Scoring a Free High in Sobriety

Scoring a Free High in Sobriety


This post was originally published on July 31, 2015.

There’s a pain in my left knee that just won’t quit. I can barely stand up, and when I do I can’t really walk. Even so I’m still wondering if I should maybe see a doctor—hoping instead that it will heal itself and go away. When I realize I can’t even make it down the street to the coffee shop for my morning latte, I reluctantly consent to the idea. I may even have to order an Uber, as driving won’t be feasible either. This is pretty much how bad it has to be before I’ll actually go see a doctor. I’m not really sure why that is; I have health insurance, I’m not afraid of doctors or hospitals—in fact, in my addiction I spent plenty of time in and out of ER’s for OD’s and various drug related complications, so it is not unfamiliar ground.

But these days I consider myself somewhat a healthy person. I eat right and exercise daily, usually running about four miles every other day, with workouts at the gym in between. Only after last night’s run, I tried to do my usual routine of stretching to relieve the kinks and something tweaked in my knee and this morning it’s twice its normal size.

Luckily my HMO has an urgent care unit that I can just walk into—okay, maybe more like hobble into—and when I get there I tell the triage nurse my knee really hurts and she says the doctor will see me right away. Twenty minutes later, I’m in the examination room and a young doctor who looks to be about 12 years old is busy twisting my leg asking if it hurts when he does this.

“Yeah, that hurts,” I tell him. And then he tries another angle just to be sure. “Ouch!”

“Hmmm, anterior cruciate ligament…” says the doctor.

“Excuse me?”

“You a runner?” he asks. “Well, you’re not going to be for a while.”

Turns out I’ve damaged a knee ligament and I have to stay off it for four weeks and then do physical therapy for up to six months or more. This is not good. I run not only for exercise, but also for the endorphins to combat depression, and to keep the weight off in order to help address my eating disorder and body dysmorphia.

“You’re going to be very sore,” says the doctor. “I’m prescribing Ibuprofen as an anti-inflammatory and Vicodin for the pain.”

Now I’ve been at the same HMO for the last 13 years, and I have been in recovery for over 14. Written all over my chart is the fact that I am a recovering drug addict and do not take narcotics. This is a personal choice that I have made and over the years I have had to deal with it for various ailments and mental health issues. But usually it is a no brainer—my hangnail does not warrant morphine—and the only time I had to make a hard decision was a few years ago when I was having panic attacks and my primary doctor prescribed a low dose of a drug similar to Valium called Lorazepam to get me through the first couple of days until they subsided. I was so stressed out I would’ve taken anything if I thought it would make the attacks stop, but using a mood altering drug wasn’t an easy or comfortable decision to make. And then there was that colonoscopy that I could do drug free or get knocked out (I took door number two for the unconscious rear-end invasion, thank you very much).

Only the hard truth is that both times I have had really visceral reactions to the drugs, especially coming off them. It is like the demon has been awakened. With the Lorazepam, I found myself anxiously waiting for the prescribed time to take them, counting the minutes, actually the seconds, practically salivating with anticipation, until I had to throw them away—it was just that unhealthy. And then for the colonoscopy, they pumped me full of Michael Jackson’s favorite knock out drug Propofol, and as if that wasn’t enough, when they snipped a possible “cancerous polyp” out of my intestine they gave me an added shot of Demerol in case I was in any “pain” later on. When I came to in the recovery room, I was totally loaded. And when a friend drove me home, she asked if I was okay, and I lied and said yes. But after she left and I was alone, I started climbing the walls with a sense that something was missing in my life and then realized the drugs were wearing off and I was jonesing.

“I’m in recovery,” I tell the doctor. “I don’t do narcotics.”

He looks at me strangely and says, “This is very painful. You are going to need this medication. I’ll call in your prescriptions to the pharmacy.”

His reaction actually reminds me of when I tell people I’m vegetarian and they ask, “So, you eat fish, right?” No, that would be a pescatarian. “Okay, how about chicken?” Um, last I checked, chicken was not a vegetable. Thankfully I rarely get a similar reaction when I say I don’t do drugs—no one says, “Oh, but you snort speed, right?” Because it is pretty much universally understood that when you are drug free, you don’t do drugs. I am not really sure why this doctor appears not to understand the concept of addiction or recovery—it’s not like this is new.

Twenty years ago if I were in a doctor’s office, they would not have left me alone, because they would have feared I would riffle through their cabinets in search of drugs since as soon as they turned their backs, that’s what I did. If I got hurt, the last thing any medical staff did was prescribe me any form of narcotics. I had that look—a junkie in need of drugs—and it was mutually agreed upon that they were not supplying. But these days I no longer exude that desperate addict aura, and I am amazed at how readily available doctors make Schedule II controlled substances. Even when I clearly state that taking them will put me in harms way.

But over the years I have seen too many folks at meetings return as newcomers because they didn’t take precaution around prescription drugs. People think that if a doctor prescribes it, we can’t have problems with it. Even though it’s still an opiate and I’m still a junkie, what could possibly go wrong, right?

I hand my ID and membership card to the pharmacist. Tell her my doctor has called in a prescription for Ibuprofen.

“You’ve got 100 Vicodins as well,” she says.

“100?” I ask in disbelief. Where was this guy when I was using? “No, just the Ibuprofen,” I say. “Thank you.”



  1. Just got out of the hospital Monday after an ambulance ride followed by emergency gallbladder surgery.

    Here’s what I got standard:

    Morphine in the ambulance.
    Morphine twice more in the ER
    Ambien to sleep that first night once they knew it wasn’t my heart
    Norco post-op

    The surgeon offered a prescription for Norco for home use. I asked him if Advil would work and he said yes. Advil it was.

    I thought of your article the entire time. They would have given me almost anything I’d asked for.

  2. Johnny Plankton on

    I took a couple of Vikes when I was a year sober and the obsession to drink came back for about a month. When I broke my leg and had surgery when I was seven years sober they gave me Dilaudid which I took for two days, but flushed down the toilet (sorry fishies) just as before I lost the capacity to say no. I’m having foot surgery on Friday and I’m going to go under on Fentanyl (opiate) and Versed (benzo), but I think I’ll skip the pain meds. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Patrick O'Neil on

      Hey Johnny, yeah navigating prescribed pain meds in recovery isn’t easy. Hoping your surgery is quick and the recovery pain free.

  3. The thing is that the Ibuprofen should be enough. Vicodin is just for extreme pain, but the Ibuprofen relaxes the swelling (which you can help with ice>heat>ice) allowing blood to flow into the damaged area to promote healing.

    Good call not taking the bait.

    When I injured my back I got Vicodin after my first surgery and dose was so big the pharmacist told me to cut the pills in half. It was great for the pain but didn’t help with the healing…not that I cared. Later, my brother went to some specialist who prescribed him the biggest bottle of Vicodin I’ve ever seen, it was almost a jar. He couldn’t use it because he was allergic, and since it was sitting around the house I decided I’d take one pill each night when I got home from work, and I did that every night for six months.

    I remember thinking I could take that one Vicodin every night for the rest of my life.

    That was 2003, when I had to be careful not to take it if I had been drinking. It’s one drug I still think about today, that’s how powerful it is…at least to me.

    • Patrick O'Neil on

      Seriously, Marc. The Ibuprofen was enough. It’s mind boggling how much narcotics get handed out to the unsuspecting masses.

  4. Patrick O'Neil on

    Thanks, Jamie. I dread having to do the “I’m in recovery” dance when they’re shoving the drugs at me. It shouldn’t be that much of an issue – except 99% of America just says YES! Obviously your doctor gets it. But I guess it could have been worse. my Dr. could’ve tried prescribing Ayahuasca – ha!

  5. Great essay Patrick. I had some surgery a few months ago. My doc, who knows my history, was VERY stingy with the meds. Damn him! (Bless him.)

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About Author

Patrick O’Neil is the author of the memoir Gun, Needle, Spoon (Dzanc Books). For the past 17 years he has lived and worked in the recovery community as a recovering addict/alcoholic, a drug and alcohol counselor, a college instructor, group facilitator, and a narrative healer. In 2015 the State of California granted him a Certificate of Rehabilitation. In 2016 California Governor Edmund G. Brown awarded him a Governor’s Pardon. He has taught writing workshops in numerous correctional facilities and institutions and continues to be of service to his fellowship and community. O’Neil lives with his wife Jennifer, a rather large Maine Coon, and a squirrel, in Downtown Los Angeles. For more information, please visit: