I was going to the methadone clinic weekly when the pandemic began. That was the maximum at the place I was transferred to just before Christmas 2019, after my clinic of 10 years closed. Many people have to attend clinics daily. But for a decade, I had been going only every two weeks, so weekly was hard for me.
The new clinic was 45 minutes away from my house in Michigan and 20 minutes from my office—and at the time, of course, I was working in the office. Now, instead of possibly being late to work every other Wednesday, it was once a week. The clinic opened early, but each Wednesday I had to get my son to school, get ready for work, and go to the clinic before work.
The possibility of something unexpected happening that could turn my world upside-down (and has done) makes me dread going to the clinic and lose sleep the night before. When you depend on a medication that is so highly regulated, you’re always worried. Like a scuba diver with only so many hours of oxygen, your life is doled out to you in how many days’ worth of methadone you’re allowed to take home.
I should acknowledge that the focus of the clinic, the staff, policymakers, the media, everyone, is on people in immediate crisis—people who are living week-to-week, or even day-to-day, who are at acute risk of overdose or experiencing severe withdrawal, and just trying to get well and into the clinic and stable on their dose, and stay alive. And rightly so.
But every day isn’t a crisis for me. I have a family, a job, hobbies and friends. A life that would all come to a screeching halt without this medication.
The week before, things had been normal. This time, when I arrived, there was a long line outside, with security guards telling people to stay 6 feet apart.
So there I was, living my life in weekly increments, when the pandemic began. I paid attention to the news probably a little more than most people. Because besides stocking up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, I had to worry about the clinic closing, or running out of methadone or the nurses to dispense it, on top of a deadly virus.
In March 2020, the governor had ordered schools closed, and my boss told me to bring my laptop home. So I could have been safely navigating home schooling and zoom meetings—except that I still had to go to the clinic.
The week before, things had been normal. This time, when I arrived, there was a long line outside, with security guards telling people to stay 6 feet apart (but not really, because then the line would be two blocks long). No one was listening because they were all huddled together trying to figure out what would happen next.
A rumor was going around that the government would declare martial law and no one would be allowed to leave their house, like in Wuhan. We weren’t worried about starving to death or dying of boredom. We were worried about going into withdrawal.
“Even if that happens, we’ll still be allowed to leave the house for food and medical necessities,” I tried to reassure the girl in front of me, who was quietly sobbing. “Grocery stores, hospitals, banks and doctors offices will remain open. People who work there are considered essential workers. This is already happening in Italy and Iran and New York City.”
And a little louder, “The clinic will stay open. Maybe they will give everyone take-homes. Like when there’s a blizzard.”
Back then, I thought we were just taking a two-week pause, to flatten the curve. I started to get excited at the prospect of two whole weeks, cozy and safe at home, with my family and everything I needed.
“You sound like you know a lot. You should start a YouTube channel,” a guy behind me said. It felt good. I hoped I’d helped calm some nerves. I hoped I was right about the take-homes.
When I walked out that door with 27 bottles, I felt high.
Never in a million years did I imagine they would give us an entire month’s worth of bottles.
I always feel a rush when I leave the clinic with my take-homes—an incredible sense of relief at having made it out the door without any unexpected surprises. But when I walked out that door with 27 bottles, I felt high. An entire month of life! Too bad the whole world was shutting down; we could have gone on vacation!
And it happened again the next month. And the next. I started to dread the day it would end, and everything would go back to normal. I loved working from home with my partner. I loved sleeping in. I loved sleeping, period, on Tuesday nights, without the usual clinic-day-dread keeping me awake and anxious.
Even though the world was in crisis, having such minimal interaction with the clinic made me feel the most normal I’ve ever felt—like a real person, when being on methadone typically makes me feel less than everyone else.
But once a month, I did have to go, and the clinic felt like the most risky place to be.
No one had masks yet—those were only for medical workers—but I sewed my own, and wore clear safety goggles, plastic gloves and a head scarf. My partner is German, and we took the virus seriously: working and working out at home, ordering groceries online, spraying down packages from Amazon. If anyone in our family got sick, it would be my fault, because I was the only one going anywhere, risking being exposed and bringing the virus home.
I started going to the clinic at 5:30 am to avoid the crowds. But everyone had the same idea and it was taking hours to get my bottles. As it turned out, everyone had gotten take-homes that first day, and although most only got two weeks’ worth, they were all returning on the same day as me.
It was my bad luck, nothing more, that caused me to lose my monthlies.
I asked to switch my day, returning after eight days, and that was the last time I received 27 bottles. By then, it was July 2020, and the clinic thought things were going back to normal. No more monthly take-homes for me; from that point on, I was given two weeks’ worth, instead.
But Michigan’s cases shot up immediately after, and the clinic subsequently reversed that change. So anyone else who picked up later still got monthlies.
It was my bad luck, nothing more, that caused me to lose them. For over a year-and-a-half, any time I brought it up, I was told how lucky I was to be getting bi-weekly—that they were ending special COVID take-homes any day now, that new patients didn’t get any, and that I should just be grateful with what I got because the clinic had to fill out paperwork for the state every month for everyone still getting COVID take-homes.
But that didn’t make sense. Even without the special exceptions for the pandemic, The federal government allows for monthly take-homes, and I fit the guidelines. The state of Michigan had a stricter limit of two weeks, but that’s all I got. So why did they always act like I was on borrowed time, and warn me not to make waves? I wasn’t even getting special COVID take-homes according to the state—only that clinic system.
I soon had more reason to worry. The world had opened back up and I wanted to go on vacation before they yanked away another half of my bottles, requiring me to request special take-homes so I could travel. Like someone on probation.
For most of the early pandemic, the clinic wasn’t conducting urine drug screens, but at some point they started back up. I’ve never “dropped dirty” in my life, so I didn’t pay much attention to it. But at one point it crossed my mind that I should have tried smoking weed when I was going monthly. I’d never been into it and hadn’t done it since college, but I wondered if it would help with my anxiety and depression—maybe even to get me off methadone altogether.
I didn’t do it. They say weed lasts in your system for a month, and I was back to going every other week. I am not a risk-taker when it comes to my take-homes. But one thing I had gotten lax about was poppyseeds.
Two weeks before the trip, I saw the doctor for a 90-day review. He said I had tested positive for opiates.
We had been only shopping at Aldi the entire pandemic, and they only had two kinds of bagels: boring Plain and Everything. I prefer sesame, because eating poppy seeds can cause you to test positive for opiates, since opium is derived from poppyseeds. But the Aldi Everything bagels didn’t have many poppyseeds at all, and I would toast two and give my son both tops and eat the two bottoms—usually going as far as rubbing off the few poppyseeds I could see, and not eating bagels at all for a few days before going to the clinic.
But then, on May 25, my grandma died and I got distracted. I must have mixed up a top and a bottom, or my son wasn’t hungry and I ate the whole thing, or I ate one too close to a Wednesday. Maybe there was nothing else for breakfast because I hadn’t gone shopping the week of the funeral.
We planned a family vacation to Disney World for late August. Two weeks before the trip, I saw the doctor for a 90-day review. He said I had tested positive for opiates on June 9, two months prior.
No one had noticed until then because I didn’t have a counselor. I’d been assigned at least seven or eight counselors since mine quit the first week of the pandemic, but most didn’t last long enough for even one remote session. It didn’t matter to me; I found it a real drag trying to tell my story to these young girls fresh out of college who were only working at the clinic until they could get a job seeing patients who actually want counseling, and aren’t being forced to go. And my life was fine. I didn’t need anyone to talk to.
So I had no one to talk to when it suddenly went to shit.
We had plans. The trip was booked. Flights, hotel rooms, park reservations. My family and I were looking forward to Disney World so much, and now I might not be able to go.
They didn’t take my bottles away that day. They asked if I wanted to pay $30 to have the lab do confirmation testing. Yes! Of course!
They kept asking if I was ok paying $30. Like, are you serious? $30 is nothing compared to how much money we just spent booking this trip, or to what I would have to spend on gas driving to the clinic every day if I lost my take-homes.
“I’m not dragging my family to a methadone clinic every morning before the park opens. Plus, there is absolutely no way I’m getting on a plane without my methadone.”
No one could tell me much about timing. Perhaps the confirmation testing would take longer than two weeks and I wouldn’t lose my take-homes until the results were in. That was a hard pass. I couldn’t handle the anxiety for two days; how was I going to enjoy my vacation, not knowing if disaster would strike when I got back?
I kept calling and crying and begging. The head counselor spent hours on the phone with me, trying to calm me down. I couldn’t work, thought I was still working from home and managed to hide it. I wasn’t eating or sleeping. I was consumed with fear, with guilt over letting my child down, with the disappointment of missing out on this trip, and with the looming threat of having to get up and drive 45 minutes each way to the dreaded clinic every morning. What if there was an emergency and I couldn’t make it? Car accidents, illnesses—COVID, for fuck’s sake!—anything could go wrong.
The counselor said she believed me. But she told me if it was poppy seeds, the test would still come back positive. She added that I would have to eat a whole bag of them to test positive. This isn’t true. The internet is full of stories—and studies—of people testing positive after eating a single bagel or muffin. It happens all the time.
If that happened, the counselor said, I could guest-dose during my trip. I not-so-politely declined. “Are you kidding? That’s not a vacation. I’m not dragging my family to a methadone clinic every morning before the park opens. We aren’t even renting a car. And the clinic is probably really far away. Plus, there is absolutely no way I’m getting on a plane without my methadone.”
This was during the Delta surge. People in the Disney groups on Facebook were posting about canceled flights to and from Orlando and nights spent on the airport floors.
Somehow, it all worked out. The counselor called me a few days before our flight and said the test came back negative. I looked it up online and discovered that 5-10 percent of urine drug screens result in a false positive. At twice a month for over 12 years, it was bound to happen to me.
The trip was really nice. Except that my partner and I got in blow-out fights about how my drug use almost ruined the trip, how I’m exposing the family to COVID by going to the clinic, and how I’m choosing drugs over my family.
You can buy and own a gun with less oversight.
After years of tapering my dose down to a “low” 20mgs a day,and not even thinking about methadone in between, with the exception of my bi-weekly clinic anxiety, to go back to always having it on my mind had been devastating.
I think there are more people like me out there than everyone realizes. And, if methadone wasn’t so highly regulated, there would be way more. Instead, people are limping along, in and out of the clinic, or on and off Suboxone, because they don’t want to live like this, and they need methadone and it’s so hard and it shouldn’t be this freaking hard.
You can buy and own a gun with less oversight. You can commit a serious crime, go to prison, get out, finish probation or parole and be free. But I’ll need to take bi-monthly drug tests and go to the clinic every other Wednesday, and talk to a counselor every other Tuesday, and see a doctor every 90 days, and pay $570 a month for medication I should be able to get at the pharmacy for $30 a time. For the rest of my life. Or for as long as I want to enjoy living it.
Photograph by Politikaner via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0