dental pain

Pain In Recovery

This has been an interesting few days.  On Wednesday I felt some pain in the back of my mouth.  I figured it was TMJ joint pain due to tension, since I'd been a bit uptight for a few days while my daughter was in the hospital for a Cesarean delivery.  By Thursday it was clear that it was a tooth, and by that evening, the pain was getting fairly severe.  I began taking prescription strength ibuprofen (Motrin), and called the dentist.  To make a long story short, by the time the penicillin took effect on Saturday morning some time, I'd spent about 24 hours in fairly severe pain, kept partially in check by the pills and swooshing cold water on the tooth.  Missed a night of sleep, but I made up for it later.

I'm okay now, and waiting to make an appointment to see the dentist, who will likely remove the tooth.  Been there before.  No fun, but not a big deal.  I got to thinking, though, about what a dangerous thing it would be to be in a situation like that in early recovery.

I don't know about you, but back when I was active in my addictions I saw every potential malady as a source of drugs or an excuse to hole up and drink.  A cold — no problem!  I knew how to handle that.  Fortunately I never had a problem that required heavy duty painkillers, or I would likely have been able to add that to my list of addictions.  Martial arts bruises, sprains, aches and pains were all chances to get messed up, and excuses to stay that way for a couple of days or more, but nothing ever happened that required opioids, thank goodness!

This toothache episode could have been another example of that trend.  If it had occurred in the first few months of my recovery, I could very well have been off to the races, because back then I really believed that I needed powerful drugs to kill pain.  It had never occurred to me that painkillers, for some kinds of pain, are like hunting rabbits with an elephant gun.  Since dental problems go part and parcel with addiction, it's an issue that all addicts need to consider carefully.

Alcoholics and addicts are, almost by definition, folks who don't know that it's okay to not feel okay.  We start out thinking that every little twinge means terminal pain, and that each needs that elephantine response.  The fact is, most pain can be adequately handled with non-addictive drugs that pose no threat to our sobriety.

We need to find doctors who understand addicts, and what meds are off our list of remedies.  We need to consult with our pharmacists about possible side effects, and  need to research the drugs themselves online and elsewhere.  We need to discuss the matter with our sponsors and significant others.  We need to avoid secrets.  Even if our pain is such that more powerful drugs are necessary — and sometimes they truly are — we need to get others involved who can monitor our use and help us stay on the straight and narrow to the extent possible.  Most importantly, we need to be upfront with all of them about our addiction(s) and our inability to use mood-altering drugs.

There is no reason that anyone who is serious about his or her program of recovery has to relapse because of pain.  We need to be proactive, getting dental and other problems dealt with before they become emergencies.  When emergencies do arise, however, there are tools to handle them without giving up all we've gained.

Dealing With Pain In Recovery

It’s easy for alcoholics and other addicts to find excuses to use.  We come from a society where we take pills or other medication for every little thing — one that spends billions of dollars telling us that it is not OK to feel not OK.  That's an idea that resonates with all addicts.  We not only think that it’s not OK to feel less than wonderful, but that even when we feel good we need to try to feel better.  There’s a saying, “I drank because the dog ran away, then I drank because the dog came back.” Most people in recovery can relate to that.

Today I’m nursing a tooth extraction, and it got me to thinking about how many times I used pain as an excuse for drinking or taking other drugs.  Sometimes, if I could make up a good enough story, I could even get off work so that it wouldn’t interfere with my “convalescence.”  I was lucky, in that I didn’t need to shop for doctors or buy my drugs on the street.  I could just curl up with a bottle and dare anyone to object, because I was…whatever.

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Teeth are an excellent example.  Most people find tooth pain pretty unpleasant, and a “hot” absess that comes on of a Friday evening can make for a pretty nasty weekend until you can get in to see the dentist — if you can get a timely appointment.  That’s a wonderful reason to take drugs, and many physicians and dentists are perfectly willing to prescribe the necessary painkillers to make that weekend a real party.

Well, our dentist is in recovery.  My wife and I hooked up with him back in about 1990, and we’ve been seeing him ever since for our dental needs. Not only does he know we’re in recovery, he knows all the junkie tricks from his own experience.  With his advice, I’ve discovered that you really don’t need booze or narcotics to get through some pretty severe pain.

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A Pain In The…Jaw

Sorry I haven't written sooner, but I've had a dental issue that has been distracting. Nothing major, just a real annoyance, along with not being able to settle on an appointment time with my dentist. Part of life.

But that got me to thinking about how it used to be. Back in the Bad Old Days, I would have embraced a dental issue. What a wonderful excuse to get — and take — drugs! To get attention. To malinger. To have an excuse for a few drinks. To feel sorry for myself. To take drugs.

Ever know anyone who behaved that way? Hmmmmmm?

Just another manifestation of our old friends addiction and denial, that's all, along with an addict's conviction that it isn't OK to not feel Ok. Fact is, hard drugs are almost never necessary for dental pain, unless we're looking for an excuse to take them. In the years since I got clean and sober (and trust me: like most addicts I had dental problems) I've twice gotten through “hot” abscesses with nothing but ibuprofen, albeit in prescription quantities. One one occasion it was so bad that I was sloshing ice water in my mouth for 18 hours straight until I could get it tended to, but I didn't have to use.

I tell you this not to make myself out to be a tough guy, because I'm anything but. My dentist — himself with over 20 years sober — knows that I need to be loaded up with lidocaine before he can even put his hand in my mouth. The point is that I didn't have to use. Once you get the monkey off your back, neither do you.

Keep it in mind.