The writer of this piece wishes to remain anonymous.
After the recent release of the movie Cake starring Jennifer Aniston there has been a great focus in the UK media on the growing numbers of people becoming addicted to prescription painkillers. I have found a lot of this coverage difficult to watch as a large portion of my adult life has been dominated by an addiction to painkillers. I have listened to the stories that have been so bravely shared by those who have experienced this terrible addiction, the empathy I have felt upon hearing each and every story has made me wish to share mine.
From my early teens my past is littered with tales of substance abuse and misuse, drink and drug problems all leading to various afflictions and addictions. I have a mental health condition that causes me acute emotional pain the majority of the time, and all the substances I abused were simply attempts to lessen that pain or at least distract myself from it for a while.
It is very difficult to describe to someone who has not suffered this kind of illness just how unbearable the pain is that can be caused by my emotions. It has led me to attempt to end my life on several occasions as I felt I could no longer live in such internal agony. So obviously whenever I found any kind of substance that lessened this pain a little I grabbed hold of it with both hands and used it fervently.
I am now three years into recovery from a breakdown and am learning to manage my mental health condition in safer ways. I have mostly dealt with all of my substance abuse issues and have managed to beat most of my addictions. However, there is one addiction that I feel I will probably always be actively fighting, and that is the dependency I developed on painkillers.
I remember clearly the first time I ever took prescription strength co-codamol, I was 21 years old and had sustained a shoulder injury. Just to be sure that the tablets definitely took the pain away I took four instead of the recommended dosage of two. I shall never forget that moment when a warm feeling began to develop in my heart and slowly spread outwards throughout my body until I felt I was wrapped in a warm blanket of blissful comfort. My brain was calmed and my thoughts were slowed, it was as if I felt comfortable in my skin for the first time in years. That was the moment my love affair with codeine began.
Due to my shoulder injury I was able to obtain a few more prescriptions from the doctor and spent my days and nights wrapped in the arms of Mistress Codeine. Unfortunately opiate tolerance builds up rather quickly and I found I was having to take more and more tablets to attain the feeling I was constantly chasing. Within 6 months I was taking 10 Co-Codamol at a time, three times a day giving absolutely no thought to the harm ingesting that amount of paracetomal could be doing to my liver. All that mattered to me was the way the tablets made me feel.
Eventually the prescriptions stopped as my shoulder healed and I had to find a new way to feed what had now become an addiction. I began buying over the counter painkillers, I would buy co-codamol and also an ibuprofen and codeine mixture, I would take six of each every time I dosed, figuring it would do less damage to my insides if I was having half paracetomal and half ibuprofen. I was spending on average £14 a day feeding the habit. Having money to buy painkillers became far more important to me than having money to buy food, or to buy household essentials, the only thing I put before purchasing painkillers was buying food to feed my dog.
I did scientific research into how to using techniques to extract pure codeine from these OTC products and did this several times with success, however it soon became a laborious process for me and I couldn’t wait for the extraction process to finish so I could take my codeine. So I decided to just risk taking the tablets as they were and began simply taking the ibuprofen and codeine tablets which I found I got more effect off than the paracetamol containing ones.
On a good day I would take 32 of these tablets, on a bad day I would take 64 and this behaviour continued for the next four years. I no longer got the warm lovely feeling I used to get from them. I simply needed to take them to feel normal. If I missed a few doses I would begin to sweat and shake, I became incredibly anxious, I would be violently sick and wanted to scream and crawl out of my own skin. I would wake up in the middle of the night and have to take the dose I had prepared on the bedside table, and first thing in the morning I took my tablets before doing anything else. I was also in the process of burning several holes in the lining of my stomach due to amount of ibuprofen I was ingesting.
My everyday life was now ruled by my addiction to painkillers. I drove all over Sheffield visiting different pharmacists so that I would not arouse suspicion about the amount of codeine containing products I was buying. I drew up a rota and marked where I had been each day so that I could work out when a safe amount of time had passed for me to go to that particular pharmacy again. Several pharmacists picked up on my behaviour and I was blacklisted by them. I enlisted several friends that I would convince to go into these chemists and buy tablets for me.
My behaviour then became even worse, I started stealing medication from my mother’s house, it did not occur to me that she was in genuine pain and needed those tablets. I was an addict and when you are an addict you can find any way to justify your behaviour. If I visited the houses of friends who had elderly parents or grandparents I would often rifle through the medicine cupboards in the hope of finding something worth stealing, older people tended to have pain medication and it fills me with shame to say that I have stolen tablets off pensioners who have been kind to me and allowed me into their homes.
I then discovered a much more dangerous painkiller which I found I could order in large quantities from China, it mimicked the effect of morphine upon the brain. I began ordering these tablets and congratulated myself that I had managed to kick my codeine addiction without giving any thought to the fact that I had replaced it with a much more dangerous opiate. The recommended dosage was eight a day, I was taking fifty and very often looked as if I was ‘on the nod’ people thought I was using heroin. In fact one nice well-meaning lady asked me in the park one morning if I had had a stroke because I slurred my words so much.
I was living in a half-life, I had no passion other than for ordering tablets and waiting for the postman to arrive, my mental health had begun to deteriorate massively but I was far too sedated to care. I lived for the painkillers, I knew I did not have the strength to taper down or stop cold turkey so it seemed to me that the only way out of this mess would be to end my life. Although I felt the strength of my feelings were killing me all those years ago, now I felt I was being killed by the sheer lack of any feelings at all – all I felt was a dreadful vacuous numbness that I was desperately trying to fill with pills.
It was at this point I then had a forced intervention, not by the people around me, but by driving my car into a tree at forty miles an hour. I had taken a large dose of painkillers that morning and a few tranquilisers and I can only assume I fell asleep at the wheel. My body was crushed in the impact, my ribcage shattered and all of my internal organs were speared onto the broken parts of my ribs. I was extremely lucky to emerge from the accident alive and even luckier that it did not involve another driver.
I had to spend a long time in hospital being treated for the damage I had done to myself physically, I did not tell them about my painkiller addiction as I was scared they would take me off the morphine that I so desperately needed to help with the agony I was in. I do think the morphine helped, it cleansed my body of the other impurities I had been putting into it for so many years and I felt in a safe environment as they began to lower the dose and see how my system reacted. For the first time in my life I felt some hope that I would have the strength to remain off painkillers for good once I got out of hospital.
When it became time to discuss discharging me from the safety of the hospital it felt as if my brain had cracked in half, I really did not think I was strong enough to deal with this addiction in the outside world and also to have to face all the people who knew what I had done. I became psychotic and tried to harm myself and was immediately sectioned. A psychiatric consultant took great interest in my case and for the first time I began talking about the troubles I had been facing alone. They were incredibly helpful and empathetic and introduced me to the idea of recovery. That was the moment my life changed, I found I had a purpose, that I was not alone and that there were people within Sheffield Health and Social Care who were willing to help me.
After leaving hospital I began seeing my Community Psychiatric Nurse regularly as well as a psychiatrist and we put procedures in place to keep me off the painkillers. I had to collect a codeine prescription four times a day from the pharmacist as I could not be trusted to have an entire prescription, I would have taken all the tablets at once. Eventually after six months of extremely hard work through tapering down in this way, I was able to declare myself opiate free.
Two and a half years later I still think like an addict, every morning when I wake up my first thought is that I can’t wait to take my first dose of codeine, the morning ones were always the best. Whenever something bad happens I want to go the chemist and buy a box of pills to lessen the pain I am feeling, in fact when something good happens I often want buy a box to treat myself. But I now have the skills in place to manage these urges and like any addict I take it one day at a time and am leading a richer life free from being ruled by a chemical dependency that had been slowly killing me.
I think one of the scariest things that enters my head when I think about this whole experience is that it altered my character so much. It changed me into a thief, a liar, a master manipulator and a person I myself would not want to have known. I can always remember justifying that this habit was not as bad as any of my others because it was legal, I was taking prescription drugs, not cocaine I had just ordered from my dealer.
I can now say with great certainty that I believe prescriptions drug to be far more dangerous than illegal ones as it gives one a way to justify it in our head by thinking ‘oh it’s okay Doctors are giving them out all the time so they can’t be that harmful, and you can just buy them at the chemist’.
Since being opiate free for years, the habit that I believed couldn’t really be that harmful has recently led to me nearly losing my life. The amount of Ibuprofen I had taken had continuously being burning holes in my stomach lining, one of these became an ulcer which perforated leaving a large bleeding hole in my stomach. This very quickly led to me developing septicaemia and I had to have emergency surgery to try and save my life. I was lucky. Many others haven’t been. I now on stomach medication for the rest of my life, and have a large scar down my abdomen to remind me of those pills I was taking that I thought could never possibly be that harmful.
I hope that if anyone is experiencing issues such as I have then my story may prompt you to seek help. It is available and I am living proof that recovery is possible. Speak to your GP if you have concerns or if you are under a Community Mental Health Team then speak to your care coordinator, they will be able to direct you to sources of help within SHSC who specialise in treating people with opiate addiction problems. Please seek help and avoid a story like mine which I have to live with every day.