This post was originally published on May 26, 2014.
I was at a meeting of Secret Sober Dudes And Ladies when an older such lady expressed her fear about the gum surgery she was scheduled to have the following week. Her addiction had been booze, not pills, and she shared that a physical condition prevented her from taking Advil, Tylenol or Aspirin. Her sponsor told her that she “had seen four people in AA all go out on pain pills, and all of them ended up dying.” She was advised not to take pain pills. At. All. (I’m hoping that one day soon, people in AA will stop offering medical advice when they’re not qualified to do so, but I’m not counting on it.)
Fast forward to after the meeting, and every well meaning alcoholic and their visiting Al Anon cousin was giving this lady advice (ice! Clove oil! Take the Vicodin!) which she reported made her feel less alone, and more like she had a community of caring friends. She took numbers and rode off into the distance, comforted about the coming ordeal.
The following week, I suddenly developed massive dental pain on the Upper Right Chewing Teeth (that’s the technical term) and found and booked a dentist appointment, sweating heavily (and not just due to LA’s unseasonable heat). I didn’t already have a dentist because the last time I’d found one I trusted, it was a decade ago and I was still living on the East Coast. For some reason, I have been blessed in the interim with pretty nice teeth and few problems, despite only going to her once every two years for cleanings. But it seemed that without regular maintenance, my teeth had finally maxed out their warranty. It was time to sit in the chair without the happy drugs—time to face the office Muzak.
I found someone in the Valley who took my dental insurance, and somehow managed to get myself there practically on time. The kindly staff took me by the hand and led me into the X-Ray room. Technology had definitely progressed since my last visit. I sat still as a rotating white fiberglass device circled my head 360 degrees, probably zapping my brain with enough radiation to mutate a rat. The contraption reminded me of the orgasm machine in Barbarella or the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Without nitrous oxide, my coping skills were clearly leaning towards the filmic. At least I got to wear the sexy lead apron.
My hands are shaking even to describe having to lie down in the chair, though what happened next wasn’t so bad. The dentist was very gentle with the pain shots, and I had my music blasting really loud in headphones both to distract me and to cover the sound of the spinning horror show. I have to report—music producers, take note—that Beyoncé’s latest album sounds totally great with an accompaniment of dental drill. But that’s when I got the bad news: I was going to need two root canals. More bad news: I would live.
My new dentist now told me she was going to “clean up the area” and get me “out of pain.” I walked out of the office triumphantly like Rocky at the top of the steps of Philadelphia Museum of Art. I believe I heard the Rocky theme music and someone wail “Adrian!” But it may have just been the strange rushing sounds in my ears from the numb droopy side of my jaw.
A few hours later, the true pain began. 800 milligrams of Advil was not even touching it. In my defense, I am a redhead and we have been scientifically proven to be more sensitive to pain. Frankly, I don’t think Rocky could have fared much better. Once the numbness had worn off, I was left with blinding stabs to the brain each time I stood up, sat down, or changed altitude; even going upstairs at home became excruciating. And like a true addict, I was not being gracious about it.
Eating anything made it worse. Drinking anything made it worse. Breathing made it worse. And then unexpectedly, the Advil would kick in and I would get a merciful release. Like most dentists, this one had offered me Vicodin after I clearly stated to her that I was an addict (I once had a dentist offer it to me three times, but I considered this a boon because it told me he was a complete moron before I let him touch my mouth). After a day of horrific pain, I started regretting not taking this latest dentist up on her merciful offer. By then, not only was drinking looking pretty good, but so was buying a gun.
I’d experienced pain in sobriety before: after a car accident a few years back and a broken toe just three months ago. After the broken toe incident, I took one Tylenol Codeine (once again, the urgent care doc gave me side-eye about not taking stronger drugs) and then threw out the bottle the next day. It’s not that I got high—I just didn’t think it was a good idea to have a full bottle of anything that good lying around the house. Now, as my kidneys and emotions waved the white flag, I wished I hadn’t disposed of it quite so thoughtfully. So I had my dentist call in a Tylenol Codeine prescription in case I just couldn’t take it anymore.
I ended up taking one when I’d reached the daily maximum dose of 2400 milligrams of Advil and consulting with my sponsor. As always, I hoped I didn’t end up on Skid Row. But I didn’t get remotely high (sadly) and noticed no mood changes; still, I was able to get a good night’s sleep. To be fair, I had also picked up a boy to hold me while the pill kicked in. But that’s another story. In the end, I only took that one pill, and once again chose to heave the rest into the trash (lucky trash).To get through four days of pain until I was finally get in to the root canals I used:
1. The social App Tinder to chat with strangers and solicit empathy/emotional support/sex.
2. The smell from my children’s necks. (“Come here, Mommy needs more medicine.”)
3. Prayer. (“G-d you motherfucker, why are you doing this to meeeeeee? I love you, I’m grateful, don’t hurt my kids, please help meeeeeee!”)
I also went to a meeting and complained bitterly about the pain I was enduring and how it had derailed my life that week. Afterwards everyone and their treatment center cousin came up to me with advice (Sensodyne! Gargle with warm salt water! Take the Vicodin!) but unlike my more grateful sister in recovery, I just felt annoyed. Part of what makes me an alcoholic is how much I hate being told what to do, even by people who are trying to be helpful. This may be a product of my Russian mother, or just my personality, but at least I’m aware of it, so I affected an expression of appreciation. (“Oh you think I should see a dentist? Thank you, I never would have thought of that!”)
My previous experience with root canals had never been that bad, even though the procedure reminds me of Malcolm McDowell’s eyes being forced open with metal clamps in A Clockwork Orange. Nevertheless, once my nerves calmed, things improved to a 200 milligrams Advil level, and eventually to a no Advil level.
So how do we get through pain as an addict without resorting to “the good stuff?” Same way we get through the rest of life—once day at a time, trying to avoid hysteria, and knowing our attempts to avoid suffering will likely prove more disastrous than the suffering itself. I deleted the Tinder app (yet again) and my children were grateful to have their personal space back. I’m going to keep the prayer, though. At least for now, until Big Pharma finds a way to bottle prayer and charge for it, it’s free, guiltless and works as well as Ibuprofen.