Dealing With Delirium: My Experience With Cancer Painkillers as a Recovering Addict


As a recovering addict, I was nervous about the painkillers that would come alongside my cancer treatment, but I soon learned that they would be needed.

Treatment started the day after a biopsy confirmed my acute myeloid leukemia diagnosis. Induction included chemo that was administered nonstop for eight days, then I stayed in the hospital for another three weeks waiting for my stubborn neutrophils to rise to a decent level before going home and waiting for the next treatment.

The plan was to go into the hospital for a three-night stay every month for four months. The four-month period ended up turning into a year.

About halfway into the month-long induction, I became delirious. Around midnight, I crawled my way to the bathroom where I sat on the toilet for at least six hours, hoping to purge the nausea and the racket in my head.

I was exasperated by the relentless, off-pitch, operatic, monks who were beckoning me to go with them to a place in outer space. I kept telling them that "I have a dog, and I’m going nowhere! Plus, your singing is horrible. And this place you speak of sounds melancholy.” But they persisted.

I told the visiting marching-band member in my room (aka night nurse) that I had an emergency in my head. She summoned my doctor.

Looking back, my delirium was in some ways amusing, but in that moment, I was anguished.

Here is how I made it through: I recalled that my brother was flying into Chicago and was going to be with me in the morning. I wanted to thank him, encourage him with smiles and positivity, and to ask him how he was doing and what was new. (He was from the exotic state of Florida, after all!) I proved the adage that depression subsides when you get out of yourself and think of others.

When the doctor and Chris arrived early that morning, I was in a fetal position back on the bed, groaning. I couldn’t lift my pounding sweaty head. My stomach cramped so hard due to water retention and trapped gasses. I longed for someone to jab my stomach with a sharp pin.

I told my doctor that I was experiencing “general weirdness,” which was, of course, a self-diagnosis. My brother didn’t flinch; he already knew this. Dr. Gidron did confirm the high fever and other problems. A team quickly assembled, andmy doctor adjusted the chemo cocktail among a slew of other highly medical things while the team cleaned me up.

Then, I got a dose of morphine.

Kindly indulge me with this interjection: As a recovering addict, I was worried about painkillers. I sought my doctor’s and brother’s approval before I consented whenever the pain was overbearing. With my type of cancer, nausea and fatigue trumped pain, but there were occasional lingering backaches, debilitating migraines, fevers, mouth sores, annoying itchy rashes, Charlie horses and stomach cramps.

Thankfully, when a low dose of morphine is prescribed to ease real pain, there is no “high.” At least that was my experience. I just dozed off. Some may call this a relapse, and I respect that. Historically, I never abused opioids, but this alcoholic had general addiction issues.

I wisely informed the doctors that I was in recovery. I did so with my primary doctor as soon as I got sober and shared this with every doctor who ever helped me since. I did not want to be strapped to a gurney again like the day I got bombed before DUI court. (I’m someone who is not nostalgic for my 20s.) That was over 20 years ago.

At the time of the cancer diagnosis, I had 18 years of sobriety. Many recovering addicts with years of sobriety will tell you, the cringe-y days seemed like they happened last week. We easily empathize with recovering, and active addicts whenever it comes to dealing with detox and/or real pain.

I was in one of those positions that day and accepted the morphine. Thankfully the addiction did not resurface.

The fever broke, and I slept deeply.

Chris sat in his chair at the foot of my bed. All day. He said he wasn’t bored but, I mean, really? I was knocked out — snoring and experiencing generally weird dreams. (One of my family’s favorites is when I dreamt that I was in the middle of the ocean where elephants flung me with their trunks into outer space. I had to fly upwards to save my cousins in the galaxy. If I passed their soaring bodies, I could not go back down to save them.)

The great unknown outer space again. Only going UP. That seemed to be my cancer experience wrapped up in a generally weird way.

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