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How opioid addiction took over my mother’s life

My mom was an amazing mother. But at some point, everything changed. Thanks to prescribed painkillers, she was no longer the same person.

Sun-Times reporter Tina Sfondeles’ mother Elizabeth on vacation in Las Vegas with her father in 1990, about seven years after her diagnosis.
Sun-Times reporter Tina Sfondeles’ mother Elizabeth on vacation in Las Vegas with her father in 1990, about seven years after her diagnosis.
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High on a combination of Norco and Fentanyl, prescribed by a pain clinic, my mother began to throw dishes onto the kitchen floor.

It was inexplicable. And the only way to stop the madness was to call 911.

My sister told the operator my mother was suicidal, which wasn’t true. But it led to a stay for our mother in the psychiatric ward of a hospital.

I watched as a doctor who had prescribed my mother opioids for more than 20 years looked at her with a combination of shame and disgust. I’ll never forget that look.

The man who had persistently written prescriptions for Vicodin, Oxycodone and Norco somehow couldn’t understand how such powerful drugs could take over my mother’s life. Or he didn’t want to understand.

That was in 2012. Twenty-nine years earlier — in 1983, the year I was born — my mother Elizabeth had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. The painful disease ate up the cartilage in her body. It forced her to get a replacement shoulder when she was in her 30s. It later led to a second shoulder surgery. To this day, my mother can’t lift her left arm above her shoulder.

My mother’s doctors prescribed painkillers all these years, having few other options to treat the inflammation. Their care for her was largely reactive, not preventive.

“Doctors seemed to offer her whatever the latest drug company told them to push, and then, as the government started to notice the addiction problem in this country, they started to get scared,” my sister Kathy recalled. “Mom’s doctor got scared and sent her to a pain clinic.”

In 2011, a doctor at this clinic prescribed an extremely dangerous combination of Norco and Fentanyl patches. The transdermal patches are the same drug and delivery system implicated in the deaths of Prince, Tom Petty and Michael Jackson. They’re used to treat extreme pain, often for terminally ill cancer patients.

Today, my mother has vivid memories of all the sleepless nights. Nights in which she had to sit up against a wall because she couldn’t move her back. Nights when she had to move her legs constantly to fight off the pain.

All the while, she was raising three girls.

I want to stress that: My mom was an amazing mother, the kind I hope to be. She threw themed birthday parties for all of our birthdays. On one birthday, she took my sisters, me and our friends to a cosmetology school to get our hair and makeup done.

She loved the arts and culture and took us into the city frequently, driving from Lemont on the Stevenson Expressway. We would go to the Art Institute of Chicago or the Field Museum. We would eat at a French or Asian restaurant or see a musical.

But at some point, everything changed. She was no longer the same person. It’s too painful for me to watch home videos now from my childhood because all I see is a different person. Someone with hope. Her voice even sounds different.

Addiction took over sometime after the scenes of laughter in those videos, and with it came desperation.

When I was 16 and recovering from having my wisdom teeth pulled, I remember my mother chasing me around the house to get the bottle of Vicodin that the doctor had prescribed me. I locked myself in my bathroom and flushed the pills down the toilet.

To this day, I reject prescription medicine — as much as I can. I know there is a time and place for painkillers to help those in severe pain, making them feel “normal” again. But I’ve also seen it go too far.

And I know it’s possible to use prescription painkillers, and simply stop.

But that’s not what happened to my mother.

To this day, when people talk about recreationally using painkillers, I cringe. Maybe they have never seen the face of addiction that I saw.

My mother is as clean of unnecessary drugs today as she possibly can be, after several years of frustrated efforts by our family to help her. When we made our fourth effort to detox her off opioids, her doctors refused to go along, saying she would be in too much pain. When she applied for a state medical cannabis card two years ago, she was rejected because her doctor failed to provide a letter in support.

We called the doctor about that, several times, but he never called back.

Now, my mother deals with the aftermath of opioid addiction with Suboxone, a drug that helps people wean themselves off other painkillers. She is prescribed that drug — which also can be addictive — by a psychiatrist, not a pain specialist. And she is responding well to a drug that helps reduce inflammation.

But the damage has been done to her body and brain, much of it irreversible. She’s dealing with a form of dementia that, in part, might have been caused by her years of opioid abuse.

She is aware that pills took over her life. And she has a lot of regret.

I asked my mother if I could write about her. She said yes.

“I want others to know what happened to me,” she said in her cute Polish accent. “If I could help others avoid this, please write about me.”

I’m writing this not as a woe-is-me tale but as a cautionary account of opioid addiction.

A close friend of mine is entering a new phase in her own battle with chronic pain. After years of being prescribed opioids for intense pain from endometriosis, her doctor cut her off. She panicked. She lived in fear of the pain. I told her we’d find a solution, whether it be holistic medicine, acupuncture, anything.

And I told her it might even be the pills themselves creating her sense of fear.

It reminded me of my mother, who would stare at the clock and live in a state of panic anytime she ran out.

If I can help my friend avoid a life of reliance on a drug that can ruin her life, I will.

My relationship with my mother has suffered because of her addiction, but she is still there, in that body, fighting to redefine herself.

And I’m going to help her with that.

Tina Sfondeles covers politics for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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