Editor’s Note: The Northern Hoot acknowledges that methadone treatment has been a life changing and life-saving option for many people addicted to opioids. The narratives shared by the three First Nations women in this series reflects a different viewpoint about the methadone option. Their experiences may not speak for everyone who has used or loved a person that uses methadone, but these are their unique stories. *Names have been changed in the interests of privacy and job security.
“There’s another one!” Claire pointed out her big living room window to the busy, almost downtown street. She was referring to a young man, someone she recognized from her days at the methadone clinic. We had only been visiting for 20 minutes or so, and he was the third person to walk by that Claire easily identified as a methadone patient.
Claire is 53 years old, a First Nations woman, and she loves being a grandma.
In 1995 Claire broke her back. She was prescribed various pain medications including morphine and OxyContin. “I was overusing my prescription. I was in a lot of pain,” admitted Claire.
Five years ago, with her daughter’s encouragement, Claire pursued methadone treatment. “I made an appointment and figured it was just supposed to be a transitional thing to get through the toughest part of getting off opioids. I was really impressed with the care at first. They did everything from intensive blood work to immunizations. And I didn’t mind that. But after the fourth year I really started to get discouraged.”
As Claire progressed years into treatment her daily dose increased. She was initially receiving 35 mg a day but by the end of the fourth year into treatment her dosage had had more than tripled and she was receiving 118 mg in her cup every day. Methadone works as a pain blocker. Claire experiences chronic pain from her severe injury. “I wasn’t on pain medication any more so they increased my dose of methadone. Methadone blocks pain –I broke my toe and didn’t even realize. It’s a blocker for everything actually. It’s a blocker for your emotions. If there was something wrong with your body you’d have a hard time knowing it.”
Claire describes her experience using methadone as a time of disconnection. “You have no ambition, no emotions. It almost numbs a person to the extent that you’re just existing. You get through the day and get a good sleep at night- that’s about it. It did help me leave opiates behind but I don’t think methadone has to be used for years. It just wrecked the last four years of my life- it wasn’t a good quality of life. It just kept me down –no ambition, no feelings. Everything was just packed down below the surface.”
Like Nicole, the lifestyle of taking methadone for years wore on Claire. Claire mentions that certain over the counter medications have tainted her urine tests, and smoking marijuana –which the doctors permitted in both Nicole’s and Claire’s case, becomes risky when producers are lacing weed with other drugs like crack cocaine.
“You’re peeing every day and if you pee positive for something that’s in cough syrup or whatever, you’re cut off your carries. And then you have to get there every day before it closes –weekdays, weekends and holidays. Wow. That’s way too much control over my life. I just want normality. It’s just a different form of dependency. It’s a temporary fix for feeling calm and not wanting to run out and use because you’re already feeling nothing.”
Claire shared that anxiety would set in when she missed a dose, or feared missing a dose. “Sometimes I couldn’t sleep at night because of my pain in my limbs and lower back, and if I woke up late on Saturday and it was 1130 in the morning and I was in pain and I had to get to the clinic before noon and I had no ride, I was in a panic because I had to get there and get my drink. And I’m not the only one.”
Claire’s family was growing concerned about her, observing that their mother and grandmother seemed to be living her life around methadone. “I was miserable,” remarked Claire. “It’s just another drug- but it’s free. It’s free and covered. It disgusts me now that I think of it. How can you do this too people? Are you going to keep them in a zombie state and dependent on methadone for the rest of their lives? It just sucks.”
When she approached her doctor to discuss tapering off methadone she was advised that she wasn’t ready and to stay on course with her treatment. “I asked him why my dose wasn’t being lowered instead of being bumped up. He said that we would eventually get to that point but I had to get stabilized at the right dosage. So I thought I was going to be there a year or two but four years later my dosage kept going up and up. I couldn’t live like that anymore.”
According to CAMH, the length of methadone treatment is approached from two perspectives. One is that methadone is a lifelong maintenance program, not unlike a diabetic taking insulin daily. This perspective treats opioid addiction as a biological disorder. The second approach is to look at maintenance as a shorter-term treatment and opioid addiction is viewed as a result of emotional problems not dealt with. Short-term patients learn how to manage life without chemical influence.
Claire had an epiphany moment when she ran into a woman at the clinic that she knew from the old days. “I asked her how long she had been on methadone. She told me 15 years. She looked really drained, older than she was. I thought ‘no freakin’ way. This isn’t for me. I don’t want look like that when I’m 60.’ It was a real eye-opener.”
On March 16th, 2016, after approaching her doctor several times to lower her dosage and having been denied, Claire quit methadone cold turkey. It is important to note that the medical community does not recommend immediate cessation of the drug. Withdrawal symptoms range from fever; sweating; chills; lethargy; tremors; agitation; and nervousness, to more severe symptoms such as suicidal thoughts or actions; hyperventilation; sever anxiety and depression; insomnia; severe pain in the abdomen, joints and legs; hallucinations; irregular heartbeat and blood pressure; paranoid delusions; and panic.
“I researched what could happen if I quit cold turkey,” shared Claire. “I thought I’d be able to handle it. Little did I know that I would be very, very sick -falling down, not able to sit up for more than ten minutes at a time.”
Claire suffered nausea and diarrhea for months, and seizures wracked her body. She went to the hospital once but felt humiliated by a nurse who disclosed Claire’s methadone use within earshot of other patients and anyone else nearby. A couple of friends helped her through the worst of her withdrawal, comforting her when she seizured, and when the shakes, nausea and headaches seemed unbearable, a friend helped her take the cannabis route.
“It was around the fourth or fifth month that I started feeling better. I got a friend of mine to make me some marijuana brownies and that actually calmed my body. I didn’t want any medication, pills –no chemicals. This was a detoxing, cleansing period for me.”
Turning to her cultural practices, Claire sought people knowledgeable about natural medicines. “I drank barkwood tea to cleanse my body of toxins and I had rosewood tea for cravings. When I got emotional I saged the house. And the brownies really calmed me down.”
Last month The Northern Hoot spoke with a supervisor at Sault Ste. Marie’s Bodystream. Bodystream is a for-profit clinic that supports individuals to obtain medical marijuana prescriptions and then connects clients to licensed producers approved by Health Canada. Among clientele seeking medical marijuana are individuals attempting to overcome opioid addiction as well as exit methadone maintenance treatment programs. This growing clientele seeks an alternative to complete recovery from any type of drug addiction or dependency.
It’s been just over one year since Claire began living chemical free. She continues to use marijuana to manage chronic pain. Though withdrawal was an excruciating experience, Claire would do it all over again. “My life is better. I have more of a reality check. Being sober lets you see things from a whole different viewpoint. My life is more stable, I’m not running around peeing for people every day. I don’t have to report to the doctor once a week. Man, I just want normality now –and I know what that is after many years and I love it. Have a coffee, talk, go for walks, make breakfast for the girls. When I was on that shit I didn’t want to do nothing. I was always zoned.”
Having been through treatment Claire is not quick to encourage others to try methadone as a recovery option. “I would not recommend this to young people and especially women that are pregnant. Go deal with it in a controlled environment, a detox – just to get through the rough phase. Then get on to something more natural. Methadone should just be transitional. You shouldn’t have to commit to a tough regime that’s really just a different addiction –because that’s what it is. Instead of one dependency you’re turning to another. And it’s legal.”
*Several attempts were made to engage the prescribing medical community though time restraints or disinterest precluded opportunity for discussion. Through social media and through clinics, the Northern Hoot attempted to find candidates to interview who had positive stories about methadone treatment though no one came forward in time for this series.