I didn’t drink alcohol last night. As a result, I found my pain almost unbearable. I lay awake in bed all night, in agony despite being cushioned by two double duvets, wishing I could sleep, wishing the pain would ease. I had no solution.
A good friend, Beth, an alcohol worker, has not been drinking in January. Instead she’s been raising money for Alcohol Concern, and been blogging about her journey. Her blog has reminded me that I drink to “harmful” levels, and made me think about alternatives. But so far, I haven’t found a solution.
I have good reasons to cut back on my drinking. As well as knowing Beth who is an alcohol worker, another friend is an alcoholic (now two years sober) and I have seen how not drinking has changed his life. Most crucially, I saw my dad get ill and then die of liver failure aged just 60. So I know first-hand about the damage that alcohol can do – to your social life, and to your body. If that doesn’t put me off, what will?
But it isn’t that simple. I have a chronic pain condition, and no medicines seem to provide me with adequate pain relief. In order to cope, I drink nearly every evening. I rarely get drunk, or feel particularly intoxicated, nor do I want to be: but I do exceed recommended limits. I just need to have a certain level of alcohol in my bloodstream so that I can sleep at the end of the day.
A friend with the same condition as me, David G, said: “When I did my Pain Management course, one question the medics asked was “Who supplements their painkillers with alcohol?” When half the class stuck their hand up, the only comment was “That’s about average.” In teaching us to be expert patients in control of our own conditions, alcohol was completely accepted as one of the tools available for responsible use.” So it is more or less expected that patients will use alcohol to help their pain levels. But at what cost?
I have tried stronger painkillers; buprenorphine, and oxycodone. They were good in that I didn’t feel a wish for alcohol when I was taking either medication, but unfortunately they each turned me into a zombie and I couldn’t take either on a permanent basis. I haven’t found anything else that I can take instead. So it was helpful to know that medics expect patients to use alcohol as a pain killer, but sad nonetheless.
I’ve seen the way that alcohol can destroy your body. Everything from yellow skin and needing regular blood transfusions, through to limbs seeping liquid from oedema; a midriff swollen by many litres of ascitic fluid, tight as a drum; regular gastroscopies to check for veins about to burst; and ultimately confusion, coma, then death. It is utterly horrid. It was a cruel thing to happen to my dad in the last few years of his life, taking him when he was barely 60. People whispered “it was no age” and they were right; and it upsets me to think that if I go the same way, I might only have another 20 years with my husband, who I love beyond compare. I have liver profile tests on a regular basis, but you don’t tend to see signs of damage until it has already been done. I just hope that I am luckier than my father.
I drink almost every night. By NHS standards, I drink heavily and I drink too much. For example I will drink a pint of Pimms (5 units) over a few hours, and then a Pina Colada (2.5 units) over another hour or so. That’s a quiet evening; I’ll often have something else as well. This is what I need in order to bring my pain to a manageable level, so I can sleep. The NHS thinks this is a “binge”.
Bearing this in mind, and inspired by Beth’s blog, I didn’t drink alcohol last night. As a result, I found my pain almost unbearable. The first night of not drinking is just about doable, but a second night would be impossible. You see, when I don’t drink for a night I am in agony. Every time I try to sleep, the stabbing pain jolts me awake again. I lie there trying to sleep, but whichever way I lie, it hurts. If it’s not my knees or hips shouting, it’s my pelvis or my ribs; they take it in turns to disturb me. I also flick between being too hot and too cold. My body is hypersensitive and my pain levels are up to 11. When my husband reaches an arm around me, I have to move him away, because it is even painful to be touched.
It took me until morning before exhaustion overwhelmed me and I finally got some kip. I slept from 8am until afternoon. When I woke up, I was in agony again. This doesn’t happen the morning after a night of drinking. That’s so unfair, it’s like being penalised for doing the right thing! So if I want to give up alcohol, I first need to find another way to handle pain.
I have asked my medics. I can’t take stronger painkillers because the patches damage my skin and tablets turn me into a zombie. They have said I shouldn’t take anything more than codeine. But to me, that is like a sticking plaster on a gaping wound; better than nothing, but only just.
I don’t know how to end this article. You see, I am frustrated that I end up drinking to help manage my pain, but I don’t know any other method, so I will continue to do so… even though I know it is probably harming my liver, and I really don’t want to end up like my father.
I can’t find an alternative. My immediate, day to day need is to minimise pain. My long term aim is to minimise damage to my body and to plan for my future. But until I find a way to replace alcohol as a painkiller, I am just running on the spot, and hoping not to do myself harm in the process.
Beth’s blog is http://bethanfisher.wordpress.com. Please read about her experiences of a month lived sober, and consider sponsoring her for Alcohol Concern.