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LETTERS FROM WAKE ROBIN FARM

The List Gets Longer

I guess I was born too soon to be a Chris Cornell fan, but this morning when my 37-year-old son delivered his baby for a morning of grandparental adoration, he confessed that his one teenage transgression had been sneaking out of the house and walking the two miles to town one night for the midnight release of Cornell’s band Soundgarden’s 1994 album “Superunknown.” Who knew? Not me.

And now Cornell is dead. It just keeps happening, doesn’t it? Every time I read an obituary without a cause of death or see the latest headline about a famous person who was “found dead,” the first question that pops into my mind is What drugs were their doctors’ prescribing them? What opioids or benzodiazepines were they struggling to get off of?

In no time at all Cornell’s unimagineably distressed wife was insisting she can’t believe her beloved husband, a guy who flew home for Mother’s Day, would have deliberately killed himself. She points out that he was on Ativan and mumbled on the phone he may have taken too many. I believe what she says about this man she knew better than anyone else, and I would bet this benzodiazepine in some way contributed to his death.

Remember when rock stars like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix shot up heroin, overdosed, and died? Now it’s all about prescription drugs, the stuff the doctors give folks supposedly to HELP them.

Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll Stevie Nicks has been outspoken about the way the gates of pharmaceutical hell opened for her. After kicking cocaine in rehab, a psychiatrist put her on Klonopin, saying it would help prevent a relapse. Ha! Instead she lost the better part of a decade, poignantly, as she puts it, the time when she might have even had a baby. She eventually recovered, but not before suffering far more damage from prescribed Klonopin than she ever did from cocaine.

It doesn’t require a history of street drug abuse to get in trouble with opioids and benzodiazepines such as Ativan, Klonopin and Xanax. I had an almost stupidly squeaky clean record on drugs, and yet, coming off of my very small, occasional dose of Xanax made even me suicidal. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone, and this is what made me decide to tell my story in Accidental Addict. Everybody needs a heads up, not just rock stars with longstanding addiction issues.

I feel terrible for Chris Cornell’s wife. She not only has to suffer the tragic loss of her husband, she now has these people pouncing on the diagnosis of suicide, with all the judgment that goes along with it. He killed himself? Well, bad on him! How selfish! How weak!

The story—a true tragedy—is not that simple. The drugs doctors prescribe us can ruin our brains. Coming off them can turn a happy person suicidal. With no help from the medical community, I somehow managed to survive. Others don’t. Take care. Take care of the people you love. Don’t believe everything a doctor might say. They are not gods, and the drugs they are prescribing are killing people.  Read More 
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Loving My Life Again

My friend Marsha Ham and I go way back. We met around the time our first babies were born, so that means we’re talking 35 years at this point! We always take each other out on our birthdays and share the latest stories of marriage, motherhood and now, grandmotherhood.

In the summer of 2013, I asked if we could postpone her August birthday lunch for a month. I was in over my head with trying to ready a little bungalow to put on the market, and looked forward to the massive relief I expected when the stress of this was behind me. I thought we could drive the hour up to take a look at the farm property her daughter had just bought and then have lunch in Silverton.

I’m glad I didn’t know at the time it was going to take me three-and-a-half years to make good on this suggestion! That summer, I had no idea how sick I really was or how long it would take before I fully recovered from the effects of prescribed Oxycodone and Xanax.

Now that I'm well and busy reclaiming my life, I don’t often visit my old message board for people trying to get off of benzodiazepines, but the other day somebody wrote asking about anhedonia and wanting stories of people who’d recovered from this. While I never felt inclined to write blog posts about being sick, I now find I do want to write about the joys of being well. I want to help spread the message to anyone on this same path that yes, recovery is possible.

Anhedonia, for those unfamiliar with the term, is defined as a condition characterized by an inability to experience pleasure in acts which normally produce it. And we’re not just talking about sex or other peak experiences here! It’s everything. Most of us don’t even realize the simple, moment to moment pleasures involved in daily life—the first cup of coffee in the morning, for example—until they're completely stripped away.

I didn’t realized how thoroughly compromised my brain was that summer. I thought I was just over-worked, sick of life, and mad at everybody. Ditching my entire family and running away sounded like an excellent idea. In my darkest hours of bleak despair, I was, frankly, suicidal.

Nothing to do but hang on and live through it, which is the story I describe in Accidental Addict. Eventually I started having what people call “windows,” where I’d notice myself having positive thoughts again, and now, finally, I’m back to my old self. But it took a ridiculously long time.

That’s why my outing to Silverton with my friend yesterday seemed so momentous. I savored my awareness that my thoroughly healed brain was capable of delighting in every little thing: the blessed sunshine after this long rainy Northwest winter, the pleasure of reconnecting, of being out in the world again. I loved seeing Marsha’s pistol of a daughter in her element, and we both marveled at her energy, remembering our days as young back-to-the-land moms when we were ourselves trying to rehab ramshackle houses and grow gardens, all with kids underfoot.

So yes, it’s possible to heal from this horrific symptom, and for people who come out of anhedonia, it’s almost like a religious experience. We have a renewed appreciation for the essential sweetness of life itself.

Anhedonia is a concept I feel is missing from so many discussions of recovery from drug addiction. Nobody talks about just how long it takes for a brain to recover. Addicts manage to ditch their street drugs and go through withdrawal, only to find themselves thinking that life “clean” isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. But that’s because they’re not really well. It’s too soon to judge. It might take a couple of years after being technically “clean” before a person begins to experience the everyday joys of life again. I used to be as judgmental as the next person, feeling all these reported relapses were just instances of bad decision-making. Now I understand the despair, and I wish addicts could get less judgment and more emotional support in trying to stay clean long enough to let time do its healing.

If this is you, if you’re suffering from anhedonia after withdrawing from drugs—street or prescription, it makes no difference to your brain—hang in there. It often takes longer than people expect, but you will heal in the end. My Rx is simple—no going back on your drugs, no layering on of new drugs to “help.” Just give it time. Eat right, rest, exercise, try not to tear it with the people who care about you, and keep hanging on to the belief that if you stick to this path, one day for sure you’ll again be walking back out into the light.  Read More 
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Up From Anxiety?

This past weekend’s issue of The Wall Street Journal featured a front page article by one of its own reporters, Andrea Petersen. I began reading with great interest since it was entitled “Up From Anxiety,” and I’m always interested in hearing how people recover from such a diagnosis. Ms. Petersen chronicles her early start with panic attacks and all the different therapies and medications she’s tried over the years.

While she attempts to be upbeat about her current situation, the conclusion of her story, the “up” part, broke my heart: she’s on Klonopin. “Klonopin can melt my anxiety and many of its annoying accouterments—racing heart, shallow breathing, twisted thoughts—in about thirty minutes. It can even derail a full-blown panic attack if I take enough. I don’t take it often, my life ‘before K’ and ‘after K’ is starkly delineated.”

Having just spent several years regaining the health of my brain after taking a very small dose of another benzodiazepine, Xanax, over the course of five years, I found her implication that Klonopin was the ultimate solution horrifying. During recovery I read hundreds of stories of people on a benzo recovery board, everybody suffering the tortures of the damned trying to get off of these drugs, most people feeling they’d give anything to go back and try to deal with their anxiety issues without drugs. The anxiety attacks for which they were originally prescribed the benzo are nothing compared to what they’re trying to survive now.

I’m finally well and I can look back and see how this worked on me. Yes, like Ms. Petersen, I found Xanax to be amazingly efficient. She’s not lying—these things DO calm anxiety. At least initially. But people build up a tolerance. They start having symptoms that are actually interdose withdrawal—the drug saying Hey, time to take more! Doctors who have originally prescribed the drug are loath to ascribe side effects to the very drug they’ve prescribed. Instead they’ll tell the patient that their original anxiety is just coming back. They will up the dose or layer on some different pharmaceutical until the person is what is referred to as “poly-drugged.”

I didn’t see the harm in Xanax either. I thought of it as a little something in my toolkit for dealing with life. A stressful situation? Yes, why not make it a bit easier? And a half a tab at three am reliably put me back to sleep. I never felt bad in the morning and God knows I was no drug addict type. Where was the harm? Like Ms. Petersen, I was saying, “I don’t take it often.”

Now, having suffered through withdrawal, I’m a person who conks out when my head hits the pillow and sleeps straight through the night. Who knew I was actually teaching my brain to NEED the drug to go to sleep? I’m now calmer than I’ve ever been in my life, free of drugs.

I feel terrible for Andrea Petersen and her family and I wish her the best. I don’t mean to be judgmental in any way of the fact that she’s taking Klonopin. I just don’t think it’s going to be good for her in the end, and I would hate to see anybody read her story and feel validated in giving this poison a shot.

I would like to give people the heads up I never got! Read More 
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An Anniversary Visit to Wake Robin Farm





Something quite lovely happened one day last week at Wake Robin Farm. I was working in my office, and when I heard a car in the driveway, I got up and looked out the dormer window. Not too many people show up out here on the farm, and unfortunately a high percentage of the ones who do are interested only in converting me to their religion. No, thanks.

But these folks parked their truck so deliberately in our two-space, picket-fenced “lot.” I considered just not answering the door, but somehow, watching the man and woman walking up the gravel drive, I impulsively decided to take a chance. I hustled down the stairs and opened the door.

“Jenny!” It was our tenant who’d lived in the other old farmhouse on our property many years ago.

“And you remember Rick?” she said.

Of course. Rick and Jenny had actually held their wedding in the living room of the old house Jenny had rented from us for several years. Now she said they had decided to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary by taking a nostalgic tour, and took a chance on checking out what had become of Wake Robin Farm. They weren’t surprised their house was no longer standing (it was starting to fall apart even then) and said they were just relieved the whole acreage hadn’t become a development.

Then Herb showed up from town and we all sat around the living room trading stories of the old days and how our lives had gone in the thirty-five years since they married and moved away. Jenny and I agreed it had seemed like Herb and I were so much older than them back then. The age gap between being a bride of twenty-five and a young mother of thirty-one was way larger than those same six years seem now.

We were all so happy to find out both marriages had survived the rough patches and that we were still hanging in there together.

For almost twenty years now the Millsaps have had a storybook house on a farm of their own up in Mulino, a country community outside of Portland. Jenny has a studio out back for creating her beautiful glass beads. They even have a willow tree just like the one that still stands by the old site of the house where they were married.

Rick and Jenny—thanks for showing up! You made our day.




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The Understandable Panic of Those in Chronic Pain

An NBC online headline the other day breaks my heart: Chronic Pain Sufferers Are Scared by Ohio’s New Opioid Rules.

In a nutshell, the state of Ohio is trying to restrict the flow of painkillers in order to help fight the plague of opioid abuse. Those who take the pills for chronic pain are of course freaking out, blaming the government and people they see as the actual addicts for their dilemma.

I feel terrible for them, but this is a false construct, setting up the issue as a three-way fight between government regulatory agencies, the doctors, and the patients dealing with chronic pain. The government tries to stop the problem by turning off the tap of opioid drugs, the doctors fear getting in trouble with the government and try to develop strategies to defend themselves from “addict types,” and the people in chronic pain rail against everyone who they perceive as conspiring to keep their drugs from them, and this includes those they characterize as the “real” addicts.

Having suffered the difficulties of getting off of these drugs myself, I feel like a lone voice, crying in the wilderness. The question is not, are you an addict? It’s are these drugs you’re on helping or hurting you?

Of course those who are addicted (okay, call yourselves dependent if it makes you feel better, but your brain doesn’t know the difference) insist that they can’t even begin to continue with their lives if somebody doesn’t prescribe them these drugs. That’s right, because they’re addicted, and their brains, without the drugs, will rebel.

A crucial fact that nobody talks about much is something called Hyperalgesia. It means that while the drugs initially knock back the pain, eventually, the person taking them actually becomes more sensitive to pain. Got that? It makes the pain worse. This is why opioids are not considered a viable, longterm option for chronic pain.

All the energy that will go into these folks desperately trying to make sure they can still get their drugs should actually be applied toward figuring out a program of getting off of them. Rather than now shunning them as addicts, the doctors who prescribed the drugs in the first place should be helping them, not just sending them off to so-called “pain clinics.” A common line is, “I’m not comfortable prescribing these to you anymore.” Apparently they were comfortable enough with the prescription to get the person hooked in the first place.

I know about pain. I’ve lived through this. I’m not on any of these drugs anymore and I’m not in pain. If you want the gory details, it’s all in my book, Accidental Addict. I should warn you that one reviewer claims I’m not a real addict, I guess because once I went off, I never relapsed. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have to hang in there and suffer through the months and months of withdrawal.

Also, check out Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, a group that has been trying to get to the root of the problem by getting doctors to understand that, despite what they’ve been told by the pharmaceutical companies, opioid painkillers can be highly addictive for anyone.

Do I have to remind you that the drug companies do not have our best interests at heart? They want us addicted. What better way to sell the maximum number of pills? Read More 
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Another Drug-Pushing Pharmaceutical TV Commercial

I was completely disgusted when I saw my first TV ad for a new drug called Movantik a few months back. It featured a woman of my general demographic who admitted to struggling with constipation due to her doctor-prescribed opioids. Great! First the drug companies convince the doctors they needn’t worry about addiction in prescribing opioid painkillers to their patients, then, once the patients are hooked, they’re right there to sell them another drug to deal with the side effects. But see, she’s a nice lady. Clearly not an addict. Nice people can take opioid painkillers. You got that message, right?

AstraZeneca’s newest commercial is equally insidious. It’s entitled “Frank’s Moment,” meaning the moment this completely healthy-looking construction foreman—ACTOR PORTRAYAL flashes briefly on the screen—gets the enlightening news from his doctor that his problem with OIC—Opioid-Induced Constipation—can be fixed simply by popping another pill! Yay for modern medicine!

The cynicism of the drug companies and these ad copywriters is breathtaking. They know that a huge percentage of middle-aged men who wind up on opioid painkillers arrive in this predicament by way of lower back pain, something that’s extremely common, especially among construction workers prone to “throwing their backs out.” So Frank’s world, the exposed floors, two-by-fours and staircases of a substantial new house going up, is familiar to them.

Please note though, that Frank is the boss. He’s not carrying anything heavier than his laptop. He’s in a position of power. He points people here and there. But, hey, look what a stand-up guy he is, taking a coffee break with his underlings. Also—this is important—he’s ridiculously goodlooking and fit. Actor Mike McGowan, playing “Frank,” delivers his lines to perfection. Sure, these words flash briefly on the screen: OPIOIDS SHOULD BE USED RESPONSIBLY AND ONLY WHEN PRESCRIBED BY A DOCTOR. But anyone with half-a-brain can see that if a great guy like Frank has no problem taking narcotics on a daily basis, who are they to go beating up on themselves? Nobody’s calling our Frank an addict, right? Hard to picture him going home to a wife who nags him with her concern about his prescribed drugs.

Appealing, affable Frank displays winning comic timing, the way he winces in acknowledgment of the bad puns he has no choice but to deliver, inviting his TV-watching buddies to bond over the essentially embarrassing nature of constipation.

Stop! I can’t take it! Because, people, this is not about constipation. It’s about addiction, which is way more than embarrassing. It’s deadly. An ad like this is quite simply enabling; it tells the viewer that as long as their doctor is still writing their prescriptions, they’re safe.

But they’re not. Opioids are not a good solution for chronic pain, and Frank does not represent the reality of a guy taking opioids long-term. The real guys get fat. Or they waste away. What they don’t do is stay as fit and cheerful as Frank. They go on disability and withdraw from life. Through a phenomenon called Hyperalgesia (increased sensitivity to pain) opioids eventually make their pain worse until their sole daily goal is making sure they continue to get their drugs. These are the guys who eventually contribute to the statistical uptick in deaths among white, middle-aged men in America.

Finally, here’s the real capper about this new wonder drug. Guess what one of the listed side effects is? Symptoms of opioid withdrawal! Isn’t that rich? In an effort to go to the bathroom oftener, you may experience sweating, chills, anxiety, irritability, nausea and stomach pain. Hey, here’s an idea: Why not just bite the bullet, get yourself through the horrors of withdrawal to come out drug free rather than suffering with these symptoms as you continue to layer on even more prescriptions?

I could go on, but I wrote a whole book—Accidental Addict—to explain how I lived through this myself and why I have the feelings I do on the subject. I’m starting to hear from people who’ve read it and who see parts of their own stories or their loved ones’ in mine. Please check it out.

Save yourself. Save somebody you love.

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Thank you to the marchers!

To anyone reading this who went on one of the marches yesterday, thank you! To show up in Washington, D. C., when it was first announced sounded like a great idea to me. And then, scaling back, I thought about traveling the two hours to Portland. In the end, I didn't do it. I stayed home.

But you all left your homes. You left your chairs in front of your computers, walked out the door, got on busses and showed up. You marched and raised your voices and refused to sit down and be nice girls.

I admire you so much, and I want to thank you for the inspiration and uplift the rest of us got from watching it all from afar. Read More 
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Happy Birthday Mary and Will (In Spite of the Inauguration!)

Thirty-one years ago, my darling twins first opened their eyes to the world in the early hours of January 20th. After nearly three years of infertility treatments and repeatedly failed cycles, I was too busy being thrilled with having finally won the big door prize of a boy AND a girl to even think about the date. In fact, it was years before it occurred to me that the Presidential Inauguration would always fall, for better or worse, on our kids’ birthday.

Eight years ago, the Obamas made it a great gift. This year? Ugh. I won’t even say his name. Instead, let me celebrate something that’s going right, two lovely young people walking this earth and making it a better place with their presence, Mary at the Reed College Book Store in Portland, Will at 10 Barrel Brewing in Bend.

At Cowboy Dancing recently, my husband and I learned the steps to a dance called El Paso, executed to a song by Jeff Carson. The first time I caught the lyrics they made me choke up, so happy and relieved was I to finally have recovered and reclaimed myself and to be out there dancing with my own sweet husband. The words seem appropriate here, now, as well:

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Mary and Will.

Wherever you go, whatever you do
Don’t ever forget there’s someone who believes in you
When you’re lost and weary, follow your heart
‘Cause you have a gift, you’re one of a kind,
God put you on this earth so you could shine.
You don’t have to be afraid of the dark.

There will be days and there will be doubts;
There will be those who lie and let you down,
When you just have to rise above it all.
Over the tears, over the pain
Look for the rainbow in the pourin’ rain
Like a ray of sun at the crack of dawn.

Shine on!
Light up the world with your love
With faith and desire, you can build a fire
Shine on!
And let your dreams keep burning strong
Oh, shine on.

There’s a star in every one of us,
Just waiting to be born
Take a chance, dance the dance.
It’s what you’ve waited for.
Shine on!

So, keep on shining, Mary and Will.
Shine on, all of us. Let’s see if we can let love prevail.

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In the Wake of the Disheartening Presidential Election

I have always loved this quote:

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”
¯ E.B. White, Charlotte's Web

Nowhere in my life has this sentiment had more application than to my dear friend, award-winning writer Theresa Nelson, who took the time from her mother's bedside to pass on this encouragement from E.B. White. Although written in an earlier dark time, the inspiration is welcome once again, and since I am at a loss myself and have no heart to even write the name of the President Elect, I will borrow and share these words, which are apparently making the rounds in the children's book world.

In 1973, E.B White wrote the following reply to a man asking White's opinion on what he perceived as the bleak future for the human race.

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,
E. B. White  Read More 
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Post-Election

Words fail me.
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