As a licensed health care professional, I cringe whenever I tell the story of my dependency on opioids. My journey of addiction began on a normal day in the kitchen, where I was tending to my sick boyfriend (who, like all men, was whining about having a head cold). We were nestled in his tiny New York City apartment, and I decided to open a new pressure cooker to make some homemade soup for him. When the soup was soon to be finished, I unlocked the lid and — BOOM!
The hot water, steam, and contents of the soup exploded in my face. I was completely soaked in steaming-hot soup. After dousing myself in cold water, the pain — an unbearable, seething, burning feeling — started to sink in. We immediately rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where I was told to sit and wait. Eventually, a nurse saw my face was beginning to blow up and peel off, and she rushed me back to the ICU.
There they gave me a dose of morphine for the pain, but then informed me that they weren’t equipped to handle my case and were transferring me an intensive care unit for burn victims. Almost instantly, I was in an ambulance, racing uptown. At this point, I was in complete and total shock. I could feel my face was swelling and could barely see. When we got to the ICU burn unit, a new group of doctors was there to meet me with another shot of morphine.
That’s when I almost died.
My heart stopped. Doctors would later explain to me that it happened because I was given two shots of morphine in less than an hour — a dangerous oversight due to miscommunication among the two facilities. I vividly remember my near-death experience: It was blissful, white, and glowing. There was a sensation of this grandiose spirit calling me. But I remember looking down at my body in the hospital bed, my boyfriend beside me, and my family around me, and knew I couldn’t leave yet. Then I woke up.
I was alive, thankfully, but still had to deal with the third-degree burns covering 11 percent of my body and face. I underwent skin graft surgery in which doctors took skin from my buttocks to cover burned areas on my body. Being in ICU for three weeks, painkillers were the only thing that got me through the physical suffering. It was torturous. Over the next few months at home, my burned body slowly healed. Nothing was easy, as I was still covered in bandages and the donor site from my skin graft was still raw. Even the simplest things, like sleeping or sitting, were difficult. Every position imaginable irritated a wound site.
Interestingly enough, I never took pain meds of any kind as a kid; my parents wouldn’t even give us Tylenol or Advil to reduce a fever. Taking them while I healed certainly helped, but they went down with a bittersweet taste. Each pill stopped the pain from being all-consuming but took “me” away with it. On the meds, I was jittery and paranoid, nervous and insecure. I had difficulty focusing and even breathing.
Then there was my face, a face I no longer recognized. I remembered the days when a mere pimple would be reason enough to hide in my apartment. There was no zit cream or concealer in this situation. My entire face was burned, and everybody knew it, especially me. It didn’t take long for my self-confidence to crumble, wilting like a dying flower on a hot and arid day. I couldn’t see the future ahead of me, no matter how many people told me that I was looking better every day. I longed to look and feel like I had before the burn, but that was only the reality in my dreams.
“I couldn’t see the future ahead of me, no matter how many people told me that I was looking better every day.”
Soon, I started having panic attacks — in the car, in the shower, in front of my apartment building, at every stop sign. My boyfriend insisted I go to his primary care physician, so I did, and he immediately put me on Paxil, a prescription medication for anxiety. After a few weeks, I stopped feeling anxious (and wasn’t having any panic attacks), but I also stopped feeling anything at all. At this point, it seemed like everyone in my life wanted me off the meds. My boyfriend described me as a “shell” of my former self and begged me to consider going off this pharmaceutical cocktail I had come to rely on. I promised him I would try.
The next morning, nestled in bed, I looked out of our high-rise bedroom window, and for the first time, thought to myself that it might be easier to just jump out into the sky and let it all be over. I walked to the window and pulled it open. Luckily, the rush of cold air and honking sounds startled me back to life. What was I just about to do? These drugs were turning me into such a zombie that suicide somehow seemed like an option.
I immediately walked to the bathroom, took the bottles of pills out of the medicine cabinet and threw them down the garbage chute. It was over. Later that day, I started researching all the side effects of both opioids (like Vicodin) and anti-anxiety meds (like Paxil). It turns out, all of the side effects I experienced — from difficulty breathing to lack of emotion and detachment of self — were common when on these types of medications.
I decided, at that moment, to turn away from synthetic medicine and turn to the exact thing I had been studying all along: alternative medicine. Before the pressure cooker exploded, I had just started school at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) school in New York City. Although I already had such a strong interest in traditional Chinese medicine, I hadn’t actually put it to use in my own life. This felt like the perfect opportunity.
Photo: c/o Simone Wan
With the help of my professors and other TCM professionals, I started meditating, focusing on loving myself (scars, pain, and all), going to acupuncture, trying color therapy (simply painting colors on canvas), and taking Chinese herbal formulas prescribed by my professor. I took corydalis, as well as ginger, turmeric, licorice root, and frankincense. My herbalist also gave me an assortment of herbs to help calm my anxiety, inlcuding rhoidola rosea, licorice root, and mimosa tree bark.
In being more mindful, I noticed how other things like my diet impacted my state of well-being. If I ate processed food, I would have shooting pains at the site of my deepest wounds, the skin grafts. I began monitoring my sleep and stress levels, too, because those also had a direct impact on my pain level. After a while, I didn’t need to take the herbs constantly. My pain levels decreased. My scars slowly healed. I began to appreciate my life again.
“The kaleidoscope of details in this world was once again available to me.”
On opioids, life spiraled by, days blended into nights, events became a blur. After the fog had lifted, I began appreciating the present, and because I wasn’t consumed with myself and my pain, the kaleidoscope of details in this world was once again available to me. Meditation taught me to breath into the power of now and accept the present. Acceptance brought with it compassion and love for myself, which allowed me to be loved by others.
I no longer judged myself or compared myself to an older version of me — or to others for that matter. Instead of seeking validations from others, I meditated on my deeper self. Surprisingly, I found it very gratifying. Don’t get me wrong, this all took a long time to accomplish, but it has been one of the best lessons in my life.
In 2004, I graduated from TCM school with a master’s degree in acupuncture and herbology, and I have been practicing alternative medicine for over a decade now. I’ve watched herbal medicine help my patients. Their experiences, coupled with my own personal struggles and research on the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs, made me realize that there should be an alternative available so that people don’t end up in the same position I was.
Unfortunately, you can’t just go and grab herbal medicine at the drugstore. So, I decided to start my own company, IN:TotalWellness, which makes herbal healing formulas accessible to anyone. While there’s no guarantee that everyone will experience the same results from Chinese medicine as I have, it gives me comfort to know that if they want to try it for themselves, they now have that option.
I often reflect on the day I almost took my life, and it still haunts me. I will forever be grateful to my alternative medicine team for helping me withdraw from prescription medications. Now, I look back at what happened on that day in 2001 as a blessing because it has given me the opportunity to help other people heal with natural medicine.