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  • Alisha Emerald

I was a drug addict (And other things you might not know about transplant recovery)

During one of my most recent hospital stays, I remember one of my favourite nurses on the transplant floor coming in and sitting on the edge of my bed. He worked both transplant and ICU, and we were talking about how I'd been since my transplant (which had been about 6 months ago at that point) and various aspects of recovery.

We were talking about my time in the ICU, and I made a joke about how I was all the nurses' favourite since I wasn't constantly coding. I was heavily sedated and drugged, and just slept all the time. (We're not mentioning the horrible reactions I had to the drugs, and the intense hallucinations). And he made a comment about how when he worked ICU, he would try to keep patients on the lowest possible level of the drug otherwise these patients would be released from the ICU and taken to the ward totally addicted. A look must have crossed my face because he put his hand over mine and said, "You didn't know did you?"

I knew while in the ICU I had a large amount of drugs in my system, and that I kept trying to fight sedation. And I remember having extreme reactions, so I knew the drugs in my system must have been a lot.

The goal is to make sure the individual doesn't remember much of their time or the traumatic medical interventions while in the ICU, which of course I have some memory of (I also still have a very hard time remembering what was real and what I hallucinated).

And I remember coming to the transplant floor. I remember asking for pain meds the second I was allowed to have more, spamming the button on my pain pump and crying hysterically when they were going to take it out. I didn't want to live without the constant source of pain relief. And I remember one morning a nurse coming to me, still early in the morning before any of my support people were there, and asking if I normally had a low pain tolerance. I was confused because I felt like this nurse was judging me for being in pain when I'd just had my body sliced in half, and also I'd never really had a low pain tolerance before. In fact people usually tell me I have a higher pain tolerance.

But when that nurse sat on my bed and took my hand, he told me because of what I endured in the ICU, when I came up to the transplant floor I was in full blown drug addiction. And the recovery process wasn't just about healing my actual incisions or managing my pain, it was about breaking my addiction.

And I cried. First of all out of relief. Because since that moment with the nurse asking about my pain tolerance, it had always been nagging in the back of my mind that maybe I was weak. I had been so frustrated with myself for not being able to tolerate the pain. And also because I never knew. No one told me what withdrawal from those pain medications and sedatives would be like, or that developing an addiction was even possible. No one explained to me that the dramatic way I felt like I needed the drugs wasn't just me not being able to handle the pain, it was that my body and brain had become addicted to these drugs and I did need them in a way that defied logic.

If I'd been able to walk down the street and get pain killers at that time to make the pain go away, I would have. And I began to understand how easy it is to become a drug addict. How it's not always a choice to take drugs the first time, how you think it's safe and helpful until it isn't, how the need for drugs defies all logic.

Because of the pathways created in my brain during that time of intense drug use, even though it was for medical reasons, when I experience pain now my first instinct is to reach for the drugs. Avoid the pain, check out, make it stop. My husband, who also sat down and heard from the nurse about my post ICU drug addiction during that hospital stay, is in charge of my painkillers when I'm sick. In a pain state, my logic brain goes out the window.

And I'm working on it. Finding alternative pain relief methods is a huge part of recovery. Learning to trust my body and develop awareness of sensations again is a process.

I'm so grateful for the medications available to me, and for modern medicine and the way it keeps me alive. And I can see the damage it caused. And it's never either/or, it's always both/and. I was hurt and healed by modern medicine. The drugs saved my life and developed an addictive brain state.

Transplant recovery isn't a single faceted process. It's not just about not rejecting your new organ, or keeping yourself healthy and away from infections. And it's not just about healing trauma and mindset work. It's never just the body or just the mind.

I'm a transplant patient who developed a drug addiction post transplant. I'm sober, I'm healing. And it's never as easy as it looks.

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