“Do. Not. Do. This.” It was a miserable Saturday, two months after my skin was sliced open, my dead knee cut out, four metal plates screwed into my bones, one large wafer of hard plastic inserted, then got everything stitched back together like Frankenstein’s monster. The voice sounded like it was coming from the bottom of a million mile well deep inside me.
I stared at the pills. Eight Oxycodone. Forty milligrams. I’d become very good at ignoring the little voice that always told me the right thing to do. It helped that I felt like raw sewage. I popped the pills and washed them down with organic beet apple ginger turmeric juice.
Over 20,000 people died of synthetic opioid overdose in 2016. You may have heard that due to the epidemic of synthetic opioid addiction, doctors are reluctant to give prescriptions to patients, and careful to inform patients of their dangers. My doctor—an excellent cutter and well-respected pillar of the medical community—must not have gotten the memo. He handed out Oxycodone pills like they were Pez and my dispenser always needed a refill. Donald Trump recently stated publicly that he would like to see the death penalty for people who sell opioids. Sen. George Amedore said, “It’s poison. They’re profiting on our most vulnerable.” They weren’t talking about legal drug dealers: doctors. The majority of whom are white. They were talking about illegal drug dealers. The majority of whom are brown. A dealer who sells drugs that lead to death can now be charged with homicide. But what about doctors like mine, affluent white men who deal drugs that kill their patients?
Knee replacements are painful. Bone-deep pain. Opioids kill pain dead. But of course the more you take the more you have to take. I started with two. Days later 10 milligrams was like trying to bring down an elephant with a pea-shooter. So I went to four. But by that time I wasn’t just killing pain anymore. I was chasing that shimmery floaty feeling that makes you see how beautiful life is, how gorgeous your wife is, and how awesome it is to be alive. Then of course the next morning my head pounded, my joints ached, and every bump bruise or scar I’d ever gotten throbbed like Satan was torturing me. At that point there was only one logical choice. Toss back lots more Oxy. My brain would insist that every time was the last time. But inevitably my body wrestled my brain into submission and I’d hop back on the hamster-wheel cycle of addiction.
My mojo vanished, I shuffled around like a ghost of myself. Being a maniacal athlete, I still rehabbed the whole time. But because my pain was masked, I did massive damage to my new knee, which puffed up like it was pregnant with twins and screamed in agony. I was so pill happy that I canceled my two-month checkup and got an anonymous nurse to mail me a prescription for another 60 Oxy. It came in the mail the next day and I rushed to the pharmacy like a happy junky.
Back on that miserable Saturday the 40 milligrams hit me and my eyes half-masted while my face slid into dopey slackness and my body screamed: THANK YOU!
But instead of floating down Narcotic Creek without a paddle, my guts rumbled and roiled. I tried to stop the regurgitation at the checkpoint between my guts and my throat. But my stomach wanted the opioids out, and it refused to take No for an answer.
I’m a violent vomitter. So when I stumbled to the throne and kneeled before it, the retching racked me from my crown to the soles of my feet. Every time I was sure it would be the last eruption. But it never was.
Ten times that day I tossed my cookies. Until I was purging foul air because there was nothing solid left to purge. When I looked in the mirror my face was blotched with red pixelated dots where the blood vessels had ruptured. My eyes were glassy, watery, not-quite-there. My hair had little bits of upchuck dangling like ornaments on the world’s nastiest Christmas tree.
Moment of clarity. I had to get off the drugs.
So I quit. Cold turkey. Two-hundred degrees below zero turkey. No more opioids for me.
But as I shivered in misery, I knew I needed something to stop the monkey on my back from screaming:
So I brewed some magic tea. Secret ingredient: Cannabis. Marijuana, Mary Jane, Devil’s weed. Grown organically in my friend’s backyard.
I drank. I waited. Breath bated. Hoping the power of ganja would be a match for the Opioid King.
Fifteen minutes. Nothing. Half an hour. Nothing. Forty-five minutes. Nothing.
Just as I was about to glug down the whole rest of the batch, a wave of peace swept through me. It was different from the Oxy high. More happy than ecstatic. Energizing instead of enervating.
I notice that a big dopey grin is on my lips and the monkey has scurried away to find another junkie to torment.
The Cannabis effect lasted about six hours. Then I fell into a golden slumber and stayed under until the next morning. When I woke the monkey was back, digging its sharp little fingers into my neck and screaming:
I scarfed down more magic tea. Fifty minutes of freezing, sweating, and moaning followed, as I waited to be rescued again from the opioid’s stranglehold. At minute 51, the sweet peace again eased into me, and the monkey stalked off in a disappointed huff.
I got better at timing my high so it kicked in before the serious jonesing began. A week later my mojo was back. I changed my rehab workout into a mindful-of-the-pain-warnings ritual.
It’s now three months post-surgery. My knee is largely pain-free for the first time in four decades. I’ve been off the poisonous opioids for a month, and I feel zero desire to take another ride on that death-trap roller coaster. I’ve reduced the magic tea intake to micro-dosing.
Using marijuana, an illegal federal Schedule 1 controlled substance felony drug, I kicked my addiction to a killer opioid which is legal. A drug produced by Big Pharma, handed out by many wealthy doctors with no warning, guidelines, or consequences. And yet, I am unable to legally buy the herb I needed to heal. An herb that requires no R&D, FDA approval and, if not illegal, would be affordable. So is the solution to jail the illegal purveyors of drugs that I got 60 at a clip without even an appointment? Or do we need to re-examine the chain from the top down? The questions contain the very obvious answer. And now that there’s hard numbers to back up the anecdotal experience of myself and countless others who use cannabis to relieve pain to resist opioids, isn’t change finally possible?
Like most Americans, I’m exhausted, exasperated and beyond frustrated by how much I pay for my health care, how little I get for that money, and how broken our medical system is. If there was a march on the subject, I and my new knee would be there.
But on this lovely spring day, I’m overjoyed that I am myself again. Thanks, Mary Jane.
David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, and activist. His first memoir, Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Man for Rent, was a national bestseller and has been translated into 12 languages. His book, Hos, Hookers, Call Girls & Rent Boys, appeared on the front cover of The New York Times Book Review. He’s been featured in or on The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, NPR, and many others.