I came closer to using drugs last night than I have in over 20 years. My experience — totally unexpected — draws a line under the reasons that we have to keep our heads in the right place, have supports available, and the several other things involved in maintaining our sobriety.

Briefly, some unfinished dental work developed an infection, and over a period of four or five hours went from mild discomfort that was easily controlled by Tylenol to pain that I’d put at about an 8 on a scale of one to ten. When I realized it was increasing I had my dentist call in a prescription for antibiotics, but unfortunately they don’t work all that fast. I’m OK now, but for several hours I went through intermittent periods of pain that could have had me gobbling anything in sight that I knew would make it stop.

But I didn’t, for several reason that I don’t take complete credit for. I decided when I got sober that I would avoid narcotic painkillers whenever possible. I don’t keep them around “just in case,” and I make sure that my physicians know that I don’t want them. But mostly I made sure that the people close to me know how dangerous they are to me, and that they are to be extremely critical of any requests I make.

Now don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with painkillers when they’re actually needed. Thing is, people in pain aren’t necessarily in a position to decide when they’re actually needed. As a former martial artist I know that I have a high pain threshold, but that’s temporary pain, not pain that threatens to go on for who knows how long, and maybe get worse. While I might be able to tolerate more pain than some people, the fact is that I reached a level last night that I perceived as all I could tolerate. Only the barriers that I put up for myself long ago came between me and taking a potentially addictive drug.

Would I have been throwing away 22 years of sobriety? Of course not — on the face of it. But who knows what temptations to keep enjoying those feelings might have surfaced? What rogue brain chemistry might have been triggered that started up my cravings again? Is my “won’t power” good enough to put the stuff down when I no longer need it? Could it trigger my addiction to alcohol, or benzos?

I don’t know, you see. And I don’t want to find out. If the time comes when I need major pain relief, I trust my medical surrogate(s) to make the right choices at that time. But I’m an addict. My disease is arrested, not cured. I don’t trust me to make those choices, not even after all this time. I need to be certain that I don’t fool myself, and I need to make sure that the people around me aren’t fooled — by me. And last night proved to me what a very good idea that is. It was a shock to learn just how little time it takes to strip away all those layers of recovery.

I would probably have been OK. But what if?

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