Powering Through Her Pain

"Addiction" wasn't even in alum Jessica L.'s vocabulary—until she realized drugs were defining her life

At her therapist's recommendation, Jessica L. arrived at Hazelden's Plymouth, Minnesota, campus to receive the expert care she desperately needed for her escalating drug problem.

Driving with her friend from their rural North Dakota hometown to Hazelden, Jessica remembers thinking that, finally, specialists would understand her situation and readjust her pain medications to provide lasting relief.

"I honestly thought I was going to Hazelden to get the right drugs for my pain," Jessica quietly laughs in retelling her recovery story.

"When I was admitted, a staff person gave me a copy of Alcoholics Anonymous. I told her I wasn't an alcoholic, and she said that the program works for addicts, too. But I wasn't an addict, I told her; I was only there to get my tolerance down so my pain medications would work again."

Escape from reality

Jessica had always been a sickly child, prone to migraine headaches and other medical ailments. At age 16, she began experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a childhood ordeal she had repressed. She kept a water bottle filled with vodka under her bed to alleviate frequent night terrors. At age 17, Jessica's father died, and she felt more alone than ever. But it was at age 19, following lung surgery to address complications from a life-threatening genetic disease, when acute nerve pain set in for Jessica—and her chase for relief really took off.

During an emergency room visit, Jessica was given Dilaudid, a narcotic painkiller, to subdue an agonizing episode of femoral nerve pain.

"At that moment, my whole world changed," Jessica recalls. "With Dilaudid, I wasn't in physical or emotional pain anymore. I wasn't worried about college. I didn't feel so sad and scared and alone. Here was my escape from real life."

To alleviate her now chronic nerve pain, Jessica was prescribed increasingly potent opioid medications. Eventually, she began chewing medically prescribed fentynal patches to extract three days' worth of the drug in one sitting—an idea she culled from her physician's warnings about potential overdose and other risks of abusing the painkiller.

Jessica's mother locked up the medications when she discovered her daughter's terrifying misuse. The safekeeping measures only intensified Jessica's resolve.

"I learned where my mom hid my drugs. I learned how to pick locks. I bullied my mom into giving meds to me. I went to every length imaginable to get those meds," Jessica says.

As part of her medical care, Jessica signed a pain management contract with her provider, requiring her to consult regularly with a therapist. In a desperate negotiation with her mother to get hold of a fentynal patch, Jessica promised to tell her therapist she was taking three times her prescribed dosage—and even that amount didn't kill her pain. The therapist recommended Hazelden.

Drugs were her everything

Treatment for addiction to prescription painkillers—drugs classified as opioids—can be especially challenging. The severity of opioid withdrawal symptoms and cravings often drives patients like Jessica to leave treatment prematurely.

Three weeks into her stay at Hazelden, Jessica was ready to bail. She rarely got out of bed, refused to eat, and wanted nothing to do with her peer group. She called her mother to arrange a ride home. But the day before her planned departure, Jessica fainted, fell and hit her head—requiring a trip to a nearby hospital emergency room for stitches. When the doctor asked what brought her to Hazelden, Jessica told him about her difficult medical history and her search for the right pain medication, assuming he would understand her condition. The physician understood all too well. She would not be getting any pain medication from him.

"Here I was in the ER, and for the first time a physician was telling me I couldn't have pain meds. I was terrified. I couldn't imagine existing without drugs. That's when I realized my life wasn't working anymore."

Jessica returned to Hazelden and, by the next morning, her physical withdrawal symptoms had subsided enough that she joined her treatment group.

"Reality hit: I did have a drug problem," she explains. "My problem was that I had no idea how I was going to live without drugs in my system. I decided I'd better start learning how to do that."

After completing primary care at Hazelden in Plymouth, Jessica moved to Hazelden's Fellowship Club in St. Paul, where opioid-specific recovery management programming includes continuing care services, education, and accountability.

Life on life's terms

Today, Jessica lives in a sober residence for women in St. Paul's thriving recovery community. She's back in college, pursuing a nursing degree and working part-time to assist homebound elderly. She manages her chronic pain with a combination of relaxation exercises, guided meditation, music and dance, and, at times, non-narcotic medication.

And she's grateful for every minute of her new life.

"I always had a hard time dealing with life on life's terms, but I now have a plan of action for doing that," Jessica explains. "It really works."

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