An Honest Account of My Relationship With Painkillers

Diary of a chronic pain recovery therapist


My story about painkillers is not a prescription. It’s simply an honest account of my story. What I hope to model is not a step-by-step how-to, because the steps that I’ve chosen may not necessarily be the steps that you choose. Instead, I hope to model self-trust. Over and over again, I’ve found self-trust to be my path to healing. That doesn’t mean I never try something that turns out poorly and then switch gears. In fact, allowing myself to pivot when needed is an essential part of self-trust! As you’ll see in this story…

Chapter 1: The Beginning

I got my first migraine in 2007, on the first day of my very first job as a video editor on a reality TV show. That was also the first time I can remember taking a pill for a headache. I stumbled out of the office to a drugstore, searched the painkiller isle and chose “Excedrin Migraine.” The description on the bottle seemed to match what I was experiencing. Thankfully, it worked — the torturous feeling in my head dissolved into a slight euphoria and I was able to return to work and keep my job. I didn’t think too much of it.

Chapter 2: Prescription

Migraines popped up occasionally as I continued my new, high-pressure career in television. They were rare though, and I would just take Excedrin to make them go away. It was years before the migraines became frequent enough that I brought it up with a doctor. I was sent to a neurologist who prescribed Sumatriptan (also known as Imitrex) — a common migraine “emergency medication” (meaning, take as-needed, not on a daily basis.) Sumatriptan, I was told, was more effective than over-the-counter drugs and had less chance of causing “rebound headaches.” So, I replaced the Excedrin with Sumatriptan.

Chapter 3: Something’s Gotta Give

Sumatriptan worked well for me and allowed me to continue my life with minimal disturbance for a few more years. But the frequency of headaches continued to gradually increase. 10 years into my journey with migraines, I was getting them up to three times a week. Sumatriptan as-needed was no longer a sustainable plan, partly because the U.S. only allows an allotment of 9 Sumatriptan pills per month (more than that is not advised from a safety standpoint), and partly because they didn’t always work when I took them that often.

So, I went back to the neurologist, and this time the recommendation was daily preventative painkillers. My gut said “no.” There had to be a way out of this ever-increasing spiral of head pain and meds. So, I dove into Googling. Fortunately, a mind-body pain reduction app called Curable, which was only 2 years old at the time, popped up in my searches.

I started down the path of mind-body healing (which you can read about here) and soon began to experience a decrease in migraines! I knew I was onto something and I was excited.

Chapter 4: Keeping Score

As I used the Curable app, I tracked my progress closely, writing down every time that I took a Sumatriptan, and watching the number of pills decrease month by month. Seeing my progress in numbers gave me hope and a reason to believe in it. At first.

But then something happened: One month, instead of decreasing, the number of Sumatriptans went up again. And then decreased. And then increased. And leveled out. And increased again. With the help of several mentors, I was introduced to two key lessons of mind-body healing:

  1. Recovery is not a straight line. And expecting it to be a smooth ride only puts pressure on the process, which puts stress on your nervous system, which works against recovery.
  2. Keeping score — and defining progress by the number of painkillers — also puts pressure on the process, which increases stress, which works against recovery.

Chapter 5: Letting Go

I gave up my Sumatriptan tracking log. Deleting it from my phone felt scary at first, but I could tell that I needed to let go of this perfectionistic score-keeping.

And I set an intention to change my goal: Instead of aiming for fewer painkillers, my aim shifted to increasing self-acceptance and self-care. By “self-care,” I don’t mean pedicures or massages — although those can be part of it. But I mean actually caring about myself. Loving myself. Listening to myself. Spending time learning how to make myself happy — like you would learn how to care for a beloved.

I also made a decision: I was going to stop viewing painkillers as “bad.” I’d picked up this view from some of the mind-body books and lectures I’d come across: The idea that taking painkillers works against mind-body healing; that it’s a way of “giving away your power.”

Some mind-body practitioners believe that it’s important to wean yourself off of pain meds in order to concentrate on mind-body healing. And others don’t. There’s a variety of opinions out there. The opinion I’ve landed on is this: Being kind to myself and helping myself feel better is my path of healing. When I get a flare and it doesn’t subside within a reasonable amount of time, denying myself a painkiller can feel like self-punishment and perfectionism, and that only brings more distress to my nervous system.

As long as I’m not experiencing detrimental side effects from the meds, and as long as I’m heeding safety protocols and contraindications, I will simply take a painkiller and I won’t agonize about it.

Chapter 6: Hiding the Truth — and Self-Trust

The shift of letting go was exactly what I needed. Life got easier and less fraught. My focus and energy began to shift away from tracking painkillers, and I could redirect my energy toward things I actually care about — work, creativity, family and fun!

But there was one lingering piece still gnawing at me: I wasn’t being completely honest with my clients about how often I still take painkillers. Even up until recently, I’ve used the phrase “once in a blue moon.” When the actual truth is, I tend to take a painkiller about once a week.

It’s been a few years since I’ve had a full-blown migraine, but I still have a tendency toward head tension when I’m stressed. And when the tension doesn’t subside reasonably easily through emotional soothing and release techniques, instead of going through my day with head tension, I take a painkiller.

Since I don’t keep a log anymore, I don’t know exactly how many pills I take. I know that there have been particularly stressful weeks when I’ve taken more than one, and particularly relaxed weeks when I haven’t taken any. But the average seems to be once a week these days. That’s less than it was when I started this healing journey, and I imagine that as my nervous system continues to unwind, there will be a time when I’ll take even less and maybe none. However, I don’t hold that as my goal.

When I first began helping others with chronic pain recovery, I thought it was important to model hope and possibility by emphasizing how much I’ve healed. But what I’ve come to realize is this: Hiding the truth about my relationship with painkillers is driven by perfectionism, fear of judgment and shame. None of these are things I want to model for clients. Whereas trusting myself and accepting my truth lets my nervous system feel safer — which continues to further my healing. And that is something I want to share.

I hope that my story inspires you to bring greater acceptance and self-trust to your journey — whatever yours looks like.

Sending love, gentleness and infinite faith in you,

💖 Anna


Medika Life has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by Medika Life

Anna Holtzman
Anna Holtzman
Anna Holtzman is a chronic pain recovery therapist and coach based in New York City.
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