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Wenting Li/The Globe and Mail

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As a minister in the United Church of Canada for 30 years I have seen many kinds of suffering and sorrow. It is a privilege to help others as they make their way through suffering. Life wounds each of us. Suffering is part of the deal.

Now, it was my turn for darkness.

Suddenly the news stories of opioid abuse had a real image. It wasn’t a faceless stranger in a dark back alley. It was me, aged 58, living in a comfortable house, supported by family and friends.

“Are you addicted?” my doctor asked at each visit. I shook my head and smiled. “Nope, not me. Addiction? That is someone else,” I said.

But my inside voice was mocking, “Your mind says no, but your body says, yes!”

It took me many months to admit and recognize this reality. Not because I was embarrassed or I was hiding something, but rather, because I was I ignorant. I ignored my body. I wasn’t listening.

I wasn’t listening until my journey of withdrawal began.

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How did I get to this place? Innocently – like many people who need pain relief.

About 18 months ago I noticed a shift in my walking, a pain in my hip; my back and my legs ached. I couldn’t function. I was a mess. After a series of x-rays, physio appointments, MRIs, ultrasound and acupuncture, it was discovered that I needed a new hip. “You are bone on bone,” the technologist said. There was enormous relief in the diagnosis. If I could I would have leapt up into a clumsy dance of celebration. Finally, an answer to my pain!

However, part of the pain-management plan while waiting for surgery included a prescription for a powerful opioid – oxycodone. I had heard of oxycodone, but I wasn’t aware of its destructive nature.

My meds began slowly, 5 milligrams twice a day, up to 30 mg twice a day until my surgery 11 months later. The drug helped to mask the pain, but I was left foggy, tired and numb. Sometimes I was high, sometimes I was depressed. Lots of the time I felt disoriented. I wasn’t even aware of the effects until later.

But it was after surgery when the trouble truly began. Now it was time to come off the painkillers. For me, it was a two-month nightmare.

At sunset I would dread the coming darkness. I would brace myself. My doctor warned me that pain and side effects would be worse at night. He was so right.

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One night as I got into bed, I asked my wife to remove the art on the wall in front of me. The painting of a bouquet of flowers was dizzying. Faces emerged from the flowers and became scary images of torment.

When I did sleep, my dreams or visions were terrifying. One night I met what I called the Angel of Death. Its invitation was clear. A hand outstretched begged me forward. It beckoned me to step out into the darkness. There was a black abyss between us, darker than I had ever seen. I turned and stepped back, saying, “No, not yet,” and I awoke. My T-shirt was drenched in sweat.

I am usually not a believer in such crazy dreams or visions, but the reality of it was too clear to dismiss. I understand now why some people give up and step into the abyss. I see why some choose more drugs, or will death to come as a relief. In the spiral, I could see why opting out was a relieving option. The ache, pain, nausea, dry mouth and body paralysis were things I had never experienced before.

To calm myself, I would practice deep breathing. I would say: “Peace be still.” Over and over as a mantra. It helped. It calmed me.

I meticulously weaned myself off oxycodone and lowered my doses weekly. In the end, I was cutting a 5-mg pill in four, and still feeling the effect. My days of withdrawal were focused on the clock. Seconds, minutes, hours, until my next relieving dose. One night, I paced and I searched our house like a thief. I wanted relief that only oxycodone would offer. My body craved it, but it wasn’t my scheduled time to take it.

I somehow resisted. I made it to the relief of a new day.

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But it was never easy. Another morning as I made my way back to bed after breakfast, I cried out: “I don’t want to be sick any more.” I collapsed. My wife wrapped her arms around me and simply said, “I know you don’t. You will make it. You can do it.” My tears brought me some relief.

Throughout my recovery, angels of light – who came in many forms – truly saved me,

Sometimes it was a simple as a text message: “You can do it – you are a survivor – we need you back.” Other times a consoling emoji was enough – they could bring tears of gratitude. My emotions were just below the surface. These acts of kindness were a life line along the way. I was remembered. So I persisted.

Some angels dropped off soup, signed cards, baked cookies, mailed books, delivered wine or stopped in to play a game of Scrabble. People from my church signed handmade cards of support. Old university friends phoned to check in.

During this time my 91-year-old mother flew in to be with me. She came to walk me around the block. (She was energetic in bright, sporty Spandex, while I hunched over my walker!) We played Scrabble, and she encouraged my healing. Her quiet confidence lifted me. The compassion of others helps us to heal. We need each other to be reminded that we aren’t alone on the journey.

My journey of oxycodone is finally over. A roller coaster year. I have a new compassion for people who live with addictions and chronic pain. It has deepened my understanding of how important connection is in life. I have noticed I am more patient with strangers, more engaged with store clerks and I am more attentive to those on crutches with an obvious challenge. I now wait to hear people say how they really are. Truly listening to one another matters.

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If you know anyone who is struggling, maybe you can be their light. Their angel. Our kindness and our compassion is a balm that heals when life derails us.

John Pentland lives in Calgary, Alta.

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