There Is Life After Opioids

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| This is the 426th story of Our Life Logs |


I woke to the sound of a nearby train as it whooshed by. I groaned as I stretched my legs out on the compact, double seat of a CTA train I’d chosen for refuge the night before. It wasn’t comfy, but it beat Chicago’s cold and grimy streets. Pain shot through my limbs as I shifted, and I instinctively patted my pocket. Good, no one had robbed me of my pain pills. I pulled out my trusty relievers and tossed a handful back. I could be without a home, money, and job, but I could not live without my little tablets of heaven. And that mentality is what got me here.

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I was born in 1979 in Chicago, Illinois, to loving parents who gave me an ordinary childhood where I spent my days outside playing football with the neighborhood kids or inside playing video games on my Atari or at the local arcade. I wouldn’t say I had a lot of friends, but that didn’t matter much because I had a zoo of animals to keep me company. We had two dogs, a cat, a turtle, a chameleon, a snake—just to name a few. I didn’t know pain growing up. Not until I was 15. Not until the day my dad died.

When Dad passed from a massive heart attack, it felt like I’d entered an alternate reality where nothing looked the same. It was a life where pain was everywhere, in every room, in every memory, and most prominently, in my heart. In my grief, I gave my poor mother a hard time and started acting out. I started to not care about anything going on around me. It all felt meaningless. What was once empathy turned to anger, and everything irritated me. Without Dad, our family was hollow. Soon, our finances became hollow too, and our house was falling apart. Mom had no choice but to sell it.

Having a head full of anger began affecting me physically, and I began experiencing debilitating tension headaches when I was 17. I was given test after test but no results explained away the pain squeezing me like I was wearing a headband too small for my head. No remedies were helping, and it seemed like there was no end in sight.

Then, a family friend of ours—a licensed doctor—prescribed me Vicodin. And thus, my 17-year love affair with prescription narcotics began. All from a seemingly innocent recommendation. I was so desperate to soothe the pain, I had no idea what path taking Vicodin once a day would lead me down.

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Some kids turn to counseling for grief. Some turn to alcohol. I turned to pain meds. On Vicodin, I felt weightless. I felt euphoric. Pain was clouded when I had opioids in my system, and I could forget the alternate reality I’d been sucked into since my dad passed. But when the clouds began to subside and the pain traveled back, one pill a day turned to five a day…then to 30 a day. I was swallowing the pills faster than I could get them, so I started going to my family doctor every other day for refills. I’d get a prescription in my name then my mom’s name…then my name, then my mom’s, and the cycle continued.

By the time we moved in with my grandma, I was popping 30 pills a day, and she was not a fan of my destructive habits. But I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything but finding ways to feel numb longer. To pay for the prescriptions, I’d borrow money wherever and however I could. I didn’t care about how it affected anyone. I was only thinking of how to pay for my next bottle. My grandma hated me. My dad’s family hated me. Hell, I hated me, too. But I was too far gone to change anything. The call of the pill trumped how others viewed me. And it was that unfeeling selfishness that got me kicked out at 21. That was when my life on the streets began.

The dingy streets of Chicago were full of gangs and littered with fellow junkies who would do anything to survive. I was one of them—desperate for a way to keep getting my pain meds. Without the chance to bum money off my family, I began panhandling and doing whatever it took to finance my addiction. Nothing mattered if I didn’t have my pills. Nothing. And knowing that made me hate myself even more. Most days, I just wanted to die. Some days, I almost succeeded. Over the years, I tried hanging myself, strangling myself, slitting my wrists, overdosing on pills, but none of them did the trick. That misery, that failure of knowing I couldn’t even die right destroyed me, and I’d take another couple pills to cope with it.

As if being alone on the streets with drugs as your only companion wasn’t shitty enough, the pain in my head slowly shifted to my limbs. I guess that’s what happens when your nights are spent on the cold, rigid ground or hard, plastic seats of a CTA train. The longer I was on the streets, the worse my mental and physical health became. I developed severe fibromyalgia. I started having anxiety attacks and become paranoid that I was going to get robbed. It felt like I couldn’t trust anyone. To level the anxiety, I started taking benzodiazepines (valium) on top of the opioids, but the volatile combination made me an even harder person to be around.

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While I was on and off the streets for over a decade, I did have moments of shelter and promise. I got engaged in 2003 and had even found a job as a nursing assistant. But pills were still in my system. They were still running my life. By then I was swallowing 300 pills a week, and like the other times in my life, it destroyed what little good I had. By 2005, we broke up, and I was back on the streets. My mom took me in for a spell too, but my junkie mentality ruined that too. I felt like such a fuck-up every time I saw the disappointed gaze of someone who loved me. But I couldn’t stop. I had tried quitting once but I’d only lasted six months. The opioids and benzodiazepines always dragged me back into their cold, unfeeling clutches. It felt like there was no escape.

By 2008, I was back on the streets, and there was no sign of things looking up. A body pumped full of pain meds is always a recipe for trouble, and as I became more immune, the pain from my fibromyalgia became excruciating. And I became angrier with my life and situation. It all came to a head one morning when I woke up from a severe episode. It was the worst pain I’d ever felt. It felt like I was being stabbed and any slight movement would send shots of pain through my body. With the help of my drugs, I got some of the pain under control, but I knew something major was happening that I was choosing to ignore.

Stubborn and untrusting, I refused medical help for a couple years, searching for the next place to get my drugs to appease the pain temporarily. It wasn’t until 2011 when I developed blood clots in my legs so severe that I had to use a walker to get around that I decided to go see a pain specialist. After examining me, the doctor determined I needed to try fentanyl patches for my chronic pain. My eyes lit up when he added, “I’m also writing you a prescription for Dilaudid.” I had to stop myself from jumping up and down knowing I’d be getting my hands on an even stronger opioid without going to the streets for it. This doctor wrote the prescription like he was giving me a lollipop after a shot. And he had no idea that I was planning to shoot up Dilaudid for quick relief. The doctor had just traded my silver medal spread of drugs for a shiny gold spread.

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I laid off the other pills and switched to my new prescriptions for the next two years, but I was still having a hard time living alone because of my condition. I knew I needed help. In 2013, I managed to get accepted to a nursing home that ensured I had a comfortable place to sleep to cope with my fibromyalgia, but I felt like a defenseless old man that needed others to help live. And I was only in my 30s! I felt pathetic.

I remember one day waking up and thinking, So, this is where I ended up? I looked at the marks on my arms and shook my head. This is the garbage that got me here. How did I let it get this far? All those years of anger, of depression, of using pills to alter my mood, and look where it got me—alone and in a nursing home. When I looked back, it all seemed so pointless. I’d wasted so much time toiling away into nothingness. Well, no more, I decided. It was time to man up and quit this crap.

And so, I did. I quit cold turkey knowing full well that withdrawals were coming for me. But I was comforted in knowing that even though I’d be going through three days of hell, I’d make it out on the other side stronger and free. After three days of feeling like I had the flu with vomiting, cold chills, and total misery, I woke up on the fourth day knowing I was turning to a better chapter, and I could leave those old pages behind.

To help stay sober I started going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings held at the home, I got more involved in my mental health, and I educated myself on safer solutions and coping skills for my fibromyalgia. I was given a medical marijuana card that did wonders for my chronic pain while keeping me away from the desire to use narcotics. I no longer crave pain meds like I did for nearly 20 years, and that’s such a great accomplishment.

In exploring my mental health, I was given a diagnosis that explained so much of my past. For years, I’d been grappling with undiagnosed major bipolar and depressive disorder, putting drugs in my body that were heightening my symptoms and making me more vulnerable to addiction. All that anger had an answer. Discovering this helped motivate me to fight past any urges to relapse.

To aid my recovery, I moved to Bourbonnais, Illinois in 2014 where I joined a “moving on” program to help transition me from a nursing home back to an ordinary home life. I started going to the gym to organically release endorphins and managed to meet someone in 2017. She loves me despite my past and has also helped motivate me to stay sober. After four years, I finally moved out in 2018 and began a life outside of rehabilitation.

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Since I got sober, I’ve made it my mission to become a positive person and show others that there’s a life after opioids. You can get out, no matter how deep you are. Looking back on my recovery journey, I’ve learned that it’s never too late to take your life back. There will always be downs in life, but they won’t last forever, and we have a choice on how they affect us. I let my hardships drown me for years, and I made a lot of mistakes, but I know now that you don’t have to let them destroy you. The only true mistake you can make in your life is not learning from your mistakes. That’s what I want others still trapped in the suffocating arms of addiction to know. And I hope to one day help people get off the drugs I was once addicted to. Accepting help instead of shutting people out could save your life. When I accepted help, my life changed for the better. It can happen to you too, if you let it happen.

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This is the story of Phillip Rossa

Phil dubs himself a certified smartass and currently resides in Manteno, Illinois, with his fiancée and her father. After losing his father at 15, Phil became very erratic, especially after getting prescribed pain medication for chronic tension headaches. That simple prescription led him down nearly 20 years of addiction and an eventual diagnosis of fibromyalgia from living on the streets. It wasn’t until 2013 when he was saddled up in a nursing home that he regretted the path that got him there and decided to get sober. Due to his fibromyalgia, Phil is currently on disability and unable to work full time, but he hopes to get into the recovery field at some point to help other addicts. When Phil was an addict, he thought nobody cared and he was beyond help. He now wants others to know that someone does care, and that person is him. He believes it’s never too late to get your life back. In his free time, Phil loves to play video games, and one of his favorite games is God of War.

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Phillip Rosa with his fiancée’s father’s dog.

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This story first touched our hearts on September 20, 2019.

| Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: MJ |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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