Most people don’t think of painkillers as a health hazard, but my addiction to them left me almost fighting for my life.
In March 2021, I ended up in hospital after my reliance on codeine spiralled out of control. Ironically, the medication that was supposed to make me feel better left me desperately ill.
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease – a chronic condition in which the lining of the digestive system becomes inflamed and often ulcerated – as an 18-year-old student in 2011. Sometimes the pain was so intense that I couldn’t even get out of bed, let alone go to lectures. And for the next five years, I barely went into remission.
Somehow, I struggled on with the practically constant pain, but that all changed in 2016 when I was admitted to the hospital with a particularly nasty flare-up.
While on the ward, a nurse there gave me codeine, an opioid licensed for the short-term use for acute pain – and from that moment on, I was hooked.
Codeine made me feel as if I was wrapped in cotton wool. The pain evaporated within 15 minutes, and I felt so calm and in control.
Somehow, I persuaded the same nurse to give me a repeat prescription of 30mg a day: a relatively low dose for treating pain, but it was enough to take the edge off.
And that was the beginning of my secret addiction to painkillers, a covert craving that lasted for five years.
I felt terrible about myself, but my need for the pills overshadowed everything else
Soon, I wasn’t just taking codeine for Crohn’s pain; I’d use it to dull the stress of a difficult day or to dull the effects of an argument. And although I hated to admit it to myself, within six months, I knew I was addicted.
Without realising it, codeine made me crave alcohol and cigarettes – I guess it’s because the drug relaxed me so much, and put me in a kind of party mood. I drank and smoked to excess, which I knew was terrible for my Crohn’s, but I had no self-control.
Soon I was mixing it with diazepam, a strong muscle-relaxant that I also managed to get on prescription after I told my doctor about the constant and agonising pain.
When that ran out after eight months, there was still the codeine, which was prescribed to me every month.
With the pills, I felt almost nothing. I was living in a painless parallel universe where nothing mattered, and I didn’t have a thing to worry about. Codeine simply cancelled out my physical and emotional anguish.
And amazingly, I kept getting my monthly prescription, as the minute I told a doctor or a chemist that I had a chronic condition, the questions stopped. In a way, this makes me angry, as not enough were asked.
What I didn’t know at the time was that addiction to opiates can cause apathy, impaired judgement, and mood swings.
My over-reliance on codeine was, without me even realising it, causing my life to spiral.
I didn’t care about planning for the future, and I lived for the day, and was permanently overdrawn. I neglected my friendships, and I couldn’t be bothered to eat properly or to exercise either.
Worse still, I was in such a haze from the painkillers that I was out of sync with my body, and I couldn’t tell how bad my flare-ups were.
By the time the pandemic hit, my life was a mess. I spent lockdown living with my mum, who has stage four cancer. I’m ashamed to admit that sometimes when the drugs didn’t do the trick, I’d even pinch the painkillers she’d been prescribed. Of course, I felt terrible about myself, but my need for the pills overshadowed everything else.
It was a secret that I kept to myself, as I was too ashamed to confide in anyone else.
What I didn’t realise was that excessive codeine consumption is terrible for Crohn’s disease as it can cause severe constipation and bowel blockages, which is exactly what happened to me.
By the time I was admitted to the hospital in March 2021, I was in excruciating agony and had to be sedated.
It was only then that a doctor read my notes, and realised how much codeine I’d been taking.
I’d like to see the NHS creating more holistic resources for those living with chronic pain
He told me I could never have another prescription and was in urgent need of psychiatric support for addiction.
It was a brutal reality check, but the wake-up call I desperately needed.
After two weeks in hospital, grateful to be still alive, I vowed to get my life back on track.
I found a life coach and a counsellor to help me confront my emotional issues. And I trialled natural ways of managing my pain, such as frequent hot baths and using an oversized hot water bottle, which have been amazingly effective. In fact, I feel like a new person.
Sometimes I’m in real agony, but no matter how hard things get, I won’t let myself go back to my old ways.
Since coming off the drugs, my life has gone from strength to strength.
I now live with my boyfriend, and I’ve set up a successful social media and marketing strategy consultancy for small businesses called Jessica Bruno, Social Media Coach. After only seven months, business is booming.
I’m also being very proactive about my Crohn’s, and for the first time in my life, I’m really looking after myself and I’m trialling new medication with my doctor’s blessing.
But it still troubles me how easy it was for me to be prescribed such potentially harmful drugs. I needed the codeine, I was in pain and the original prescription was completely necessary, but it was far too easy for me to keep using – something I will always be ashamed of.
And it seems like I’m not alone: a Public Health England report in 2020 revealed that a staggering 13% of the adult population of England was being prescribed opioid pain medication.
Earlier this year, the National Institute for Care and Excellence updated its guidelines on the treatment of chronic pain, advising that GPs shouldn’t prescribe opioids to patients because they can be ‘harmful’ and cause addiction.
Yet this is only a recommendation, and I can’t help wondering how many other people are still putting their lives in danger with long-term use of prescription painkillers.
Pain is very difficult to live with and codeine can be a life-saving drug, but it can also be abused. I’d like to see the NHS creating more holistic resources for those living with chronic pain.
There need to be far more checks on people like me, who might also benefit from painkillers, but are also tempted to abuse them. So, if you think you have a problem, I’d urge you to come clean and talk to your GP.
I can honestly say that I’d rather be in pain 70% of the time but fully present and in control of my life than living in a hazy bubble of addiction.
As told to Lucy Benyon.
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