The Taper


First, this blog post has nothing to do with the mountain tapir, the herbivorous jungle-dwelling mammal shown above as a baby. It has more to do with what I’ve been doing for the past two days, and as such, might be less exciting than the life cycle of Tapirus pinchaque, which you can read about here. You can’t say you haven’t been warned.

Wednesday night I had trouble falling asleep. Not long after lying down, I sat up abruptly, alarmed at my shallow breathing, and darted to bathroom, only to note that I was breathing normally and that nothing was wrong with me. Skeptic that I am, I spent about half an hour on Wikipedia, WebMD and other websites to try to pacify myself with data. I was able to convince myself that shallow breathing and panic were not symptoms of the controlled usage of prescription opiates, in my case Oxycodone and Oxycontin, and that I had no reason to make any dramatic changes to my use of them.

My next course of action was a dramatic change to my use of them —a controlled, documented taper, if you will. I started by halving my normal dosage from 10 mg to 5 mg, and then the number of dosages per day from 6 to 5, essentially cutting my daily intake from 60 to 25 mg. My goal was to see if I felt any change in symptoms, or in the alleviation thereof, and to document those as well.

My first few dosages of pain-killer were done intravenously, through a tube in my wrist just prior to the procedure. The tube was removed the morning after my surgery, after which I was given small cups of pills to be taken with a sip of water. To the hospital staff’s credit, I was always told what the pills were, but in general I was still numbed into indifference as a result of the previous dosage.

When I was discharged, it was with a pair of prescriptions: one for Oxycontin and one for Oxycodone. I quickly learned that they were essentially the same drug, but that the former was considered an “extended release” formulation of the latter and only needed to be taken twice a day, as it was absorbed into the body more slowly. I started out taking 10 mg of the fast-acting Oxycodone every three hours – 8 times or 80 mg per day.

As advertised, I wasn’t feeling much in the way of pain or discomfort, but my conversational cadence was somewhat off. I would trail off in the middle of a sentence, unable to complete a thought, and I needed an afternoon nap each of the first few days after discharge. Other side effects included constipation, dry mouth and dizziness. Mysteriously missing from this list are euphoria, heightened awareness, or even the faintest hint of a buzz. In short, I have no clue why anyone would go out of his or her way to take this medication on purpose, save it having some pain-killing attributes.

This, I discovered, was difficult to quantify. I could tell you unequivocally that the bone-on-bone pain I experienced for as much as a year before my surgery was gone, but I was assured that there would be new pains to be reckoned with, like that of a 5-inch long incision into my abdomen through which organs and major blood vessels were pushed aside and a synthetic cage inserted where my L5-S1 disc used to be. Sure sounds painful to me! In addition to the dressing that covered my incision, I wore a cloth wrap, lovingly called a “girdle”, which fastened to itself with a velcro strip and essentially held my gut in place for the first week after surgery. When I finally removed the “girdle” (several days after shedding my elastic stockings, another indignity), I discovered an already healing 4 1/2 inch wound, somewhat elevated but not painful to the touch. Even after removing my protective girdle I rarely noticed the incision, except when making the occasional misguided frisbee maneuver.

The only discomfort I have felt thus far has been in the form of sore, stiff muscles, usually in my middle back. This will probably improve with physical therapy and exercise more so than with drugs, or at least that’s what I’d like to believe 2 days into my experiment.

And lest I seem like a saint sacrificing my pain-killing protection in the interest of science, there are two things I haven’t been able to do while on pain meds: driving, and consuming alcohol. That’s right: it’s been 19 days since my last taste of beer or wine — not that I’m counting. So now that you know my true motive, let’s all raise a glass of juice, soda or spring water, and toast to The Taper.

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