The Rush on Drugs

LET'S GET TO the heart of the matter: I did not, at any time, get a wheelbarrow full of little joy pills from my housekeeper. I don't even have a housekeeper. I do, however, have the pills. For the past nine years, I've been addicted to the same drug as Rush Limbaugh.

OxyContin is a time-release capsule containing the active ingredient oxy-codone, which also goes into Percoset and Darvoset. The time-release Oxy- Contin version doesn't have a quick peak high. It offers a steady level of pain relief over a long time, which makes it ideal for chronic pain.

In Limbaugh's case, he began taking the drug after spinal surgery. At about the same time, nine years ago, that I started taking it, while recuperating from a double organ transplant. That 10-hour operation left me with chronic nerve pain that has never gotten much worse or better since. We've tried a number of remedies, drug and otherwise, to address the pain. Oxycodone in its various forms has been the only thing that works.

So I'm an addict, because I know that if I went too long without my dosage, the withdrawal would make me really, really sick. It'd be nasty.

Of course, there are also about 20 other pills I take regularly. At least one other is physiologically addictive (though without the high of OxyContin, so nobody cares). I'm "addicted" to some of those pills in a more profound way; were I to stop taking them, I wouldn't get withdrawal symptoms, but my body would be more likely to reject my nonnative organs, and I'd probably die. Those are the pills I feel really compelled to take.

I MENTION ALL THIS because in my letters and conversations I'm hearing a lot of nonsense about Limbaugh's high-profile detox and associated legal jeopardy. One earnest writer, after explaining how much he loves my columns, went on to assert that it made perfect sense that Limbaugh was addicted to OxyContinit separates you from reality, and Limbaugh's show is evidence enough of how much the drugs were affecting him.

Well, of course, if Limbaugh is separated from reality for that reason, so am I. But there are problems with that notion, such as Limbaugh having made a rather prosperous career out of his particular brand of humor and vitriol for at least a decade before his surgery. Instead of being out of it, Limbaugh functioned at an astonishingly high levelas one of the most popular political commentators in Americafor nearly a decade while in the clutches of this demon drug. It couldn't have crippled him that much. So much for the effects of a drug the head of the DEA has called a poor man's heroin.

Limbaugh's alleged actions, however, do suggest someone physically or psychologically addicted enough to break the law to get his fix. He was either in pain and couldn't get his pain treated decentlya real problem for many, but generally not someone with Limbaugh's wealthor he was both addicted to and abusing the drug.

That's a health problem, and it would be a private matter for Limbaugh to resolveif he wanted towere it not for our celebrity culture and the insanity of this nation's drug laws. Twenty years of antidrug propaganda has made consumers and doctors alike wary; far more patients have their pain undermedicated and suffer when they really shouldn't.

I've certainly got my problems, but my OxyContin addiction isn't one. Quite the opposite. Without it, pain would unquestionably make my life a waking hell. But even if I got high from the stuff, so what? We live in a society where just about everybody self-medicates to deal with the pressures of our world. Some of those medications are legal (TV, junk food, alcohol, nicotine). Some are not. The dividing line has never made much sense; most famously, alcohol probably kills more people in an hour than pot does in a year.

LIKE ANY ADDICTION, Limbaugh's situation calls for health care, not prosecution. But squabbling over the dividing line between legal and nonlegal things we use to feel better misses a larger point. We need a society that doesn't make so many of us feel so awful in the first place.

Never have so many people felt so alienated from either the natural world or the social world. An awful lot of us have our version of Rush Limbaugh's pills. In Limbaugh's case, the substance in question is both medically legitimate and overblown as a life-destroying menace. But some people do abuse OxyContinjust as Americans abuse an unimaginable array of other substances. The question isn't whether laws were broken. It's why those laws are there in the first place and why, with or without the risk of breaking the law, so many Americans, from all walks of life, feel the need to medicate themselves.

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