The car was cold, and very quiet. Too quiet. It was not going to start, this time. There we sat, the car and me, alone in the middle of an empty parking lot at the community college. It was a little past midnight, and raining hard enough to make me think a boat might be a better choice than the car, but there were none of those around, either. This was a few decades ago, before cell phones. I wouldn’t have called anyone that late, anyway. I had choices to make. The most immediate choice was whether to get out in the rain and walk, or go to sleep in the car. It was eight miles home, through the most dangerous part of the city. On the other hand, the solitude of that parking lot just outside the central city was not appealing, either.
I was a nurse at the jail at that time, recently divorced, and taking courses one at a time in search of my dream to obtain a liberal arts education. I had saved up just enough money to register for the next term; that’s why I was so late leaving the college after the last evening class of the semester. My advisor and I had been discussing my academic future, and he was encouraging me to pursue my dream. When we left, he went to the faculty parking lot and never realized the personal drama I had going in the student lot. In that drama, I was remembering that the money I had saved for tuition was just the amount it was going to cost to fix my car.
The heady dream of continuing my education crashed into the reality of the present loss. I got out of the car, reached for my umbrella but then left it behind. The inmates at the jail had told me never to walk alone at night under an umbrella because it makes you look vulnerable. “Walk with your head high,” they advised, “with your fists in your pockets. It suggests you may be carrying a weapon in your hands.” So I took their advice, and began the longest walk of my life.
In my misery, I reviewed my belief that nothing would ever go right in my life. Then, I began the internal discussion that would lead to yet another choice. As the nurse at the jail, I knew many people in the city on both sides of the law. There were some who, aware of my deep longing to go to the University, were increasingly insisting that I take an offer from them seriously. That offer was to essentially set me up as a drug dealer, so that I could make a living and pay tuition at the university. These were people who had both the means and the authority to do this, while at the same time protecting me from the legal consequences. So, as I walked through the city, tears mixing with rain streaming down my face, an internal argument was building.
One of the reasons they were willing to back me in the drug business was that they knew of my inability to tolerate drugs. I would not become a user, succumbing to my own trade. That long ago, ten years into having been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, I thought I knew everything there was to know about acute and chronic pain in a life without pain relievers.
Walking in the rain, steaming with self-pity, I was losing the perspective that heretofore had kept me on the right side of the law. Why not take them up on it? At least they cared enough to help me, the discussion began.
Four miles into the walk, the dark side was winning the battle. I was not going to live this way anymore. I was going to have a better life for myself, no matter what it took.
I remember clearly that exact moment, on the cusp of making that decision. I was looking at a lighted billboard, high on a rooftop (keeping my head up, I couldn’t miss it). What I don’t remember was a single thing that was on that billboard, or why it had my attention. I only remember the part of me that was screaming inside my head: “NO! NEVER, for any reason whatsoever, can I participate in something that destroys young lives before they ever get to make good choices. NEVER, can I contribute to something so deadly to society. NOTHING IN LIFE IS WORTH DOING THIS. NO, NO AND NO!
The rage against the idea that swept over me was so strong, I completed the next half of my journey home on the adrenaline that it produced. The next week, on my advisor’s advice, I visited the financial aid director of the university and he provided the funding that began my journey toward my PhD, completely paid for by grants and scholarships. But that is a different, though quite wonderful, story.
The decades since that time were almost a fairy tale, yet one accompanied by ever-increasing deterioration in my back, more disease processes as I aged, and no more tolerance for medications than I ever had. Last year, at the lowest point of my life since the aforementioned walk in the rain, I was so physically, emotionally and mentally drained that I had to retire. I could no longer care for my home, my yard, or hold a job. Pain had robbed me of the ability to think clearly, even to remember what I was doing from one minute to the next. Unable to sleep or even find a comfortable place to be, I would cry with the pain and query the God who had rescued me from destruction years before: “Why? Why don’t you just let me die?”
That was apparently not in the cards for now. Though doctors had agreed through the years that I was not a good candidate for surgery on my back, one doctor believed that epidurals might give me some relief. The pain management physician who performs them here agreed to do it, and after two procedures I am now able to care for myself, to drive without fear that my leg reflexes would fail me, and to think in whole sentences and even paragraphs. There is still pain, but not too much for me to cope. And the condition is still degenerative, so I don’t know for how long, but I can cherish every day that I have.
Which brings me to the reason for this story. I have been writing and talking a lot about my concerns about physicians and patients (and also pharmacists, I’m learning) in the current hysteria over opioid drugs. I firmly believe that many legislators and law enforcers have made uninformed decisions that are causing untold harm to many people (not, thank God, in Indiana where we have a reasonable law).
I have been asked why it matters to me, since I can’t take pain relievers anyway. Why am I so concerned about all this? It matters to me because I KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO SUFFER DAY IN AND DAY OUT WITH PAIN, AND NO RELIEF! Why, in any world where people claim to care for one another, would I willingly support laws made and enforced carelessly that cause people who suffer to be cut off from the physicians and pharmacists who could help them? And how long are people going to want to even become physicians and pharmacists when they could go to jail – even be charged with murder – for trying to help people who suffer?
That is why it matters to me.