I was at a not-for-profit networking function a few weeks ago to see what other people were up to and to see if I could steal any great ideas for Project UNITED. I met a man who was part of a project for getting young adults off painkillers. As usual, rather than gently engaging in conversation, I started hammering him with questions. Unusually, this gentleman didn’t find an excuse to leave, he stayed and answered everything I asked. After I had heard some of his answers, I told him about Project UNITED and asked if I could write about his experience. He was happy to oblige, though as his family and employer weren’t across the whole story, he asked to remain nameless for now. This was what he shared.
We might have a problem…
I actually ended up in front of a psychologist, three in fact, because after trying to clean myself up for two years, I had run out of plans. I played team sports, was pretty social, kept myself occupied when I was at home, and had a really good job with a finance company. I had a long term partner, and everything on paper looked fine, or at least satisfactory. But for some reason I would find myself at a pharmacy or in front of a GP every week or so asking for a box of whatever because of some fake pain I pretended to have. In hindsight what was most alarming was that it had reached the point where I was asking for specific painkillers from my GP and they would just write the script. Occasionally they would raise the issue of how quickly I was using them but I’d lie about losing them or my partner taking them, and I’d leave the GP’s office with another script.
Occasionally my girlfriend would see me downing a handful of pills and ask me why I was taking so many. I’d tell her it was because I’d hurt my knee or hip or ankle at touch footy. It was believable because I was always coming home with skin missing or an injury of some degree, but they never required half a box of codeine based painkillers at a time. Now that she’d seen me do it a couple of times, I started to do it more subtly – in the car or shower or whatever.
How it started
The first question that most people ask is how it started. For me it was innocuous – I had a legitimate injury a few years ago and someone recommended I take some Nurofen Plus. I took a pile of them and the pain went away. Next time I hurt myself, same again. That evolved into taking them whenever I was stressed or irritated and then almost as a reward in certain circumstances. Then I learnt about the likes Panadein Forte and Tramadol and it escalated from there. The best analogy I can think of is to compare it to the social use of alcohol. A lot of people will have a drink or two a few nights each week, and then maybe a bigger session on the weekend or if they go out. It was the same for me, but because it didn’t effect my driving or cognitive function too much, I could take them through the day.
The tipping point came one night when I’d realised I’d taken a whole packet of 40 in the space of about 8 hours (I think the daily maximum is about six). I had done it before but this was the first time when I thought about potentially not waking up. I called the drug info helpline or whatever it was called, and spoke to a lady who freaked out and told me I should go to the hospital. She thought I might die. In hindsight I thought this was quite funny but could imagine how awful a role it must be to be on the other end of those phone calls. I didn’t go to the hospital. I sat up until about 2.00am to make sure I was going to be okay, and then went to bed. The next morning I made a joke to my girlfriend that I had woken up – bonus. She didn’t completely know what I meant, or at least I don’t think she did.
I had clean runs of months – two or three months at a time but inevitably something would reel me back in – maybe a really crappy week at work, or perhaps I felt like celebrating, or maybe I had genuinely injured myself. But somehow at some point I would end up sneaking around my house with a handful of pills.
The feeling of being an “addict” really only hit me when I drove around my area trying to find a pharmacy that would sell me what I wanted. Earlier in the year, the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) implemented a system which records the supply of over-the-counter codeine medication across NSW and QLD, so basically every pharmacy knew when I last bought something. Because of this I was refused a purchase at about five different pharmacies before someone told me why. It was humiliating.
At one point when a pharmacist warned me of the potential for a dependency on certain painkillers, I actually challenged him and said, “So what? What if I am someone who takes these recreationally? What are you going to do for me? What happens now?” He just said that he’d recommend me to go see my GP. I understood his duty of care and limited capabilities, but if I was to see my doctor, I’d end up asking for a prescription for something stronger.
I read about an NRL player (Jaral Yow Yeh – Brisbane Broncos) and a musician (Matthew Colwell – 360) who both came out and told their stories about getting caught up in something similar. It was pleasing to know it was bigger than me, but didn’t necessarily help.
The night I called the drug info line, I spent about four hours after that phone call Googling the side effects of overdosing on codeine, ibuprofen, and paracetamol. One of the side effects was the potential for rupturing a kidney. At that stage I had some soreness in one of my glutes which I thought was a result of some running drills, but having read that, I was convinced I had blown a kidney. I saw my third GP in a week (couldn’t go back to the same ones that I was getting prescriptions from) and told him the whole story. He told me that my kidneys were probably fine, but that if I keep it up, they wouldn’t be. He put me in contact with a lady who specialised in managing addictions. The first thing she told me was that the majority of her patients were all like me – youngish, professional, independent, educated, but somehow found themselves with a painkiller habit. The idea of the typical “junkie” was less likely to be needle-and-illicit-drug based, and more likely prescription based. For some reason, this made me feel a little better.
The first week or so after a binge is pretty bad. According to some of the doctors I have spoken to, heroin addicts who try to detox cold turkey can actually die from withdrawals. Their bodies just go into shutdown. The painkiller comedown isn’t that bad, but it is pretty awful. For a start, your body goes a bit haywire – you can’t sleep, but if you do fall asleep, you feel like you could sleep for days. You seem to be peeing all day, and every minor bodily issue you have will play up – everything feels sore. There’s a dull headache that never leaves, and your self-control goes out the window particularly for bad foods. Your motivation goes, you have no energy or drive, and everything feels like an effort. It’s really bloody unpleasant.
And of course, in those situations, what would make it better? More pills.
In the back of my mind, I wonder if I may have some other issues – anxiety issues or something like that. I have been reluctant to talk about that sort of thing because everyone I know seems to be on antidepressants and I didn’t want to be another one. But now I have started to come to terms with what I am doing and I acknowledge that it is probably worse, so I suppose it is a case of choosing the lessor of two evils. But equally, it is hard to know if the painkiller thing has exacerbated the issues or not. You’d have to assume they have.
I have basically come to the conclusion that, worst case scenario, anti-depressants are probably better than taking too many painkillers, so my first objective is to get away from pain killers completely and if I still have issues with anxiety or whatever, than I will deal with that at that point. In all likelihood, a lot of the issues with managing stress and tension are probably connected to the painkiller reliance so hopefully once that is addressed, I can manage those other issues more productively. At this point it is hard to make too many decisions until I can clearly determine whether it is out of my system or not. I don’t want to run from one thing straight into another. I am just getting used to talking about it and making sure I keep checking in with my GP to stay on course. So far so good.
For the record, the gentleman who told me this story was wearing a pair of dress pants, a business shirt and tie, a standard pair of glasses, had a neat haircut, and looked in good physical condition. His body language was confident, welcoming, and quite positive. In other words, he looked really normal. He still works in finance as an executive with the firm he is at, and if I had to guess his age, I’d say he was in his early 30’s. I did ask him at the end why he told me that story and so thoroughly – I hammered him with questions and he didn’t resist. He said that he didn’t want to, but that he had tried for three years to break the cycle and tried to keep it to himself and sort it out, but kept failing. So he decided he would do everything differently this time to try to clean himself up, including telling that story to anyone who asked. I could tell he was embarrassed, or perhaps felt guilty, or at very least, uneasy, but he never avoided my questions. He spoke with frustration mainly, that the story was even being told, and being told by him about him. I suspect I wasn’t the first person he had spoken to, but each time he told that story, the reality of it hit him a little harder.
I must admit that I didn’t know how to leave that situation so I meekly asked him if there was anything I could do. Without missing a beat he asked me if I had an Aspirin. I suspected that this probably surmised the sort of person he was – a regular dude with a sense of humour and pretty good life who found himself in a shitty situation. He wasn’t blaming anyone or feeling any self-pity, just frustrated that it was him, and working on getting himself right. I don’t know how many people find themselves in this situation but I hope they have an exit strategy too.
Good luck ol’ mate. I hope you get out.