My sister’s story of addiction began when she was 4, when the sexual abuse began.
First published in The Establishment
The clinic I took my sister to is housed in a new building; it has abstract paintings on its very white walls and overly quirky sodas in the waiting room. Pain management clinics that pedal opiates strive to look respectable.
If all goes as planned, this clinic will prescribe the opiates that she will become addicted to—again. They will dull her constant physical pain. They will dull her psychological torment—the particular trait that makes them so attractive to so many. The doctors involved in prescribing them largely overlook the psychological torment, however; a narrow view of a very complicated problem makes for convenient medical treatment. It makes for compelling media narratives.
It makes for more addicts.
I could start the story of my sister’s addiction by talking about the first pain management clinic she went to, 10 years ago. The one where the doctor was eventually arrested for trading prescriptions for cash. She was prescribed an ever-increasing dose of oxycontin, oxycodone, and eventually a fentanyl patch along with oral narcotics. She became a slow-motion zombie who nodded off while standing, lost her balance, and broke bones from falling. In the time it took her to enunciate a simple sentence, she would forget what she was trying to say. She lost her job, then her health insurance, and, finally, access to her prescription opiates. She spent a week dope sick, without any medical care, and emerged sober.
But that’s only part of The Opiate Story.
My sister’s story of addiction began when she was 4, when the sexual abuse began. A relative would creep into her bedroom at night; so much abuse at such a young age affected the way her pelvic muscles developed. Children lack the words to describe such violations of body, mind, and soul, and like most victims of sexual abuse, she never told anyone as a child. When she finally grew up and told our mother, she didn’t believe her. And because she was abused in New York, the state’s statute of limitations on the crime kept her from pressing charges as an adult.
Her angry, depressed childhood and angry, depressed teenaged years culminated in some pretty severe bouts of anorexia and a suicide attempt at college. But with the help of campus mental health services and continued distance from her home, she gained psychological distance from the abuse, got a decent job, and tasted a semblance of healthy adulthood.
In her mid twenties, she developed severe pelvic pain, which baffled experts for years. It started out as debilitating menstrual pain, something doctors minimize. Pretty soon it started before her period, lasted beyond it, and then would happen a few random times throughout the month. Within the course of a year she was experiencing severe pain every day, absolutely confounding a growing list of doctors and specialists.
She finally went to one of the best medical centers in the nation for a diagnosis and treatment plan. She saw five specialists the first day there, and at least two of them asked her, point-blank, if she was sexually abused as a child. One of them explained exactly how penetration at such a young age—as well as the struggles against it—can warp the development of pelvic muscles. They explained that an office job which required sitting for hours caused a change in muscle tone that had snowballed into her chronic, debilitating pain.
After my sister was diagnosed, the doctors at the medical center said she would need treatment with opiates. They discussed a nerve block, but she was too young and otherwise healthy. They suggested physical therapy and acupuncture too, which didn’t work. Debilitating pain was managed with debilitating doses of opiates. Two bad options, but the opiates made her less miserable.
After she lost her job, she moved back to the same house she was sexually abused in, with emotionally brutal parents who weren’t sympathetic to her plight. She applied for Social Security Disability, a process that takes years in New York.
There isn’t much academic research about the adult life of child sexual abuse survivors, but existing research and anecdotes imply her life is fairly typical. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study of the 1990s proved that child sexual abuse—along with nine other childhood traumas—have lifelong, significant, and surprising impacts on the health and futures of those grown children. Earlier research documented the increased risk of mental illness and drug abuse. But the increased risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and COPD that the ACE study documented were surprising, especially when other risk factors were corrected for. Absenteeism from work and serious financial hardship were even more surprising.
And one of the more obscure metrics? The study linked childhood trauma to chronic physical pain.
At every pain clinic my sister has visited, she talks about the abuse in as few well-rehearsed, stilted words as possible, trying not to cry. And always the doctor says, “It’s OK, we see this all the time here.”
In the 1990s the “war on drugs”—when crack cocaine was framed as Public Enemy #1—was blamed, in part, on youth culture. The “just say no” campaigns targeted kids, while the DARE program, and the phrase “peer pressure,” ingrained itself into our vocabulary. Fast forward a decade, when methamphetamine threatened to gobble up Appalachia and inner cities that had just survived crack.
This time poverty shouldered the blame, and pop culture gave us Breaking Bad.
Now, America is in the midst of an opiate epidemic that is drastically thinning our ranks. America’s mean lifespan is declining, largely due to opiate overdoses and suicide. People are willingly casting off their mortal coil, or only persisting in it if they can numb the hell out of it.
We love blaming the evil pharmaceutical companies that flooded America’s streets with very dangerous, very addictive painkillers under the false pretenses of safety. They deserve it; but it’s also crucial to note that only 25% of America’s current opiate addicts got started using legally prescribed medications—progressive addiction to alcohol, street drugs, or illegally distributed prescription medication are responsible for the rest. Addiction, something a leading addiction researcher wants to rename “ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking,” is often a direct, logical consequence of childhood trauma.
Pharmaceutical companies aren’t the only villains; adults who sexually abuse children only get convicted about 20% of the time. Our national disinterest in preventing other forms of child abuse and childhood trauma is reckless and immoral.
Maternal home visiting programs—which provide the parents most likely to abuse their children with emotional support, life skills, parenting skills, and case management—actually prevent abuse from starting, and prevent most Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). They dramatically improve the lives of children and their families. But at least 90% of eligible families are not served by the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting program (MIECHV). Even the Titanic had enough lifeboat seats to save half its passengers. After the Titanic sank we made changes; why don’t we have a national discourse or hear a peep from our elected leaders when thousands of children die directly from abuse, and millions are cursed with ACEs every year?
Meanwhile I’m left struggling to decide if opiate addiction is my sister’s best, or worst, option.
I remember her addicted. Her skin was nearly numb, all the time, but her scalp itched constantly. She would scratch it until she gouged out chunks of flesh, leaving open sores and streaks of pink in her blond hair, and dried blood and skin shards under her chipped nails. She would fall over. She could barely speak in sentences. And I was always worried about her overdosing.
When my sister lost her job, she lost her health insurance. Eventually she got Medicaid, but for a few months she had no coverage. No coverage meant no legal opiates. She went through withdrawal (no clinic in a two-hour radius was willing to take her), and started life without any heavy-duty opiates. Her pain stabilized, and between alcohol and some low-level narcotics she was able to get through the day.
But for reasons unknown to me or her doctors, her pain suddenly became worse, and her anorexia is relapsing. She went from a size 12 to a size two in a matter of weeks. The last time my sister was anorexic she was so weak I couldn’t hear her voice unless she was sitting next to me. She’d pass out from low blood sugar. It’s a familiar refrain; her entire life has been, essentially, slipping from one self-destructive coping mechanism to another and hoping no one will notice.
While addiction is always a source of shame, anorexia is a source of pride. It is the execution of something most women want to accomplish, a prize most women covet. I know from personal experience that anorexia is a sort of mind game that can only be played by a very active, very discontent mind. Anorexia—not depression or substance-abuse disorder—is considered the deadliest mental illness.
The option I want for my sister is a genuinely healthy life. But she has no clear path to that. For her, a healthy life requires income allowing her to live on her own. It requires trauma specific therapy, psychotherapy, psychiatry, and pain management. It requires a community where child abuse victims are believed. Where their wrecked lives are considered evidence as readily as a burglary victim’s shattered window. A community where abuse victims have access to justice and compensation whenever they’re ready for it.
Under her scars and scabs and tattoos and snark, my sister is still there. My other half, my best friend, the only person I’ve ever trusted, the only healthy, long-term relationship I’ve ever had. The person who can make me laugh by reciting a joke I heard when I was 14. The person who will ask me how I am and can tell if I’m lying when I say “fine.”
Like millions of others my sister needs to figure out how to play the hand she was dealt. I don’t know a better way for her to play it.
For now I’ll help her get opiates.
COO, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.