Monday, May 26, 2008

What I Learned from My Drug Overdose

by Julia Buckley

Whenever I used to hear of some famous person dying of an "accidental" drug overdose, I would tend to sneer. Didn't they have to consciously take the drugs, therefore rendering it not accidental? I sat on the pedestal of righteousness--a person who had never taken recreational drugs and rarely needed pharmaceutical ones.

Recently, though, some things have changed my perception of just what drug overdose means, and how it can happen.

First of all, anyone who takes more than the recommended dosage of pain reliever is overdosing on drugs. I sat on a consumer opinion panel last year for a company that was developing a new pain reliever; they wanted to talk to women about pain. The women on my panel tended to have intense pain, like migraine headaches or severe menstrual cramps. These were smart people: sensible homemakers, businesswomen, teachers. And yet almost every woman on the panel admitted that she did not base her dosage on what was recommended, but on what it took to relieve her suffering. One woman said that it was not unusual for her to take seven or eight Advil at a time, because anything less simply didn't put a dent in her pain.

That was surprising to me at the time. But after yesterday, when I overdosed on drugs, I can see things far more clearly.

I have been fighting a sinus infection for about a month. I've tried an expensive assortment of over-the-counter remedies because my doctor doesn't think I need an antibiotic. Nothing seemed to work, and I was getting most tired of not being able to breathe. One thing that gave me temporary relief was sinus nasal spray. I started with a four hour medicine and then purchased a stronger one which had "12 Hour" in its title. The dosage was clear even in the name of the product. So I would use it every twelve hours, and it allowed me to breathe.

Yesterday, though, I mowed the lawn and weeded the garden, and perhaps all the plants or pollen or whatever made my condition worse, because my head swelled up. I took my handy nasal spray and waited for a few hours, only to find that it hadn't helped: total congestion. So I went into my bathroom and took the 4-hour nasal spray, which didn't seem to do much. So a few hours later I took the 12-hour spray again. Three doses, maybe nine hours. And the most important thing here is that I didn't even think about it. If I had any conscious thought at all, it was "I would like to breathe more freely."

What I didn't contemplate--not once--was that I was pumping a chemical called oxymetazoline into my body, and that more than the required amount, according to the drug's website, "could be very harmful."

I went into my living room and sat down with my family. A few hours later I realized I felt very hot. The room was cool; it was only about fifty degrees outside. I shifted in my chair. I could not find a comfortable position, and my heart was racing as though I had taken a huge dose of caffeine. When I realized that I didn't feel right, I began to suspect (finally) my medicine. I went to the bathroom, retrieved the spray, and read the tiny, tiny print.

I had the sensation that people must feel when they've been bitten by a snake: I could not undo this. It had passed from my membranes into my blood, and now I would have to suffer the consequences. I walked back, a bit disoriented. I had been distracted for hours, losing things, finding them, and then immediately losing them again. My heart was racing, so I tried to do some deep breathing while my husband called a 24-hour pharmacy. There an apathetic yet scornful pharmacist told him that he should keep me from taking any more decongestants.

So I endured my overdose--the racing heart, the suddenly sluggish feeling, the discomfort, the foggy mind--until two in the morning, suffering the dictates of a body ruled by chemicals. And I realized just how foolish I'd been.

Today I am penitent and drug-free. I am craving the spray, though, because I still can't breathe. And here is the lesson I've learned: my problem is mild when all is said and done. But what about people who have really intense pain or very deep depression? Do they, like me, focus not on what they're taking, but on the suffering itself? Do their thoughts pare down to the one vital idea of anything to relieve the pain?

I don't excuse the irresponsible use of drugs, mine or anyone else's. People should read labels and be very careful about what they're putting into their bodies. But I know from experience that overdoses, while not strictly accidental, can certainly be unintentional, if you'll allow the distinction.

I read in the paper last week that more Americans than ever before are on prescription drugs. How many of us can imagine life without our prescriptions? If we can't do without, well, that's dependency, right? And one step beyond drug dependency lies drug abuse, if people make wrong decisions.

Now I know that drug abuse can't be viewed as a problem "out there." It's a problem lurking in our own homes, as near as the tempting products in our medicine cabinets.


Teoh said...

Hiya Julia!

Think Heath Ledger and we will all want to be as careful as possible!

Julia Buckley said...

And what a sad story that is.

Ilana said...

Yes, very easy to overdose. What's even sadder is when you hear of mothers who accidentally overdose their child with something like Tylenol. Its made me very, very careful about what I give my children.

My sympathies on not being able to breathe. Those nose sprays work so well that it is very easy to use them more frequently or longer than you should (guilty here).

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Ilana. It's actually better today, although now I have a cold. :) I think I need to take more vitamins.

Sandra Parshall said...

What's really scary is when you're regularly taking a powerful drug for a chronic medical condition and a DOCTOR tries to give you something that you know will interact with the first medication in a very dangerous way. That's happened to me more than once. You have to be especially careful about what you're given following surgery -- make sure everyone involved knows BEFORE the surgery that drug interactions are possible, because afterward you're not going to be in any condition to question what's being done. We all have to take responsibility for what we do or do not take.

Julia Buckley said...

That's terrible, Sandra. I know there are good doctors out there, but boy have I heard a lot of stories about careless ones.

On a lighter note, this morning I couldn't remember if I took my vitamin, and I asked my husband if it would be bad if I ended up taking it twice. My son looked irritated and said, "Why do you keep overdosing?"

Julia Buckley said...

And an addendum to this post: the latest overdose they're seeing in emergency rooms? Caffeine. Drinks like Red Bull are selling like hotcakes but many people, especially teens, are not reading the labels or really even contemplating the notion that caffeine is a drug. Some of them down the Red Bulls like pop, and then suddenly they're very sick with caffeine poisoning.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I'm glad you're OK. That episode sounded scary. And like something that could have happened to each of us.

No matter what my generation might have wanted to believe, better living through chemicals just doesn't always cut it.

Julia Buckley said...

Thank you! And I agree. My goal is to be prescription-free.