When Women Won’t Talk: Prescription Pills and The Sound of Silence

 

Over the last three years of my sobriety, I have grown accustomed to talking. Telling my story. Sharing all of me; the dark and the light. But, in a case like mine, this isn’t the usual story. We might have a safe space in a church basement, among friends who understand the beauty of destruction, but where is this safe space in the world?

I am one of the millions of women in this country who will abuse prescription pills. Pills prescribed by a doctor, with no intent to get out of control or cause chaos. In fact, abusing substances didn’t seem to be in my make-up or my biology. It was dangerous and I knew it. I have a history of alcoholism in my family. My solution to this was to not drink. I even wrote poems about the destruction it took on my family, watching my grandmother pass out and fall over continually as a child was enough to turn me away from alcohol for life. I wrote poems about spitting in red wine, because I wanted to be nothing like her, not even compared to her. I didn’t want addiction to enter my bones. Yet, it did and it has. 

In trying to pull statistics for this piece, it’s been difficult. Research is limited. There are a number of articles on prescription pill addiction, but very few focus on women. Women aren’t talking about this epidemic. They aren’t admitting they are struggling. We miss talking about the facts – that over 10,000 women died last year, after overdosing on prescription painkillers.

Yes, women have options. The options set before us are simple. Detox. Treatment. Therapy. 12-Step. Go save your life, but don’t talk about it. Don’t ever admit that you had a problem with prescription pills, because if you do, people will find out. You will lose your job. You won’t be able to teach children. You’ll be judged. You won’t be invited to the playdates. Who is going to trust you with their children? These are thoughts that enter our mind.

And of course, they enter the mind of a woman who abused alcohol. But alcohol abuse is more accepted in this society than prescription pill abuse. Why? One reason is because other women are talking about it. They are writing memoirs, creating blogs, recovery podcasts, going on the record and admitting the truth about a socially acceptable drug that nearly ruined their life.

MY STORY

College graduation, with family. 2004
College graduation, with family. 2004

When I first began abusing prescription pills, I was twenty-two years old. At 22 years old, I was a graduate student at Pepperdine University, studying for my MBA in Marketing and Global Business. I was surrounded by high-achievers and big-believers. I was one of the youngest students in my class. Most people don’t go directly to business school after college, but I was different. I was confident and I fiercely believed in myself and my abilities.

My stats were this: MBA student, graduated college early, Summa Cum Laude, Dean’s List every semester, President of the Media Management & Entertainment Club, Director of Communications for the Student Government, loved unconditionally by my family, and friend to all. I was ambitious and fierce AF. Nothing and no one was going to stop me from making my dreams come true.

The abuse began with a small prescription of Vicodin after a minor surgery when I was twenty-one years old. I was studying for the GMAT’s at the time. I was pressuring myself to get into a good graduate school in California. An MBA was my only option. I didn’t create a backup plan, because this was my plan. I was that kind of woman. I remember how the pills relaxed me. They helped me sleep. They made me feel good. And I would never forget that feeling.

Over the years, I would be prescribed more drugs –  some for the severe pain from a car accident, some to help with the withdrawal of quitting pain killers, and others to move me out of a sucidide threat quickly. In a five year time period,  I was prescribed Xanax, Ambien, Adderall, Vicodin, Tramadol, Oxycodone, Tylenol-3, Prozac, Percocet, Valium, and a number of other opiates, anti-depressants and benzodiazepines that I can’t recall.

The first drug I became physically dependent on was Tramadol. We are told Tramadol is non-narcotic and  it’s not addictive. But, I was certainly becoming addicted. It was that summer, after my first year of graduate school, when I started to question what I was doing. Why was I taking this pill? I had been taking a pill a day for over a month, and in my mind, I knew this was wrong. This was not who I was nor who I wanted to represent as a woman. I stopped taking the Tramadol and it wasn’t easy. I had intense stomach pains and the depression from the withdrawal was a darkness I had never experienced in my whole life.

In my second year of graduate school, I went to see a psychiatrist at the school to tell him what was going on. I went because I was depressed, not realizing, the depression was a symptom of the withdrawal from no longer taking the Tramadol. I told him the truth. I told him exactly what I had been doing and I told him I thought I had become addicted to the pills so I quit. He sent me off with a prescription for Xanax, Ambien, and an anti-depressant. He suggested therapy and I went once or twice, but I wasn’t that concerned. I quit. I was going to move on. This “issue” was over.

And the “issue” was over, for a few years. I graduated from my MBA program. I was in a number of leadership roles at school. I spoke at our graduation ceremonies. I had landed a job at a prominent cable network. I had my own office and I was making nearly six figures and I was twenty-three years old, leading a life, most people dream about.

Speaking at my graduation ceremonies from Pepperdine
Speaking at my graduation ceremonies from Pepperdine

However, something was still off. I had just landed the job of my dreams. The exact job I moved to California to obtain, yet, I didn’t feel fulfilled. I was a hard-worker so the job came easy. I started thinking I deserved more. I had nearly everything a woman could want at my age, yet *I* deserved more. I was becoming more narcissistic as the days passed and as I continually exceeded every goal placed in front of me, arrogance came easy.

The story can move into physical and verbal abuse, the loss of an engagement, and it can move through failure in my career, severe depression, and a car accident at twenty-five years old. But, the story of my addiction truly began when I was prescribed Adderall at twenty-six years old. I wasn’t prescribed Adderall because I had ADD. I was prescribed Adderall by the same psychiatrist who sent me off with Xanax and Ambien, four years before, after I told him that I was worried I had become addicted to prescription pain pills. This doctor didn’t even ask to see me. I called him after I lost a very important opportunity in my career. I told him I wanted to die and he said, don’t worry, I have the answer. And Adderall, was his answer. And soon, it became mine too. 

This is how the story of a powerful, educated, intelligent, ambitious, and loved woman, nearly died, begins. This is the true beginning of a five-year cycle of abuse that left me broken, scared, and terrified of how to even live life.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

This is my story. And we might hear similar stories in 12-step rooms. But, there are millions of women who have no interest in attending a 12-step meeting. They don’t want to be told they are powerless and inherently selfish. They don’t want to take an inventory of all their faults and defects. And they certainly don’t want to say: “I am an addict” because the truth, as my friend Holly Whitaker says, is that addiction is an experience, not an identity.

We don’t think of the vice president of sales of a major brand as an addict and we don’t want to look at them in that way either. We all know there is a stigma attached to addiction. And professional, well-educated women with families and careers, well they want nothing to do with that stereotype, and I get it. Because, the stereotype is false, and it’s no longer our story.

Our story is that we had no idea that the drugs the doctors were prescribing to us would cause us to become addicted. We had no idea that interventions and rearrangements would be made in our name. That we would have to leave our jobs and our families in order to receive the help we need. We didn’t plan for this. And the plan for saving us is fucked up and flawed. It really is.

Today, I vow to talk about this more. I vow to tell my story so you can tell yours. When you Google my name, you are taken to a number of different articles, and publications, and videos, and social media posts about my addiction and my sobriety.  You’ll find my blog – which goes into intimate detail about my addiction. Or you will find an article I wrote for the Huffington Post called “Don’t Call Me An Addict: I Don’t Live There Anymore.” In searching further, you will be taken to YouTube videos of me, discussing my addiction and my sobriety, and choosing to use my voice, because I choose helping others over enabling my ego.

In being public about my addiction, I have given up the opportunity to land many professional jobs. This is the simple truth. I have released control of how the men who search my name on online dating sites feel about me and why they let me go because they don’t want to date a woman who has been addicted. My name, according to Google, is no longer associated with my MBA, or my career, or even my address on Spokeo – my name is associated with addiction and recovery. And to be honest, I couldn’t be more proud.

TELL THE TRUTH

I have chosen this life. I have chosen this life because we are far more than what is currently represented. We are magic-makers and light workers, and we are mothers, and daughters, and sisters, and teachers. We are nurses and business development managers and founders, and we are lovers.  We are your neighbor. We are every woman you’ve ever known. This is us. This is our story.

We are not our labels. Our recovery should empower us. And we should know that when we tell our stories, the whole world heals. But, we are told we can’t tell our stories. That we shouldn’t tell our stories. We don’t say we are in recovery on our social media pages. If we post any truth about our struggles, our sisters and our friends call us and ask if we are sure we want to talk about “that.” Because “that?No, We are not supposed to talk about that.

This is the sound of silence and it is KILLING us. The negative effects of drugs strike women harder and faster than men. They do more damage to our bodies and they eat away at our insides far quicker than they do in men. Women are more likely to be prescribed painkillers and for a much longer period of time. According to an article written in The Huffington Post, women are 50 percent more likely than men to leave their doctor’s office with a prescription, even if they have the same condition.

In the addiction treatment world, it is well known that women are slower to get help and ask for help. The top reason women are deferred from treatment is because of shame and stigma. Women are expected to be mothers to their children and they are told to never leave their jobs or their families. They are in constant fear of admitting their problem. We are told “good” women don’t get addicted.

But that’s not the truth. Nothing can change the truth. The truth is the truth.

I know there are women who are hurting. They are alone and they are in constant fear of admitting they have a problem. We are told the truth sets us free and then we are told, but darling, there are some truths we just don’t talk about.

There is a lot, in this current world, that is fucked up and flawed. There is stigma and there is shame and there are societal expectations that minimize women and tell us to stay small. I won’t stay small. And I won’t stay quiet. The sound of silence is killing us. And I’m going to keep talking. Until it ends. Or until I end.

“But, I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is…to tell the truth.”
― Howard Zinn