Armstrong-Hoss: Prescription painkillers’ grip tough to break

With my family’s love and a doctor’s help I was able to break my dependence and regain my health.

Cory Armstrong-Hoss

By Cory Armstrong-Hoss / Herald Forum

When I look at my messages to doctors between February and May of 2018, I remember that I was slowly losing my mind.

On Feb. 14, 2018, I doubled my dose of a prescribed pain medication, then I did not sleep that night. I’d been taking Effexor, also prescribed as an antidepressant, to manage chronic back pain since my mid-20s, occasionally altering the dose. That winter was tough, my depression enveloping me early in the morning most weekdays and lasting past noon. I’d asked my doctor to increase my dose, trying to claw back some of myself.

From mid-February to May, when I chose to leave the clinic, my records show an arsenal of drugs they threw at me as my insomnia persisted and I grew desperate: Trazadone, Zolpidem, Doxepin, Zoloft, Quetiapine, Ambien and Ambien XR, Clonazepam, Buspirone, Zyprexa and Xanax.

As my trips to the pharmacy in Mukilteo grew from monthly to weekly, I filled my red basket with over-the-counter medications: Benadryl, melatonin, Nyquil. I saw a sleep specialist and strapped on a headband and sensors for an at-home sleep study. I clung to my talk therapy appointments, and chased anything that offered glimmer of hope: cognitive behavioral therapy, relaxing music with headphones, chilled sleep mask, meditation. I searched for answers in online medical journals, Google rabbit holes and Reddit threads.

And exercise. Even during stressful periods, I had almost always been able to sweat off the rain clouds, exhaust myself, and collapse on my bed, adrift within minutes. During those months I jogged with eyelids half-closed around the loop of our Everett neighborhood dozens and dozens of times. I tried to keep up during pick-up ultimate Frisbee at Kasch Park, a slower and clumsier version of myself.

It did not work. I was north of 210 pounds when 2018 started, and stumbled past spring somewhere shy of 176. I would look in the mirror, stare into those expressionless eyes, and see a man who was dying.

When I broke down, unable to remember things or make decisions, I called the Crisis Line. I called Fairfax to inquire about the check-in requirements. I called my mom. I called my sister.

But mostly, I leaned on my wife. She is a tenacious, no-BS problem solver, a nurse practitioner who was watching her husband of 12 years slowly disappear before her eyes. I retreated constantly to the bedroom, because there I didn’t have to act like things were OK, didn’t need to burden anyone with the wrong reaction or — more commonly — no reaction.

And I left my clinic. Their policy restricted doctors from prescribing ongoing benzodiazepines. Benzos are a class of tightly controlled sedatives that can easily create dependence.

I get it, now. I do. But then I was wasting away, panicking, feeling like everything would be gone soon. I would be gone. My brother found me a doctor who rescued people like me. My Wwife drove me to Bellevue on a rainy Thursday in April, and the doctor prescribed me a benzo called Clonazepam. And for the first time in 72 hours I slept. And, over the course of that summer, I slowly came back to life.

The life ring he’d thrown me stopped me from going under, brought me back to regular nights of sleep by August. Then, within a couple of months, the intense depression and crippling anxiety had abated. But when I wasn’t looking, night after night, that life ring strengthened its grip, constricting ever tighter, so when I wanted to take it off in the winter 2019, I couldn’t.

I spent the next five months hovering over a pill splitter every night at 9:30 pm. I was trying to steady my hands, cutting my already tiny benzo tablets slightly smaller every two weeks without crushing them, tapering over months, because any reduction too large would cause a night of withdrawal and its attendant tormentors: akathisia, sweating, a racing heart and jittery eyes, unable to focus even on a screen or a book. Weaning off benzos was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.

Once in a while, someone asks me if I ever considered harming myself. It did occur to me, but never in any detailed way; never the clear-eyed thoughts of plans, supplies, a date and a note, the kind of thoughts that make crisis counselors nervous. Mostly, I wanted to sleep. Mostly, I wanted to see colors again, to feel something besides endless despair. Mostly, I wanted my wife to get her life and her husband back, and my kids to have a father who once again found joy in them.

Please listen when I tell you that Winston Churchill was right: When you’re going through hell, keep going. If your doctor, medication or therapist isn’t working, get a new one. If the advice you’re getting isn’t working, listen to someone else. Someone, somewhere will help you solve your problem. Someone will help pull you back from the abyss.

And please, never forget: You are a blessing with gifts to give to this world. We need you to keep going.

Cory Armstrong-Hoss is nonprofit guy, father of three, and community volunteer. If you’re going through hell, he wants you to reach out to the Volunteers of America’s Care Crisis and National Suicide Lifeline 800-584-3578 or Crisis Chat at www.imhurting.org.

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