No one is immune from addiction; it afflicts people of all ages, races, classes, and professions.
Patrick J. Kennedy
Opium poppies - whose Latin name, Papaver somniferum, means sleep-bringing poppy - are deceptively beautiful. Most are a pale lavender/pink with a deep, almost black, heart. Others, as a la The Wizard of Oz, are red. Opium, the substance obtained from opium poppies, has been used by humans for thousands of years for medicine and for religious rites. The sap - or latex - of the mature poppy is processed and sold as opium or heroin. Morphine, the medicinal "legal" form of opium may, in fact, be more addictive than opium or heroin. Morphine was first isolated by a German chemist in 1804, marketed by 1817, and came into such common use for pain relief that there were estimated to be about 400,000 veterans of the American Civil War (1861-1865) recovering from morphine addiction after the war.
Morphine addiction is not something I ever thought that I would need to know about. In fact, I lived most of life with no thought at all of this potent drug. Then, sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, my mother was prescribed Vicodin and then Percocet for chronic arthritic pain, both strong opiate pain medicines. About 2008, she was put on morphine. As I write this, Mom is 77 years old, recovering from a fractured hip, and tapering off a high dose of morphine onto a lower dose, i.e. in morphine withdrawal. My mother was abruptly switched from approximately 80 mg a day of morphine on Wednesday to about 35 or 40 mg of morphine today. The past few days I noticed that something unusual was going on with her, but it wasn't until I spoke to my sister this evening that I realized that "something" was morphine withdrawal.
"I don't feel well," my mom told me when I talked to her earlier today.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"My stomach hurts," she said. "I threw up and I think I've got the flu." (above, latex coming from poppy seed head)
Alarm bells went off in my head. My mother NEVER throws up. She just doesn't. I phoned the front desk at the rehab center and the nurse on charge, although very pleasant, didn't know anything about it. So, I phoned my sister who told me about Mom's morphine reduction. Aha, I thought, flu indeed. And, sure enough, when I Googled morphine withdrawal there were my mom's symptoms.
- Hot and cold flashes
- Abdominal pain
- Just plain feeling rotten
I never thought my mom would become a drug addict. It seems like only yesterday that she and my dad were standing beside the house where I lived in Ann Arbor, beside the flower bed planted with marijuana, asking me if I ever used drugs. "Sure," I naively answered, "I smoke marijuana sometimes." "Oh, my god!" my mom said in a horrified voice, "you'll become a heroin addict." Now, she - the woman who never smoked, rarely drank, and never consumed an illegal drug in her life - is essentially a legal heroin addict. Unlike Little Miss Sunshine, which features Alan Alda's brilliant portrayal of an aging heroin addict, I can't find the humor in the situation. I try, but I just can't. Even less funny is the fact that my mother isn't alone. If misery loves company, she's got lots of it. Prescription drug abuse/addiction is on the rise amongst elderly people and the most likely drug of abuse is - yes, you guessed it - opiate pain medications, like morphine.
Note: This is the first in a series on seniors and prescription drugs.