Insurance companies are part of the opioid addiction problem

 Transdermal Fentanyl patch (Image courtesy of Leslie Handler)

Transdermal Fentanyl patch (Image courtesy of Leslie Handler)

At first, I just felt very anxious, but anxiety soon led to physical shaking. My stomach felt like someone who weighed 300 pounds was standing on it. I lay on my bed in the fetal position and tried to be still.

Then I kicked the covers over and over and over again. I was swimming in a pool of sweat. A few minutes later, I was freezing, and I pulled the covers up around my neck to keep out the cold. I tossed my body back and forth. I just couldn’t lie still.

The next thing I knew, I felt like I was on a boat, rocking up and down. I went back to the fetal position, rocking, rocking, rocking.

This went on for about four days.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

On the fifth day, most of the uncontrollable movement stopped, but I still felt like my body was moving. When I lay still, I could finally fall asleep. When I woke up, I felt extremely depressed and just wanted to go back to sleep.

After about six days, I could finally dress, but I felt like I could leave the house for no more than an hour at a time. It took almost two months for the depression to lift.

This is what withdrawal from opioid addiction looks like.

I have had years of cancer and many surgeries. By this time, the pain had gotten so bad that morphine no longer helped. Dilauded no longer helped. The pain management doctor gave me Fentanyl. I was on high doses for over a year. When I finally felt better and told the doctor I wanted to get off the medicine, she refused to write me another prescription for any kind of painkiller. She actually forced me to go through withdrawal cold turkey.

I tried to find a new pain management doctor, but hers was the only group within an hour’s drive.

Six months later, the cancer was back. Another surgery, more pain meds, more Fentanyl. This time, I had experience. I went for my monthly appointment and told the doctor I was still in a lot of pain. I renewed my prescription and weaned myself off the medication over the next month without withdrawal. I never saw that doctor again.

Since that time, I’ve moved to a new state. I’ve had many more recurrences and many more experiences with pain meds. Perhaps I’m one of the lucky ones. I hate the stuff. It doesn’t make me high. It does help with the pain, but it also robs me of my life. I can’t always think clearly, I need naps in the middle of the day, and I sleep at least 10 hours a night when I’m on it.

I’m in the process of weaning off of Fentanyl for the third time in my life, not because I have an addiction, but because I keep having surgeries in the same place, and I need the medicine to help me tolerate the pain. After the first 10 surgeries, I stopped counting.

Insurance is a nightmare. Nowadays, the Fentanyl only comes as a transdermal patch. If I want to wean myself from it, I can’t just tear the patches in half. The dosage just doesn’t absorb into the body that way. I was on 75 milligrams for the past year, so the doctor wrote a month’s supply of 50s, and I did just fine. The next month he wrote a script for two boxes of 25 milligrams and two boxes of 12 milligrams, but my insurance company denied them, saying they would fill only one or the other.

I explained to them that I was weaning myself off of the meds by taking one 25 and one 12 at the same time for a few days, then only one 25 for a few days, then one 12 for a few days, and then by the end of the month, I’d be off the medication completely, but this plan simply had no place in their computers to allow approval.

So I had to take 37s for an entire month, then 25s for an entire month. Next month, I’ll have the doctor write me a script for 12s, and then I’ll finally be done with the stuff. It will have taken me four months to wean off of a medication I could have weaned off of in a month, and it will cost them four times more for me to do it!

The next time, I’ll be even more prepared. (And no, I’m not being a pessimist. The cancer has been coming back regularly for 20 years. It’s not likely to suddenly go away.) I’ll do this by myself once again, and I’ll do it in a month’s time.

Now I can’t tell you just how I did it, but I have a stash at home of several different doses. It’s a shame that I have to rig the system a bit to do this, but it’s also a shame that some doctors and most insurance companies just don’t get it. Not all rules fit all scenarios.

But like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones. I hate the stuff and can’t wait to get off of it. With all the obstacles to getting off of opioids, it’s no wonder we have an epidemic on our hands.

I will have to go back on the stuff at some point in my future. I say bring it on. But now that I’ve healed, I have the experience, the wisdom, and the will — and the stash! — to get off in one month and be done. Lucky me!

As for the cancer, I’m still standing. After 20 years of it, I’m still here. Lucky, lucky me.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal