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My Mother Gave Me My First OxyContin

How familial love and devotion fueled my addiction to painkillers

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DDuring my sophomore year of college, when I was 19, my mother gave me my very first OxyContin, and I fell in love with it. There were extenuating circumstances (there always are): I was deeply depressed and threatening suicide, she was terrified for me and on Oxy herself, and it was 2000, when we didn’t know what we do now.

Reserve judgment or don’t. Reaching some Final Truth about my mother’s innocence or guilt doesn’t interest me. What interests me is not what she did, but rather why she did it: out of love. Because love can be as destructive as it is redemptive.

InIn 1995, my parents opened up a pain management practice: My father was the clinic doctor and my mother was the billing manager. There was a pain-management revolution happening in America. The prevailing credo had become: believe the patient, treat the pain, no limits on dosages. Four years after they opened up their practice, I went off to college. My first year went well: lots of parties, perfect grades.

It isn’t easy to explain what happened next. All I can say is that when I went back to school the next year, after a lifetime of academic perfectionism and low self-esteem, some dam burst inside me, and loneliness and fear came rushing in. Sometimes cliches are just the truth: It felt like I was drowning, being pulled under by every doubt I ever had about myself, and a homesickness that never went away.

There were other factors: My parents’ practice was going under, the friends I’d found my freshman year felt like the wrong ones, and I am genetically predisposed to depression and anxiety. But mostly, it was this growing sense that everything I thought gave me value — mostly, academic achievement — might not matter at all. What if doing well in school didn’t actually give me any of the control I thought it did? What if bad things happen no matter what school I went to?

What began as a vague but persistent insecurity turned into a deep and guttural self-loathing, as I went from being a star at my high school to just another hard working overachiever at college. I cried all the time and had trouble focusing on anything besides my fear. I had panic attacks and started skipping classes. I found Adderall and Ambien, which, in turn, kept me up all night and made me hallucinate. I talked about suicide.

I went home for a weekend in October, and as I lay in bed with my mom sobbing, she took a round green pill out of a bottle on her bedside table, bit off a piece, and handed it to me. “Here, maybe this will calm you down.”

That round green pill turned out to be OxyContin, and it did, indeed, calm me down. Believe the patient. Treat the pain. No limits.

The relief that the Oxy provided was immediate: a cool breeze through a steaming hot room. Every sharp edge inside of me turned into a warm, rounded corner. My body felt like melting butter. And finally — finally — that homesickness was gone. I fell in love with OxyContin the same way you fall in love with a person: gradually, and then all at once.

When it was time for me to go back to school, my mother sent me off with a handful of chips of Oxy. At first, I only took a pill every other day or so, mostly at night, when I’d lie in my narrow dorm bed and chain-smoke underneath the open window. But as the weeks went on, I found myself thinking about it earlier and earlier in the day, until the thought began pulsing inside me from the moment I woke up: Is it time yet? And soon, the waiting became all I did, so I stopped waiting. I took it whenever I could, carrying around the chalky chunks of Oxy everywhere I went.

A month later, I dropped out of school.

My parents took me to a colleague of my father’s, who diagnosed me with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, and prescribed me copious amounts of OxyContin, morphine, and fentanyl lollipops. (I rubbed them on the inside of my cheek for faster absorption.)

And then I blinked, and it was nine years later.

I went to rehab in 2010, and since then, I’ve had a lot of time (and therapy) to think about what happened. Until recently, I described my love affair with opioids as the pursuit of anything that might help me forget that I am me. And I still stand by that — often, that was exactly what I was trying to do, especially towards the end of my drug use. But I recently came across a Billie Holiday quote about her heroin addiction: “I got a habit, and I know it’s no good, but it’s the one thing that makes me know there’s a person called Billie Holiday. I am Billie Holiday.” The quote struck me and was one of the very few white-light moments of my recovery. In the beginning, before all the nod-outs and the destroyed relationships and the lost jobs, it wasn’t just about forgetting myself. It was about finding myself, too.

When I took that first Oxy, I was trying to make myself real. The high made me want to make things better — made me feel like I could make them better. Like it was molding me somehow, hot wax hardening into a vessel that might contain something more. There was a sudden clarity: I could believe that there was a person called Dani, and that she existed as much as anyone else did, and that she might not be worthless. The problem, of course, was that the faith in myself was synthetic, and it disappeared as soon as the drug left my system.

What I desperately needed was not someone to take my pain away, but rather someone to teach me that the pain would not destroy me. I didn’t need an instant fix — I needed real ways to remember that I existed. I needed connection. I needed a love with limits. I needed my mother to say “no, I will not go to any length to rid you of your pain.

When there are no limits to what you’d do in the name of that love — whether it’s the love of a daughter or that of a pill — it can be a truly terrifying thing.

We tend to think of love as the shiniest of all things: a kind of magic that, as the saying goes, conquers all. And love can, indeed, be a very beautiful thing. But it has a dark side, too. When there are no limits to what you’d do in the name of that love — whether it’s the love of a daughter or that of a pill — it can be a truly terrifying thing.

For almost two years after rehab, I refused to see my mother. How could she? The time I’d lost seemed to me too great a cost for forgiveness. But over time my stance has softened — not because I am some paragon of forgiveness, but because I’ve realized it simply doesn’t get me anywhere to deal in absolutes. Verdicts don’t actually matter if the facts of the case aren’t understood. It took me years, but I did, in fact, directly ask my mom The Question: How could she have possibly given me that first pill? Her answer was simple: She was more afraid of what I’d do to myself than what an Oxy might do. She now admits that it was a stupid decision. My parents both say that as they ran their practice, pharmaceutical companies lied to them about the dangers of the drug. As they doled out Oxy to both their patients and me, they thought they were helping to make everyone more functional. They simultaneously regret their decision to put me on the medication, yet stand by their instinct to protect me.

I’ve parsed things out a million ways in the last nine years, and here’s the verdict I’ve reached: my parents’ innocence or guilt doesn’t actually matter. The meaningful part, to me, is that they did it out of love. And so did I.

The love I had for OxyContin felt as real as any other love I’ve known: it made me feel safe, it instilled faith in myself, it made me feel so much less alone. Before it turned on me, the reprieve I got from that drug really felt like it saved my life. And what makes me a junkie (what, I suppose, will always make me a junkie) is that there’s still a part of it that shimmers for me. There might always be a part of me that remembers that Oxy high as something special, something that took good care of me for a while, even in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. And if I can’t be honest about that, then relapse is surely in my future.

The simple fact is, we can’t always disconnect from love, however unhealthy. And instead of resisting that fact, I submit to it. It has less power over me that way.

My Mom loved me. I loved Oxy. Both of those loves were boundless. Which is why they nearly destroyed us.

Personal essayist. Hard at work on my memoir.

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