“This is not me,” I tell my husband. I have been crying, loudly, with choking and spasms and caught breath, for an hour, since he came home to tell no one called in my pain prescription refill.
These days it’s hard for me to solve problems without first sucking lots of air through my teeth, turning red, and shaking. Yesterday, I got a lab work bill for $300—something that should have been taken care of by my insurance. But a computer glitch defaulted to some ancient policy, despite my having given the tech my card and license and waited for him to make a copy. So I went through a few histrionics before calling the billing department. The problem was solved easily, painlessly, and immediately.
This inability to deal without a prodrome of drama began the other day, after I had my staples removed. Thanks to the marriage of technology and networking sites, I was able to gross out a few of my closest Facebook friends with Serena’s home video of the procedure. But I haven’t been the same since. Maybe it was the subsequent car ride that wrecked me. Or perhaps I twisted excessively while trying to put on my underwear. Never take for granted the putting on of underpants; you never know when you will need to enlist your mother, husband, or daughter to help you pull them up.
The beautiful progress I was making, back when I was annoyed by a bit of leg pain and a lot of nerve damage in my left foot, has now given way to excruciating stiffness. I’d stopped taking pain pills during the day, going ten hour stretches with not so much as an Ibuprofen. By the end of the first week, I could pick up my guitar and sit in a straight chair for twenty minutes to strum it. I could pour a glass of water, and stand up from sitting on the toilet without holding onto my legs.
Now I can’t lean slightly to raise a glass of water from a table. My back is arched excessively backward. Today I missed my first walk around the block in a week because I just couldn’t make it. And I’m back to taking one step at a time, both up and down the stairs, which I haven’t done since day two.
Instead of weaning off the meds, I take my maximum allowable dose. Anyone who knows me knows that this is not me.
Yesterday morning, I called my surgeon’s office to ask about a refill. I was nearly out of pills and had begun rationing them, bargaining with myself about how to manage the pain. I know that it often takes two days for the office to call in a prescription, so I sent Marty today. He returned at 4:45 without pills, telling me that no one had called it in.
The teeth sucking and shakes began while I tried to figure out what to do. I sent Marty for the phone and my pill bottle so that I could call the doctor’s office. They were closed, so I pressed zero to reach the on-call physician. A woman answered. I calmly explained that I'd had surgery and had called in a prescription, but no one refilled it, and now I'm out. She replied that if my medicine had been so important, I should have called earlier in the day. She could not write me a prescription, and what did I want her to do about it? "I want you to call the physician on call," I told her, and she said, “Yes, ma’am!” as if I were the one with the attitude. A man came on. I told him I'm in pain and out of meds, and he said that pills are not an after-hours emergency. He has strict orders to ignore patient requests for refills. If doctors can’t manage their time well enough to approve prescriptions at the end of each day (or keep patients from having to wait two hours in a waiting room), they don't want to be reminded about it at 4:45, when their office hours have ended. I can hear the conversation when he hung up from me: fuck that crazy crying bitch on the line who’s insisting that the doctor is actually supposed to work for her.
My home care nurse was furious on my behalf and tried to charm the answering service, but he had no more clout or luck than I.
So between pain and fits of ferocious spasms of tears and breaths, I tell my husband that this is so savage, so undignified: for patients to go through what doctors insist is “major surgery," which requires we suck up our disdain for mind-altering meds and ease our pain, because pain is dangerous to our mental health; and those same patients to be treated like criminals by the doctor's answering machine, the pharmacist, and the insurance company.
My hydrocodone prescription calls for 1 to 2 tablets every four to six hours. My doctor allows only sixty pills per refill. But the pharmacist, without any knowledge of the patient or her condition, determines how long that prescription should last. My first prescription, three weeks prior to surgery, contained sixty pills and instructions that would have the pills gone in seventeen days. After surgery, when Marty took my new prescription to the pharmacy, they refused to fill it for an extra week, because that's when the pharmacist determined I should be finished with the first bottle.
That's right. A pharmacist can refuse to refill a bottle of pills that, had I taken even the minimum amount in the maximum time, would have been depleted half the time, even when my condition has changed, and I am now a post-op patient. When we finally got our refill, the pharmacist decided it should take me ten days to use them, even though the instructions allow me to finish them in five, if that's what I need.
Marty says they just don’t give a fuck because it’s not their job to care. There are a million other patients out there with the same story, so they are simply indifferent. And he’s right—frankly, my dear, I don’t want them to give a damn. But that means I can take 12 pills a day, without being subjected to their judgment. As long as I'm not taking more than the doctor allows, it’s none of their business whether I’m swallowing them or stockpiling them for a night of partying when I’ve recovered, a year from now.
“I am not me anymore,” I tell Marty, sniveling, while he massages my head. I have to go to the bathroom, and I reject his offer of help, maybe stubbornly. But when I get to the top of the stairs, I see the most amazing sunset in months. I call, but he's gone downstairs, and I can’t wait. I take those one-at-a-time steps quickly back down, sling my camera over my shoulder, and pull myself back up, crying with every painful yank, until I am in the attic, and the window is open, and I’m shooting up. It's no hydrocodone, but capturing that beauty helps in other ways.
So maybe I am me. A little.