The aching is intense and it is everywhere. It’s there in your legs, humming like a million angry volts. It’s in your back, too, a constant band of pain you can’t put out of your mind for even a few seconds.

It’s hard to say which is worse, the roaring ache in your bones or the endless fatigue that makes each limb feel as heavy as cast iron. Just the idea of walking from one room to another seems monumental. You might make it all the way to the kitchen for a cup of water, but you’ll have to sit down and rest before you make it back to your sick room to suffer in the dark.

Store-bought painkillers don’t help. All the herbs from the natural food store don’t help, either, although you prayed pretty hard that they would.

They say plain old Imodium will take the pain away for a spell, but it doesn’t. Not in a significant way, anyhow.

The depression is deep and it is relentless. In fact, can you even call this depression? It feels so much darker than any gloom you’ve suffered before. In these sweaty/cold hours, it seems as though memories of every bad thing you’ve ever done in your life — and every bad thing that’s been done to you — have lurched up out of the dank sub-basement of your mind to remind you of what a horrible creature you are. What a worthless pile of dung.

You can’t sleep for more than minutes at a time before the thrashing begins. Your hideously restless legs feel like they’re being remotely controlled by some off-planet demon who feeds on your agony.

You can’t eat, you brain is a hot fog and the thought of talking to anyone at all nearly cripples you with anxiety. You’re sweating, but you’re freezing, too. There’s a crawling sensation across your body that makes you want to climb out of your skin and burn it on the front lawn. You kick your legs and stomp your fists. You try to fling away that creeping, spine-deep itch, but like the aches and the weariness and the dysphoria, it’s not going anywhere. It’s got you in its jaws and it has no plans of spitting you out anytime soon.

You are dope sick, my friend, and who are you going to call to save you? Some stranger at the other end of a 1-800 help line? Or the dealer man, who’s right around the corner and who can heal you up with one small baggie of dirty medicine?

You know what the right thing is, sure. But the right thing is hard, and it will take you a week, 10 days, maybe a month to climb just half of that mountain. Can you withstand it that long? When the filthy love of the fix is right down the street?

Call me crazy, but I just can’t join the chorus of voices insisting that opiate addicts are weak, rudderless people who deserve the holes they have fallen into.

I wish they wouldn’t rob pharmacies. I wish they wouldn’t drive while nodding out and I wish they wouldn’t overdose every other day while their kids are watching TV in the next room. But mostly I wish there really were some miracle cure at the herb store so these people wouldn’t get punished so viciously for underestimating the sly seductions of opium.

I’ve been talking to a whole lot of addicts lately — and really, who these days doesn’t know at least a handful? — and while their stories are wildly varied, they are also very much the same.

This dude was prescribed oxycodone after a car wreck. He got hooked, the prescription ran out, and then, dope sick out of his mind, he realized how much cheaper and easier it was to buy heroin from a guy in the park.

This young lady got turned onto snorting Vicodin by a boyfriend and she swore she’d never go further than that. But she loved the cottony comfort of the poppy and the easy allure of stronger stuff enticed her. She snorted heroin, sure. But she vowed at once that she’d never inject the stuff into her veins and she didn’t — until she did.

And once she swallowed that hook all the way, her every hour was dedicated to staving off the sickness rather than feeling good or having fun. Life doesn’t stop so that the addict can heal.

“When it comes down to the withdrawal and you have to either take care of your kid or go to work,” the 27-year-old says, “you end up picking up again and again and again. It’s a slippery slope that most people will never be able to come back from.”

Even those who do manage to navigate the long dizzying labyrinth of “recovery services” might find themselves swapping one addiction for another. Some are given methadone to get off heroin and, what do you know? Trying to get off methadone, they discovered, to their immense horror, is as hard if not harder than getting off the stronger stuff.

So, they might try suboxone as a Hail Mary and, will you look at that? If methadone withdrawal was hell, suboxone sickness is hell’s long-term punishment wing. For many it felt like a cruel trick. Pharmaceutical companies got rich offering cures that proved to be as bad as the disease.

And as they ache and thrash and agonize in bleak desperation, they hear things like, “Geesh, what’s the problem? I’ve heard that opiate withdrawal is like having a bad cold for a few days.”

They are told they need to get help. But what IS help? Is there a magical place downtown where you can knock on a door, admit to your shortcomings, and be ushered into a bed to begin the arduous journey to the other side of the nightmare?

If only it were so simple. This is an age in which you might wait two months just to see a dentist for a cleaning. With every other person and that person’s brother, sister and uncle succumbing to the sweet song of the poppy these days, your chances of finding some place to go today, tomorrow or the next day are slim, and if you don’t have insurance, well … there’s always Imodium, Bub, and maybe a nice Epsom bath.

So you can sort of understand why legions of addicts ultimately find it easier to cross the street, walk two blocks and a climb a long flight of grimy stairs to see the man with the fix that’s guaranteed, however temporary. Maybe tomorrow, they reason, somebody will unveil a Dr. Seuss-style contraption that sucks you in, sick and broken on one end, and spits you out clean and whole on the other.

But until that miracle machine is delivered, maybe you go out and try to rob a pharmacy to get your medicine, and then you can do your detoxing Abu Ghraib-style in a cold jail cell. Or you buy a batch of fentanyl-soaked junk from a guy on Bartlett Street and you never come back at all.

One way or another there will be suffering. Because once you travel down the road to the harsh land of opiate abuse, there is absolutely no easy way to get back again. The piper will be paid and his demands are fierce.

Narcotics Anonymous: 1-800-974-0062.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. Email him at [email protected]