Susan knew how to keep a secret.
For years, she’d hidden her addiction to opiate pain medication from her best friends and family members. Even her husband had no clue.
But after a point of desperation landed her in treatment at Oxford Treatment Center, there were still more layers of deception to be shed.
“But behind my engagement with the program, a part of me was still trying to figure out how I could keep taking a couple of pills every now and then,” she said. “The addiction within me still wanted more.”
That confession came out during a large group session more than two weeks into Susan’s stay in residential treatment. It surprised everyone — including Susan herself.
“I was never one to speak up much; I mainly just listened,” she said. “But since I was among the oldest people in the group, I realized that a lot of people were kind of looking up to me. Sharing my thoughts rather than keeping them a secret released me from the idea.
“Everybody was shocked to hear what I’d been thinking.
I had to quit lying to myself.”
Susan’s addiction to opiates started more than a decade ago, when a man she was dating invited her to try his prescription pain pills.
“I liked the way they made me feel,” she said. “But I could do without them.”
That changed after a series of back surgeries brought pain pills back into her life. This time, recreational doses weren’t enough. Susan’s use escalated to 30 or 40 pills a day. Soon, she began to seek out sources for a cheaper alternative — heroine.
“I wasn’t even getting high anymore,” she said. “I was just taking the pills to avoid the withdrawals.”
Susan’s secret ultimately caught up with her, at the expense of her closest relationships. At her lowest, she found herself sitting homeless in a laundromat on a Saturday afternoon. She had two suitcases, no money, and no one left to call.
A family member stepped in to deliver her to an emergency room, leading finally to her admission at Oxford Treatment Center.
“That place saved my life,” she said. “I was completely compliant with the whole program and decided from the beginning I was going to learn as much as I could while I was there.”
Fueling her motivation to get clean were the responsibilities her addiction had caused her to abandon — chiefly, the care of her grandchildren who live with her.
“I was determined I would do everything I could to get better,” she said. “If not for myself, then for my grandkids.”
For older patients dealing with addiction, physical issues can be both a cause and an effect of drug use, said Tracey Hickman, MSN, FNP, APMHNP, nurse practitioner at Oxford Treatment Center.
“While there is reportedly a low risk when you take pain medications as they’re prescribed after surgery, you may not realize you’re someone who has a propensity to opiate addiction,” she said.
“Additionally, the older adults who come to us for addiction treatment are often also dealing with physical conditions that come along with aging — but can be accelerated by addiction if they’ve been using drugs and alcohol for a long time.”
At Oxford Treatment Center, the medical staff performs complete physical workups as part of the medical detoxification program. Physicians and nurse practitioners diagnose and treat issues related to diabetes, high blood pressure, liver complications and other common disorders. They also refer patients to outside specialists when needed.
“Addiction and health problems often go together, so our approach is to address the patient’s physical issues as we are treating the addiction,” Hickman said. “We also work with the patient and their family after treatment, so that they understand what they can do to keep their medical issues in check going forward.”
In Susan’s case, the idea that an illness or injury could cause her to need pain medication again is an abiding fear.
“The thought of having a doctor give me narcotics seriously terrifies me,” she said. “I’ve had it put into my charts: ‘No narcotics.’ That’s one way I’m taking care of myself.”
As she approaches her one-year sobriety birthday this spring, Susan is looking forward to the date with measured hope.
“It will be good to say I’ve made it to a year, because, to me, that’s a really big deal,” she said.
“Still, I know this will always be a struggle for me. I just hope it continues to get easier. Days will go by when I don’t think about pills — and then I’ll think about them for three days in a row.”
Moving forward in recovery
Susan is able to draw upon all she learned during her time in treatment at Oxford Treatment Center. Therapists helped her see that her idea of toying with pain pills was a recipe for relapse.
“I can never, ever take even one pill,” she said. “They made me realize there is absolutely no way I can do that. It won’t work. I was thinking I could still control it, when all I was doing was lying to myself.”
As a reminder of the reasons for her commitment, Susan keeps on her phone the text messages that her 13-year-old granddaughter sent soon after she left treatment.
“For her to tell me how proud she is of me, how much she loves me, and that she was praying for me every night — it makes me want to do all I can to be there for her,” Susan said. “If you can’t get clean for yourself, do it for somebody you love.”
*The patient’s name has been changed.