Writer presents her story of painkiller addiction and recovery
Jennifer Matesa is a writer. For over twenty years she has made a career of writing about health as a journalist and author of two books. Lamaze International chose her book, Navel-Gazing: The Days and Nights of a Mother in the Making, as a top-ten best pregnancy book in 2001.
Jennifer Matesa is an artist. Accepting commissions and occasionally showing her work, Matesa’s delicate watercolor portraits display deep insight and compassion for their subjects.
Jennifer Matesa is a wife and mother. She strives to find a balance between her career and her family in order to give her son a better childhood than she had.
Jennifer Matesa is also a recovering addict.
“Nobody, including me, thought I had a problem because I looked like a normal person,” she said. “But people who look ‘normal’ can also be addicted.”
Recently, Matesa, 47, shared her story of addiction and recovery with students participating in the Scaife medical student assistantship program at IRETA. She warned students that she and her doctors had both overlooked her predisposition toward addiction, and she suggested ways for the students to become aware of the risks of addiction and to treat addiction in their future medical careers.
Known online for her award-winning blog, Guinevere Gets Sober, Matesa has built a substantial following of readers who appreciate her candid and well-researched writing, effortless wit and unflinching honesty.
Matesa’s family history of addiction and her decision to seek medical treatment for her chronic migraines and fibromyalgia pain led to her opioid addiction. After her mother’s death from lung cancer, Matesa stole some of her mother’s morphine to ease her own migraines. When she told her doctor what she had done, the doctor didn’t interpret this behavior as a possible sign of addiction, he simply told her it proved she had a lot of pain.
Her doctors and other experts in pain management told her that if she was taking the medication to treat pain, there was very little risk that she would become addicted. They said that one-tenth of one percent of people using opioids to manage pain become addicted. However, as her tolerance to the drugs increased, her relationship with her medications gradually became distorted, and she got to the point where she found herself wishing for more physical pain so that she could justify talking another pill.
That’s when she started to think she might have a problem with her medications.
Matesa grappled with the idea that she might be addicted. She was a high functioning professional and mother, which she thought was inconsistent with the stereotypical image of an addict. She never bought drugs on the street and never doctor shopped to get more pills. Her therapist told her she couldn’t be an addict because she was a responsible person. For a long time, she was trapped in a circle of treating pain with stronger and stronger opiate medications.
“I didn’t feel like an addict, but I also didn’t feel that I was in control of my drug use,” she said.
One day she ran out of the Fentanyl she was prescribed a week early. She found herself in opiate withdrawal, unable to get out of bed, and she was shocked to discover how much her body needed the drugs.
“I felt ashamed of how much my body and my psyche needed the drugs to function,” she said.
As her addiction progressed, she did her best to hide it from everyone, including herself.
After her father died of cancer and cirrhosis in 2007, she sought the help of a detox doctor, and she began to face up to the truth of her addiction, beginning with a two-month outpatient detox process in 2008. While detoxing, she logged onto the Opiate Detox Recovery forum. There, she found others in similar situations as well as an outlet to share her story. She also joined a 12-step program, where she found a community of people willing and able to help her heal.
“In recovery, I became more myself,” she said.
Matesa wishes her doctors had asked her frank questions about her family history of addiction before prescribing her such powerful drugs.
“I’m not here to tell you drugs are bad. Opioids are very effective painkillers when used properly. Drugs don’t cause addiction, they activate a predisposition toward it,” she said. “The simple fact is, if doctors treat more pain aggressively with opiate medications, more people are going to be exposed to the risk of addiction. And physicians need to learn how to spot the signs of addiction, and how to respond in compassionate ways, as they would to any other illness.”
She points to the negative associations with the word “addict” as a source of hesitation and shame that prevents people from seeking help.
“I think we need to separate the illness from the criminality that it sometimes leads to,” she said. “We use the terms ‘substance abuse’ or ‘drug abuse’ and their negative connotation brands all addicts as criminals. So we become ashamed, and that makes it harder to get help.”
Guinevere Gets Sober is not a place to seek medical advice. Matesa makes it clear that she is not an addiction expert; she is one woman trying to cope with addiction in the best way she knows how—by writing and sharing her journey.
Read Matesa’s own blog post on speaking to the Scaife students about pain management and addiction on Guinevere Gets Sober here.