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In Search of Relief, Doug Found a New Problem: Addiction

DECEMBER 7, 2017 | 5-minute read

Doug was searching for relief.

The pain in his back was excruciating, the result of bouncing around in heavy armor as a gunner in the turret of a truck in Iraq. For two years, Doug tried exercises at home, physical therapy at VA, anti-inflammatory drugs — but nothing eased the pain for any real length of time. Making matters worse, his new job as a prison guard required spending hours on his feet.

Hurting and miserable, Doug one day began taking opioid pain pills without the supervision of a doctor.

“I was living life again,” he remembers. “I felt happy to be able to go to work without pain. I could go walk my dog and run around and have a great time. And it was just liberating to me, that I could finally enjoy life again.”

“It hit me pretty quickly.”

Doug eventually found more permanent relief by undergoing a radio frequency ablation procedure, which used an electric current on his back. In 20 minutes, he says, 90 percent of his pain was gone.

“After that procedure was done, I said: ‘Great, I don’t need any more pain medications.’” 

He threw the pills away. But the very next day, he woke up sick.

At first, he thought it was the flu: nausea, restless legs, hot and cold chills. But the standard flu medications weren’t working, and his symptoms were growing worse as the day went on. He soon figured out that the timing wasn’t a coincidence.

“It hit me pretty quickly that that’s what the issue was … that I was withdrawing,” he says.

It took him about a year to get into a treatment facility, to finally stop taking the opioids. And over that time, he tried hard to quit cold turkey.

“It was just … I couldn’t do it,” he says. “I’m not taking these to get high. I’m not taking these for recreational purposes. I’m really just taking these just to function day to day. And that’s obviously no way to live.”

A downward spiral

That time and that effort to quit took their toll.

Doug went through a divorce. He asked his parents for money to cover the rent. He struggled to hold down a job — to even stay alert.

“I was embarrassed of my use of [pills],” he says. “I was sneaking around. … My wife, she obviously picked up on [things] very quickly. And I thought I was being sneaky about things, but she said, ‘Just tell me the truth about things. Tell me. Be open and honest.’ And I just couldn’t. I couldn’t do it.”

Now sober, Doug has more clarity on that battle. 

“She got tired of it and kind of made an ultimatum,” he says. “I kind of made excuses to myself, saying well, you know, she doesn’t understand this, she doesn’t understand that — when it was pretty clear that I was the problem.

“When it was hurting just me, I could handle that, I could suffer through it, I could push through it,” he adds, his voice catching at one point. “But when it was hurting other people that didn’t deserve to be hurt, that’s when I said, ‘You know what? I’ve got to do something.’”

“Doug, you have a problem.”

A turning point came with a visit from an old friend. They had been roommates together in Iraq.

They got to talking, and the friend encouraged Doug to reach out for help. “You have a problem,” he said. “You realize that?”

It took time. But eventually Doug saw how the pills were affecting him. He eventually sat down with his parents and told them the truth. He sought help. And now in his story, he sees a lesson for other Veterans dealing with substance use issues.

“I’d say reach out to specifically somebody you were deployed with,” Doug says. “That’s somebody … you trusted your life with at some point.” He also recommends going online to find support groups: “Veterans are very excited to help out other Veterans.”

Doug eventually found success with Suboxone therapy, which treats opioid addiction. He found a new job he likes. He also still attends counseling at VA about once every six weeks.

Asking for help was the all-important first step, but it’s a journey. There are many steps. There can be many temptations. There are still struggles. It takes a concerted effort and determination to stay on track.

“Life is just moving up and up for me now, to places that I never thought it would be,” he says. “Three years ago, two years ago even, I never never thought I’d be where I am now. … Hitting the force head-on, so to speak, is what it took to just clamp down and do what I had to do to get myself feeling better.”

Learn more about substance use issues.


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