DIARIO DI MAMMA
The fog would lift. I could feel each knot in my stomach slowly but surely unwinding. Any toxic sentiment living in my head would float out my fingertips and toes. Once in a while I actually watched it lift right out of me. And I would lie down to slumber for hours without interruption.
That pure relaxation was thanks to Percocet, an oral medication that is part oxycontin and part acetaminophen. For two years, doctors prescribed the pills for me to deal with a severe knee injury that resulted in three surgeries (the last of which lasted nearly nine hours) and constant physical therapy. Although I never became addicted, I have to admit that popping those pills became the highlight of my week because it meant I would finally get some R & R. And I suddenly understood how all too easy it must be for people to get hooked.
In laymen’s terms, Percocet is one of those opioid medications that has everyone talking nowadays. It’s intended to kill pain, but it’s also killing people because many get addicted and some even move on to the pill’s cousin, heroin. In the last week, the little pill has made it to the tabloids because of rumors that Prince, the music legend, had been taking the medication before his death and may have had some opioid medication on his person when his body was found, according to CNN.
My knee injury happened while I was traveling in my family’s native Italy in 2004. I’m still not sure how it happened, but I fell on a cobblestone street and couldn’t get up. A few hours later, my knee was the size of a cantaloupe. The story is longer and more convoluted (not to mention a lot funnier), but I won’t bore you with the details. While in Italy, a piece of cartilage that had broken off inside my knee moved and obstructed blood flow, so I lost circulation in my leg and nearly had to have my foot amputated. Instead, my foot was saved and I made it home to New Jersey. But the injury set off a wave of troubles that took two years to correct.
The pain I experienced in Italy, with the initial injury, was the most excruciating I’ve ever known, even now that I’ve delivered a baby. The Italians gave me shots to heal the swelling. They gave me shots to thin my blood to get the pulse in my foot back. They covered my ice cold leg with at least 10 blankets and raised it above my heart for hours. They used a giant needle to draw out blood and fluid causing the extreme swelling. They put me in a full leg cast and cut it down the middle (and cut my leg a bit, too, but I digress), so I could get on a plane back to my native United States. What they didn’t do was give me any painkillers. It’s jut not as prescribed there as it is here in my home country. In fact, expert Dr. Drew Pinsky continues to remind people that 90 percent of the opioids prescribed in the world are prescribed in the United States.
A week after my return to Jersey, I had my first operation to remove that cartilage, which was the size of a peach pit, said the doctor. Afterward, he prescribed Percocet. But I didn’t take it at first. When I started going to physical therapy weeks later, my leg was stiff as a board. It was difficult to move it and arthritis was setting in, a result of the hole left by the cartilage. The pain was maddening. My physical therapists said I had to take the painkillers before each session to help loosen up my leg, so I could start moving it again. The first time I took one entire pill as prescribed, and I passed out, literally. From then on, I took half or sometimes even one quarter of the pill. I was taking it three times per week before each physical therapy session, and once or twice a week in the evening to help me sleep.
It was an ugly time in my life. I was grateful to be able to work for Businessweek from my bed, but I spent my free hours mostly crying and contemplating whether I would walk again or sleep again or feel like myself again. After taking Percocet, I felt like I was in a warm embrace for hours. I found myself looking forward to the days I could take one. But I never did take more than a half, once on each day in question. There were days I didn’t take anything at all. I never encouraged my doctors to give me more, and when my physical therapy finally ended, and I was walking again, I never took another bit of the medicine. I walked away from Percocet and never looked back. Still, I can’t deny that the medicine comforted me in a way I never expected.
After all, I was a big proponent of “Just Say No” as a kid, even having served as president of S.A.D.D. as a sixth grader. I never drank alcohol, never took drugs (not even a puff of marijuana), and I encouraged others to lead a clean life. Until recently, I never even drank caffeine. Now, I occasionally indulge in caffeinated tea or soda. Still, my husband jokes that I’m not Italian at all and something must be wrong with me because I don’t drink espresso or vino. Here I was taking Percocet regularly for the better part of two years.
All the while, I was just listening to my doctors. They were encouraging me to take the medication. They said it would help me succeed in physical therapy and that it would help me sleep, which would aid in the healing process. In the end, it worked out just fine. But should I have been taking those pills (even half or a quarter of one) that often for that long? I am not so sure anymore. When I hear about someone getting hooked or overdosing, I wonder to myself, “Could that have been me?” It certainly could have. True, I never overdid it. But even now, when I’m having trouble sleeping or my knee throbs (which it still does on occasion) or I’m just overwhelmed by life, I feel pangs of nostalgia for the days when Percocet was my best friend. Now, I feel the pain.