I’m Not Afraid of Surgery; I’m Afraid of Relapse

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Nick was terrified. His doctor just told him he needed surgery to remove a tumor from his arm. The thought of going under the knife didn’t bother Nick nearly as much as the post-op medication the surgery would require.

Just nine months sober, Nick didn’t want to return to his former life. He had been hooked on painkillers for years. What was he supposed to do? He had to have the surgery. The doc said the pain would be intense afterwards, so he would clearly need meds. How could he avoid relapse?

Nick is caught in a scenario all too common for those in recovery. After years of sobriety, you’re hit with a medical procedure that threatens to toss you right back into the throes of addiction.

The result: You’re scared out of your mind.

Things You Don’t Want to Do

Unfortunately, many patients in this situation don’t handle the pressure and uncertainty very well. Here are a few examples of what not to do:

  • Danny knew if he took the pain medication offered by his doctors after surgery, he would relapse. Once he felt the effects of opiates, he just knew it would be all over. He wouldn’t be able to stop. Filled with fear, Danny refused the painkillers. As a result, he was in a lot of pain; he tried to “sleep it off” by using Xanax at night. During the day, he drank a lot of alcohol to numb the pain. It wasn’t long before Danny developed a new pattern of addiction.
  • Sarah left her doctor’s office with weak knees and trembling hands. She needed surgery. That meant taking painkillers afterwards. That, she was sure, meant relapse. Her doctor didn’t know about her history of drug abuse – hardly anyone did. And she wanted to keep it that way. So, she decided to schedule the surgery and hope she would be able to stop using pills once the prescription ran out. After all, what else could she do?

Set Yourself Up for Success

Fortunately, Danny and Sarah’s answers aren’t the only options available to you. If you are faced with the scary thought of surgery while in recovery, take these steps to protect yourself from relapse:

  • Be Upfront with Your Doctor: Fill your physician and surgeon in on your history of substance abuse. Yes, it may be hard to admit, but it’s easier than returning to your old lifestyle. Make sure they understand your potential for relapse and take it seriously.
  • Check for Alternatives: If your doctor is aware of your situation, they may be able to recommend non-narcotics or other pain management techniques. These addiction-free alternatives could be the solution you need.
  • Let Someone Else Manage Your Meds: You already know you’ll be tempted to take more pills than prescribed or get extra refills, so keep them out of your hands. Make arrangements beforehand that your prescription will be filled by a trusted friend, relative, or sponsor. Ask them to be in charge of giving you the medication at the proper dosage and intervals.
  • Put Supports in Place: Alert your support group, sponsor, or others that you will need extra support during this time. Make arrangements for meetings in the hospital. Ask for extra visits from friends. Set up pre- and post-op counseling appointments with a treatment provider. Build up your support system to carry you through this trial.

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