Childhood Prescription Drug Addiction:
The story of an 11-year-old kept high in the hospital
This article was written by an HEA member who had a great many hypospadias surgeries during the "darker times" of the 1980s.
Some of my oldest hospital memories are of that wonderful needle...“something for pain” is what it was called. Demerol was its official name, and at the young age of eleven I was getting shot up by nurses every four hours around the clock, six times a day.
I remember poking my hips to see which side hurt the least or which side had an area at least the size of a quarter without a purple-black bruise on it where the next needle could be stuck. Eventually they ran out of room, so they started sticking me in my thighs. This proved difficult weeks later, when I had to start walking again and could barely stand up because of all the bruises from my knees up to my waist as a result of being injected over and over.
Back in the early 1980s, I was having numerous multistage reconstructions done on my penis because of complications from unsuccessful hypospadias corrections at the age of three. Each new urologist I saw told me and my parents that they could fix me in a two- or three-step procedure. I was never fixed. Each one of these procedures used to mean that I would be in the hospital for three to four weeks at a time, then recovering at home for another couple of weeks. There would usually be one surgery over my summer holiday, but inevitably there would be one or two during the school year as well.
The philosophy back then was that the patient should stay in bed on his back, with barely even his head elevated for at least two weeks, sometimes three. They didn’t want any stress on the surgical site, which meant almost complete immobilization while things healed. Now imagine any typical 11-year-old boy on summer holidays, and think about keeping him lying still in bed 24 hours a day for three weeks straight!
The surgeries were terribly painful. There is no question about that. Most men who have not dealt with hypospadias would cringe at the thought of having their penis cut with a scalpel and stitched up with needle and thread! The worst of the physical pain started to fade after about five days. What didn’t go away was the stress and anxiety of being kept in a bed, bored out of your mind, counting the stains on the ceiling over and over for hours. Another significant issue was with the endless doctors, nurses, students (I was often in a teaching hospital where we were forced to sign blanket consent forms allowing them to use me as a specimen), and strangers being paraded through your room all taking turns looking, touching and talking about your penis without ever asking you if it was okay. For this it helped to be high!
I can’t say what every individual doctor’s or nurse’s motivation for continuing to shoot me full of Demerol was, but I can say that I craved it and it became part of my way to survive the hospital experience. I was a kid, and I was hooked. I couldn’t be expected to make good decisions about these sorts of things.
There would usually be a point where a nurse would try to talk to me about cutting back on the pain medications. This would quickly be resolved in most cases by me, crying or staying up all night hyperventilating, resulting in increased blood pressure, shaking, a rise in temperature—all very convincing ways to show I really was in pain and needed the medication. I knew that I really didn’t need the drugs because of pain, but nonetheless I did need them.
I think maybe the medical community didn’t think 11-year-olds could be addicted to pain medication. That was thought to be an adult problem. I also don’t think adults realized what they were teaching me as a young child when I would get upset, initially due to pain and later due to addiction, and they would make it all better with the needle or the pills.
I don’t know how my parents managed to get me through the terrible detox stage that would happen when the Demerol ran out a couple of weeks after I went home from the hospital! When I was young, the withdrawal would mostly be manifested as terrible temper tantrums and mood swings. As I got older, however, it got much worse. I remember seriously wanting to die at 16. During what I now know was one of these moments of detox from Demerol, I really wanted to end my life, and I remember having what I could only call a nervous breakdown and scaring my mom so seriously that she called the emergency room and was making arrangements to take me to the psychiatric unit. Instead I agreed to see a psychologist for some therapy sessions, which really helped turn my life around.
For me, being from a very close-knit and religious family, my addictions ended each time the prescriptions ran out, and I never had problems with alcohol or other drugs. I always remember thinking, after brief samplings of marijuana as an older teen, that it wasn’t even close to being as great as the drugs the nurses and doctors gave me. I never had the street smarts or the time or connections to try to find my drug of choice on the street or by other illegal means. This was before the Internet, thank goodness.
I was an intermittent drug addict. A socially acceptable junkie. Who could argue with the kid with the stitched up penis?
I never had any counseling for drug abuse or addiction.
So what are the long-term effects of this childhood drug addiction?
I drink very little alcohol. I just don’t have much tolerance for it, and I don’t like feeling out of control. I also don’t like hangovers.
I don’t use illegal drugs at all.
I do find that I am quick to self-medicate with over-the-counter products at the first sign of a cold or flu. I have learned that I don’t like to be uncomfortable if I can take something to feel better. This use doesn’t continue after the illness is gone.
I don’t feel like an addict. I am a professional, with a very rewarding career. I am educated, with a degree in psychology. I have a fantastic and rewarding life. No one would ever guess that I had a childhood drug addiction.
What has changed since the 1980s? I think much has changed.
I think the medical community may have a better understanding of drug dependency and pain management.
I also think there is a much greater awareness of the effects of Demerol on the human body and mind.
I think that one of the other most significant changes is the philosophy of having patients spend much less time in hospital. I think if I had been sent home sooner and not kept in a hospital bed for weeks at a time, the issue of dependency on prescription narcotics would have been greatly reduced.
Another huge change for the better is that there is more awareness of the psychosocial impacts of genital surgery on children. There were no social workers, counselors, or child life specialists involved with me when I was going through my surgeries. I was often kept in the adult urology ward—the same ward as much older men having prostate surgeries. I thought I was the only kid with a deformed penis.
There was also no HEA—no resource for support for me or my parents where we could talk to others and ask questions.