Can prayer take the place of morphine? Is prayer powerful enough to subdue chronic pain? Should one even try to go that route? Should I?
This is territory I have been thinking about for the past few months. It came up after telling a friend how tired I was of being dulled by drugs but fearing going through withdrawals again.
He mentioned a colleague of his who has a serious nerve disorder that causes non-stop pain. When his colleague is asked what he does for pain relief, I was told, he pulls out his rosary. I was amazed and maybe a bit doubtful.
I have been on morphine for nearly five years, the result of severe spinal pain that surgery only partially cured.
I am not a junkie by virtue of the fact my drug regimen was prescribed. Besides, taking morphine for fun is low on my list of entertainment value. The things high on my entertainment list are a cold beer and a scotch at night – all things I have not been able to do for years because of the danger of lapsing into a coma. Even going to dinner at night and sharing a bottle of wine with friends became a distant memory. I like cranberry juice and soda but it is not quite the same as red wine on a cold night.
Prayer has been part of my life for years but intensified during my illness. Even during times I could barely mumble an Our Father or a Hail Mary I persisted. I began to believe that God does not require perfection of words but more the dogged attempt to reach His merciful arms.
The rosary, the Divine Mercy novena, daily Eucharist and spiritual readings have all helped me along. There has been, and still is, a good priest, a friend, who spoke to me about my ordeal and patiently showed me how to turn my pain into a grace – or, better put, to realize my ordeal was a grace.
When this first started in late 2011 I was taking huge amounts of morphine. Hallucinating imaginary friends was part of my daily routine. I had imaginary discussions my wife while I was at home and she was at work. At night I would get lost in the house when the lights were off.
I was taken for an MRI. The hospital was near a restaurant that had great Dim Sum that we ate in all the time. And the next day I raved about the food and the fun we had even though I never went into the restaurant that day.
Then in the spring of 2012 I began to feel better. And it looked as if my spinal issues were abating. The body can become a cruel tease.
So I began a series of withdrawals that took two months to complete. The first week I went down ten percent. I would be sick for a few nights, replete with sweats, nausea and chills and then it would pass. And I repeated the same thing week after week. I got used to being sick. I would keep a couple of towels by the side of the bed and extra T-shirts when the ones I was wearing became soaking wet.
None of this was what you would call fun but it was character building — or so some say.
Then on a beautiful spring day I was down to zero. And I remember how great I felt. It was a Friday. That Sunday I was taking my godson to Church. He was in the process of becoming Catholic so I was really looking forward to the day and reveling in being morphine free.
While in the pew I suddenly felt sick beyond sick. It is not possible to explain the full extent of my distress. The Mass ended, I jumped in my car and sped home feeling like I was about to die. Grim does not even come close.
I spent the next three or four days wrapped in blanket on the floor. My body was wracked with an all-encompassing pain that held me like a vice. Cold, hot, cold, hot, cold, hot…
On the Monday I begged my wife to stay with me, something I had never done before. I really understood why someone would prefer death.
Then things began to ease. But the experience shattered me. It took two months to actually gain back my strength. The good thing was my back was finally fine, or so I thought. I believed I could avoid massive surgery.
A few months later the spinal pain returned with a vengeance and I had to go back on morphine.
I had surgery. That was more than three years ago. Recovery took nearly nine months but I never was really the same again. And I still had to take morphine — though as time went by I was able to bring it down to a maintenance dose that I have been on for more than a year.
But then a month ago I noticed a big change in my pain levels. And began to wonder whether the morphine I was still taking, albeit a relatively small dose compared to the early days of my illness, was really necessary.
The only way to find out was to cut the morphine. I had been thinking about cutting for months. It was causing me sleepless nights, exhaustion during the day and so many stomach problems. Despite going to Mass, speaking to a spiritual director, praying every day, I felt myself slipping into the sin of despair. I tried never to fall into self-pity or be jealous of the good things happening to others, but my attempts were crumbling. After nearly five years my defenses were crumbling.
It was not just the drugs and the spinal pain. I had not really exercised since the summer of 2012. I had not left the city in nearly five years. I was losing contact with friends and I started to sound like a broken record. I began to hate the sound of my own voice.
But the despair was never complete. I hung onto the good: The heightened sense of faith and a greater love of God and Mary and the saints. I felt a great sense of empathy for others who also suffer. Not until I was struggling along on Toronto’s streets with a cane and the gait of a much older man did I realize how many broken people there were limping through life too.
Somehow the men and women lying in the street no longer seemed foreign, but just other suffering souls. I was never indifferent to those in need but my situation made me hyper aware of their never ending distress. I knew intellectually that living on the streets was an awful situation but now I felt it in my gut. Here I was, also sick, but for a spouse, a job and bank account I had a warm home to sleep in. I cannot imagine enduring what I’ve been through and living on the street. No one in a civilized society needs to carry that burden.
To return to where I began I decided it was time to get off the morphine. I decided to test myself in a spiritual way. If prayer is powerful, and I believe it is, then that might be enough to go through what I knew would be coming as the morphine began to leave my body.
It is now more than two weeks since cutting the morphine in half. I can report the following: The pain in my back still flares up. The withdrawals were not as bad as I once experienced, by virtue of the fact I started dropping from a lower amount. But that is not to say I am getting away without a struggle. I am sick each morning but I can handle it.
I am praying like a monk. I am committed to eventually getting down to zero intake again but I still fear mightily what bit of hell awaits me when my body starts screaming for more morphine.
The plan is to resist — to lean on God, Mary and the saints. I want to see what prayer alone can do. I’m not recommending this to anyone. But I want to try.
Charles Lewis is a regular contributor to The Catholic Register and a board member of the Catholic Civil Rights League. He has been writing for 36 years. He was also the religion reporter for the National Post until January 2014.
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