A year after using cannabis to get off opioids, a retired physician is drug-free and content | Perspective
"How did this happen?" he asked himself "I am a board-certified physician. Now, I’m a drug addict struggling to stay alive."
Independence Day, 1969, changed my life. That day catapulted me from the sunny world of an optimistic, newly minted physician into a hell I could never have foreseen.
A horrific traffic accident totaled my car and fractured my back. My doctor predicted that I had dodged immediate surgery thanks to my youth and strong physical condition, but that in the years to come, I would meet the knife.
Over the next years, I practiced my profession, radiology. But one day in 2010, early in my retirement, excruciating left-leg pain signaled the doctor’s prophecy had come true. With age, weight bearing placed pressure on my sciatic nerves. Rather than risk permanent nerve damage, I consented to my first surgery, in 2011.
A neurosurgeon performed a nine-hour operation on my spine. That procedure failed, leaving me in more pain than before. A pain doctor prescribed oxycodone. Eight months later, I was no better, and consented to two more surgeries.
Over the next three years, my pain worsened. My pain doctor added a second narcotic, fentanyl, to the oxycodone. The opioids kept my pain in check, but seized control of my mind. I became withdrawn and paranoid. My thinking became muddled, and I was always depressed.
How could this have happened to me? I anguished. I am a board-certified physician. Now, I’m a drug addict struggling to stay alive.
I rarely went out, but reluctantly attended a family wedding in New York. While there, as I went to change my fentanyl skin patch, I discovered the box was empty. I had brought the wrong package. The full box was still at home.
I freaked. Impatient for its regular fix, my body revolted. Severe muscle aches, exploding headache, nausea, sweating, hot and cold flashes, chronic fatigue, and worsening low-back pain wracked my body.
I called my pain specialist. He wasn’t much help, only cautioning that if I were going to stop taking narcotics by using medical marijuana, as I proposed, do it gradually over a one-year period. Desperate to kick the habit, I ignored his advice. Thirty days later with cannabis, sheer determination, and a lot of prayer, I was completely off both the oxycodone and fentanyl. But for the next year, I hurt so bad I could hardly get out of bed. Always exhausted, I couldn’t sleep.
Struggling to recognize the slightest hints of improvement, I kept a daily log that has grown into the memoir I am writing about escaping the stranglehold of prescription narcotics.
Today, almost a year and a half after beginning to free myself of opioids, I’m improved but not completely pain-free. Standing for any length of time and walking for more than one mile produce discomfort in my back. My energy remains low. So I minimize standing, limit walking, and rest as necessary.
Still, I’m better now than I could have imagined. I take an occasional ibuprofen but no longer require opioids. It seems that my body’s own defenses, previously suppressed by the narcotics, have risen to the occasion.
I no longer need marijuana. But I credit cannabis with letting me discover the real source of my suffering. It was not my original injury or multiple surgeries. It was the superimposed effects of the opioids.
I no longer have to arrange my life around addictive substances or suffer on the edge of withdrawal. I no longer feel secretive and ashamed, or fearful that I could run out of the prescription opioids I need to avoid the pain of withdrawal. I am no longer haunted by the terror of possibly having to resort to the streets for my drugs because the doctor will no long prescribe.
Drug-free, I now am content.
To be clear, my personal experience arises from the perspective of a patient, not in this case, as a physician. I offer no assurance that what worked for me will work for others. Years of practicing medicine have taught me that for many burdened with horrible medical conditions, around-the-clock opioids are an unfortunate necessity.
For six years, I feared I was one such person. My particular experience has taught me that with grit, perseverance, strong spiritual faith, and medical marijuana, I was able to unshackle myself from what I thought would be an irrevocable life sentence of narcotic dependence.
Today, I am happy, healthy, and living without prescription opioids. Though retired, I am once again the doctor and no longer a patient. Today, as on that beautiful July Fourth before my life-changing accident so many years ago, I am free.
Noble L. Thompson Jr., M.D., is a retired, board-certified neuroradiologist who practiced mostly in the Philadelphia area. He is the author of “Never Give Up: My Struggle to Become a Doctor.”