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For more than 10 years, my father experienced bizarre incidents and exhibited perplexing behavior. He suffered from fainting spells, his speech became slurred. We made panicked trips to the emergency room when he claimed terrible-but-vague pain. He was in and out of hospitals and there was never a diagnosis.
In 2011, he ended up in a psych ward for several weeks with hallucinations. I remember visiting him, but when I looked into his eyes, he was nowhere to be found. He would lay in bed moving his hands and arms as if he were sewing buttons on a shirt — he had lost his mind and we didn’t know why. Here’s what we did know: Dad had injured himself falling off the roof in 2003 and had to have surgery on both shoulders.
Afterward, he was prescribed Percocet, which he continued to take long after his shoulders were healed. Several years later, he slipped off a ladder and broke his pelvis. The Percocet became Dilaudid, a stronger form of narcotic analgesic, courtesy of his local doctor. Again, this was prescribed for years after the incident.
My mother must have known, but she never said anything about it. It was another one of those family secrets.My parents had been married for 60 years, and my father was devastated when my mother died in January 2012. My siblings and I thought it would be a good idea for him to spend the winter in Arizona where three of my brothers live — all were married to wonderful women and there were plenty of grandchildren around.
We couldn’t think of a better salve for his broken heart. But when he arrived in Arizona, we could see that he was very, very sick, suffering from something more than grief. He lay on the couch 24 hours a day watching TV with no ability to recall anything he watched. He didn’t change his clothes and rarely bathed.
My six siblings and I believed these were symptoms of depression brought on by grief, that my dad didn’t want to live without Mom.He consistently told us that he was in pain. Sometimes he could direct you to a place under his right shoulder blade where there was a palpable knot, which could be relieved through massage and movement.
Other times he described sciatic pain. He was always constipated and had a terrible skin rash. He would often talk to people who weren’t there (hallucinations had become common). And he complained of what he called an “all-over sick feeling,” which he said felt as if he were dying.On Thanksgiving Day he hit rock bottom.
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He didn’t care that his kids had come for the holiday, or that his 9-year-old grandson had put on a tie for the occasion, or that his 4-year-old granddaughter was dancing for him. He just lay fidgety and irritated in his dirty clothes. Then suddenly he got up and put on a nice shirt; when we asked him where he was going, he said to the pharmacy.
My brother drove him. He said that Dad marched to the back of the pharmacy and demanded Dilaudid. Dad insisted that the doctor had called it in, but he hadn’t. That was when we learned what was really going on: Dad was an addict in need of a fix.At first he denied everything. But then he admitted that he had been taking Dilaudid every day for eight years.
He said it wasn’t a problem because “the doctor prescribed it.”Sadly, our family nightmare is all too common. In 2010, 8.76 million Americans abused prescription drugs. Dad fell into the largest group — the 5.1 million people who abused painkillers. In 2012, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers, which is enough for each American to have a bottle of pills.
How did my father become addicted to drugs? His doctor ran a local pain relief clinic in Fort Wayne, Ind., and gave out painkillers like candy on Halloween. In 2014, authorities got a search warrant and collected the clinic’s records. They found eight drug overdose deaths from January 2013 to July 2014.
The doctor’s license was suspended for 90 days while the Attorney General’s office completed a formal licensing complaint. But as I write this, he is back in business.
The Power Of Yoga
After that disturbing Thanksgiving, my brother John took matters into his own hands: he bought a locked pill dispenser and carefully filled it every week. It contained my Dad’s blood thinners, medicine for high blood pressure, and his pain pills. John carefully and gradually weaned Dad off the Dilaudid. Each time he lowered the dose, my dad had to go through another withdrawal.
For a while, he threw tantrums, and tried to manipulate us to give him more painkillers. But John stood tough. It took six months for Dad to come out of his fog. After that, we insisted that Dad join a senior center and attend exercise classes. He chose yoga. You can imagine how thrilled my husband Rodney and I were, and how proud my father was.
Initially, he was weak from years of laying on the couch in a stupor, but over time he built strength, physically and emotionally. One day when Rodney and I were visiting, he called us into the room he was in and proudly demonstrated his tree pose with perfect form. He didn’t know that this was much more than a party trick; he was establishing balance and focus, as well as increasing circulation, respiration, and digestion.
When his back was in pain, he would do cat-cow sitting in a chair, or lie on his back with his calves on a chair and do sit-ups. He was in touch with his body and his breath — and his kids. Dad finally started sounding like himself again. He began contributing to our lives. He remembered things. He smiled. He bathed and started changing his clothes every day.
He started shopping for food and cooking nightly. He became sharp, optimistic, and helpful. He was making an incredible recovery, and yoga was playing a role in that. I sit here and contemplate the medical profession and our use of drugs. The United States has five percent of the world’s population, and yet it consumes 75 percent of its prescription drugs.
Some of these drugs (and the doctors who prescribe them) are an absolute blessing — I have epilepsy, and am grateful for my seizure medications, which have probably saved my life. But many drugs are given as a quick fix for symptoms, especially to the elderly community. There is not one drug I know of that does not have some adverse side effect.
It’s common to be prescribed a medicine to counteract the symptoms of another medicine, and the cycle perpetuates. The cycle is vicious.Today, yoga is no longer seen as a cult, and has made its way into the mainstream. You don’t have to be able to put your leg around your head to have a yoga practice. Everyone can benefit from yoga.
You can be bedridden and have a yoga practice. Which is in part why, in 2009, I founded the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program along with Rodney and Donna Karan. The program’s goal is to address pain, anxiety, nausea, insomnia, and constipation that arise during hospital stays. We have trained hundreds of doctors and nurses in yogic modalities, such as in-bed movements, restorative poses, essential oils, and Reiki.
We distill the poses to something as simple as opening and closing your hands while focusing on your breath, or slightly bending and straightening your legs. The results are startling. We used these methods at New York City’s Beth Israel Hospital, and the hospital reported close to $1 million in savings in a single 24-bed surgical oncology ward. The hospital mainly saved on pain medications.
And as we train more therapists and infiltrate more hospitals, the receptivity and enthusiasm from doctors and nurses who participate in the program validates yoga’s effectiveness.I say all of this in hopes of proposing yoga to treat various conditions in place of medications, such as my father’s addiction and pain.
We can use yoga to deal with some of the pain that arises, and there are many yoga and mindfulness tools that allow us to take control of our bodies and lives. My father’s journey has made our quest even more urgent. I am not going to say that every day is roses for him. There are days that he sits in front of the TV longer than we would like and has little motivation, and there are days when he doesn’t feel well.
The knot in his back is still there, and he is forgetful, but he seems like a somewhat normal 88-year-old. He cherishes family time and belly laughs at the cuteness of his grand kids. He also hadn’t any unexplained bizarre issues since we removed pain medication from his life. It has been nearly two years since that Thanksgiving Day. He continues to go to the senior center and take chair-yoga classes three times a week.
He still misses my mom like crazy and talks about her constantly, but he is connected to his feelings. He is no longer numbing himself with narcotics. Although pain medication robbed him of his self-respect, he has reclaimed it.
Colleen Saidman Yee is the author of “Yoga for Life, A Journey to Inner Peace and Freedom.” She is also director and owner of Yoga Shanti in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and co-owns Yoga Shanti in Westhampton Beach and New York City. Articles about her have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Vanity Fair, and O, The Oprah Magazine.
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