a hostile and fucked up dickhead, and I really didn’t give a shit about my job. They were looking for a way to get rid of me because my job performance sucked and because I had erratic behavior. But I took it pretty hard, because now I was unemployed, my girlfriend was supporting me, and that’s when I started to kick up my Suboxone use.
I was now not only taking my own prescription, but I was buying them on the street, crushing them up and snorting them, and I was all fucked up. The only reason I didn’t go back to OC’s is that I heard the drug changed, and most of my friends that had stopped using them were now doing either Perc 30’s or heroin. For some reason, and I think it’s because I have a Higher Power in my life, I didn’t pick up heroin. I know I wouldn’t have lasted long if I had. A lot of people from my neighborhood died from heroin overdoses so that’s not an exaggeration.
There finally came a point where I realized how completely miserable and unhappy I was. I was increasingly engaging in scumbag behavior, and it really started to bother me. I woke up one morning and thought, “There’s something wrong. This is a problem.” And I couldn’t identify what it was, and although I was pretty sure that the Suboxone had something to do with it, I couldn’t put my finger on anything. But something had to change, because what I was doing wasn’t working anymore.
Not long after that, one of my old friends and running partners called me. We grew up together but we had also robbed each other and did the kind of things that people in the life do to each other. He was leaving a treatment center and told me had been clean for seven months.
When he came to see me, I was surprised. The Eddie I knew was a kid who was always dressed in a sweaty oversized medium wife beater—even in the dead of winter–—and weighed about 110 pounds even though he was six feet tall. He looked great and his eyes were clear and he was telling me how good things were going. So I asked him what happened and he told me he was going to meetings.
I asked him, “Would it be okay if I tagged along sometime?” He didn’t give me an answer then, but a week later he called me and asked me if I was still interested in going to a meeting. I said absolutely, and I picked him up and we went to an NA meeting. And I heard things I needed to hear and it made sense to me. I was still on Suboxone, but I was taking as little as I could, maybe four milligrams a day: two in the morning before work and two in the evening after work (thankfully, I was employed again).
I got honest and told the people in AA and NA what I was doing, but that I didn’t want to do it anymore. It was then that I realized that I couldn’t do it by myself, because if I could have, I would have done it six-and-a-half years earlier. Next I went to a psychiatrist and my PCP (who was my prescriber at that point) and told them, “Getting off Suboxone is my plan, and I really don’t care if you agree with me or not. I need to come off this shit and this is what I’m doing.”
Within a month, I was done taking it. After my first meeting I started tapering down, first with two milligrams in the morning and one in the evening, then down to one and one a week later. When I got down to about one milligram a day, I was ready to just stop cold turkey, but the guys that were helping me corralled me and said, “Slow the fuck down, you don’t want to go too fast and just go back to using.” My feeling was I was going to get sick regardless and I just wanted it to be over because I was desperate. But I listened to them and continued the taper.
As I got closer, I started getting nervous, but I kept going until I got to just half a milligram a day for a week or so and then I just stopped. Because I stretched everything out, I only felt a little bit sick while I was tapering, but that little bit before going to zero helped.
When I totally stopped I got sick and stayed that way for about 10 to 14 days. I won’t lie and say it didn’t suck, because it did. But it wasn’t as unbearable as I thought it would be. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh my God, this is horrible, I’m never going to be able to do this. This whole not sleeping thing is killing me, I can’t stand the pain.” There was none of that. It turns out that the fear of kicking was a lot worse than the reality. I had this idea in my head of what dope sick meant, so I pictured myself in a corner in a ball with the cold sweats.
I also went to a meeting every day with someone else for the two weeks that I was still dope sick and for the whole month after that. I took a week off from work and basically kicked on my couch. My back hurt a lot, it was difficult to sleep and I had those crazy leg spasms—restless legs I guess they call them. I tried taking Tylenol PM to sleep, but someone told me to take melatonin instead. It wasn’t good sleep, but it helped. Then it was over.
After two weeks I actually felt good, but I think it was the way I tapered down. The secret was that I just did what they told me to do for once. They told me to pray so I prayed, saying, “Please make this fucking back pain go away.” And eventually I just bought into the program. I go to meetings, I have a sponsor, I do the steps.
Do I think other people should go on Suboxone? I think it’s case by case. If someone has a plan to stop doing whatever opiate they’re doing—heroin, pills, whatever—and they’re going to do it for 30 days and then taper, I would say go for it. But if someone wants to go on it and stay on it because they don’t want to get dope sick? Just get sick from whatever you’re taking, because it’s not worth it—especially if you’re younger and don’t have a long career of opiate addiction. Just deal with the sickness and get it over with. But get in with people in recovery in AA or NA and let them help you.
And I’m saying this from experience. I did it for six-and-a-half years. At 14 months sober, I’m just finding out how good life is.