For over a year, Heather found herself taking more and more pain pills, in higher and higher doses. But it didn’t dawn on her that she was addicted — not until a glitch in her pharmacy’s computer system delayed her refill by two days.
“I had diarrhea for 24 solid hours,” recalls Heather, 41, now an Ideal Option patient. “I was vacillating between freezing and boiling, and I couldn’t sleep. At first, I thought I was getting the flu. I was so naïve.”
Heather did some googling and realized she was in withdrawal. She found that fact hard to reconcile with her image of addiction: “people crushing pills or shooting up.”
“It didn’t occur to me that I could be addicted to something I was given for legitimate reasons,” she says.
Heather was first prescribed Vicodin after her daughter was born. Her joints swelled up, and she was diagnosed with a thyroid condition. Before she knew it, she was taking two different opioids multiple times a day.
“No matter how many I took, all I ever wanted was more,” Heather says.
When her doctor cut her off, she began buying pills from a mom she’d met while volunteering at her son’s school.
“I would tell myself: But the pain is real. You have all these things to do. Whatever gets you through the day.”
Normally a busy, outgoing person, Heather withdrew from her friends and discouraged her kids from inviting friends over. She fought horribly with her husband. She avoided small gatherings and slept “as much as humanly possible.”
“I didn’t want a second set of eyes looking at me,” she remembers.
” I was so pale and gained so much weight. My hair started thinning because my thyroid was not functioning. I looked 20 years older.”
Adding to her stress, Heather was spending money the family didn’t have. Vacations were off the table, and she couldn’t replace her car. She couldn’t get a job, either, because she knew she’d fail a drug test.
From time to time, she would try to taper off the pills, but then she’d double up on the extras — “those would be gold” — fueling the “vicious cycle of shame, self-deprivation, and withdrawal.”
“I’d beat the crap out of myself emotionally for allowing this to happen,” she says.
Mired in depression, Heather would imagine driving her car off a bridge. “I remember thinking: Well, if it looked like an accident, my family wouldn’t be stuck with the guilt.”
Heather confided in her best friend that she felt trapped in her addiction.
“She said, ‘If you’re taking this much now, what’s going to happen when you’re middle aged and have arthritis and have other ailments?’ It really made me think.”
By this time, fentanyl was creeping into the street drug supply, and Heather feared she might accidentally overdose.
Adding to her misery, she still felt joint pain.
“The more drugs I took, the more pain I experienced,” she says. “There is a reverse effect that takes place when you’re over medicated — narcotic toxicity. It’s a real dark place.”
At the same time, Heather struggled to care for her mom, who’d been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Heather helped her mom bathe and dress and drove her long distances to medical appointments, always fearing withdrawal would kick in.
“If I hadn’t been able to obtain enough medication to get through that day, I would start to get sick on the drive home,” she recalls. “That whole year was like that.”
Heather’s husband, who’d picked up the slack at home, begged Heather to get help. But she balked, afraid she’d have to enroll in an inpatient treatment program.
“I’d known people who had to go away to rehab,” she says, “but if you have children or an ailing elderly parent or a job, that’s not an option.”
A friend in recovery offered Heather some of her Suboxone. Heather declined and tried to quit on her own, but she couldn’t make it past 12 hours before the vomiting and diarrhea sent her back to the pills.
“I finally broke down and accepted,” she says.
Life got better — Heather was able to maintain sobriety for the final months of her mom’s life. Still, she wasn’t fully present for her mom, and she knew that staying off opioids wasn’t the same as being in recovery.
“My heart might have been in the right place, but I was taking somebody else’s medication,” she says. “I was still living with that shame of doing something wrong.”
Eager to get her life back on track, Heather found Ideal Option via a Google search. “I came out of the dark and told them everything,” she says. “They were so supportive. I didn’t know clinics like this existed, where you say, ‘I’m ready’ and get treatment that day.”
Securing her own Suboxone prescription had a Domino effect.
First, Heather addressed her unhealthy relationship with food. Then she got a fitness watch to track her daily steps.
“The more weight I lost, the better I felt,” says Heather, who has lost 100 pounds and now averages over 20,000 steps a day.
Feeling fit inspired her to get back to work. She now runs the make-up department at a local Fred Meyer, a job she loves.
“Often, customers come in because they don’t feel good about themselves, and I can boost their confidence,” Heather says. “That feels amazing.”
Heather even got a boost from taking the company’s drug test.
“It was like a weird landmark moment for me,” she says. “I had a sense of pride and joy about not having to be ashamed or afraid.”
Heather reconnected with old friends on social media and has a whole new network of friends from work. She started baking again. She has a new dog and 16 chickens and teenagers running in and out of the house.
She appreciates “the little things”: mowing her lawn, making strawberry jam, painting her nails.
“Every little thing is a celebration,” she says.
What Heather relishes most is her freedom.
“When you’re in your addiction, your drug of choice is making the decisions. But when you’re sober, you get to pick every road. That empowerment is better than any drug.”
Heather recently spent four days in Mexico with a girlfriend, marveling that she could fly without worrying about withdrawal.
When she looks at pictures of herself from her opioid days, she doesn’t recognize herself.
“I was a giant pasty blob — like a giant marshmallow,” she says. “My skin and hair looked lifeless. My eyes had nothing happening in them.”
Today, she says, “The difference is astounding. I reverse-aged.”
During her addiction spiral, Heather worked hard to hide her opioid use from her children, now 16 and 19. But she has since told them the truth.
“I want my kids to know it’s never too late to change.”
Heather looks forward to her appointments at Ideal Option. “Every month is a reminder that I’m one month further away from where I was.”
Early in her recovery, Heather’s exercise challenge was to walk loops around her family’s 1-acre property. She’d power through until she hit the 1-mile mark, struggling to trudge up the steep hill on one side.
These days, she pushes her 50-pound lawnmower up that same hill.
“My dad assumed I was using the self-propelled feature,” Heather says. “When I told him I had the mower on manual mode, he looked at me like I was nuts. He said, ‘Why would you push a lawnmower up a hill?’”
Heather told him why: “Because I can.”