Most people don’t view pain relievers as a health hazard, but my addiction to them almost made me fight for my life.
In March 2021, I ended up in hospital after my codeine addiction got out of hand. Ironically, the medication that was supposed to make me feel better made 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 – at the age of 18. student in 2011. Sometimes the pain was so bad I couldn’t even get out of bed, let alone go to class. And for the next five years, I barely went into remission.
Somehow I struggled with the almost constant pain, but that all changed in 2016 when I was admitted to the hospital with a particularly nasty flare.
While on the ward, a nurse gave me codeine, an opioid licensed for short-term use in acute pain – and from then on I was addicted.
The codeine made me feel like I was wrapped in cotton. The pain evaporated in 15 minutes, and I felt so calm and in control.
Somehow I persuaded the same nurse to give me a new prescription for 30 mg per day: a relatively low dose to treat the pain, but it was enough to give me relief.
And that was the start of my secret painkiller addiction, a secret craving that lasted for five years.
I felt bad about myself, but my need for pills overshadowed everything else
Soon I wasn’t just taking codeine for Crohn’s pain; I would use it to ease the stress of a tough day or to ease the effects of an argument. And even though I hated to admit it to myself, after six months, I knew I was addicted.
Without realizing it, codeine made me crave alcohol and cigarettes – I guess that’s because the drugs 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 disease, but I had no control over myself.
Soon I was mixing it with diazepam, a powerful muscle relaxer that I also managed to get on prescription after telling my doctor about the constant and excruciating pain.
When it ran out after eight months, there was still codeine, which was prescribed to me every month.
With the pills, I hardly felt anything. I lived in a painless parallel universe where nothing mattered, and I had no reason to worry. The codeine simply canceled out my physical and emotional angst.
And surprisingly, I kept getting my monthly prescription because the minute I told a doctor or pharmacist that I had a chronic illness, the questions stopped. In a way, that makes me angry, because not enough has been asked.
What I didn’t know at the time was that opioid addiction can cause listlessness, poor judgment, and mood swings.
My excessive addiction to codeine, without even realizing it, caused a spiral in my life.
I didn’t care to plan for the future, and I lived for the day, and was constantly in the open. I neglected my friendships, and I also didn’t care about eating right or exercising.
Worse, I was in such a fog from the pain relievers that I was out of sync with my body, and I couldn’t tell how severe my relapses were.
By the time the pandemic hit, my life was a mess. I spent confinement living with my mother, who has stage four cancer. I’m ashamed to admit that sometimes when the meds weren’t doing the trick, I even pinched the pain relievers she was prescribed. Sure, I felt bad about myself, but my need for pills overshadowed everything else.
It was a secret that I kept to myself because I was too ashamed to confide in anyone else.
What I didn’t know was that consuming too much codeine is terrible for Crohn’s disease because it can cause severe constipation and intestinal 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 wasn’t until then that a doctor read my notes and realized how much codeine I had taken.
I would love to see the NHS create more holistic resources for people with chronic pain
He told me that I could never get another prescription and that I was in dire need of psychiatric addiction support.
It was a brutal reality check, but the awakening I desperately needed.
After two weeks in the hospital, grateful that I was still alive, I vowed to take charge of my life.
I found a life coach and a counselor to help me deal with my emotional issues. And I tested natural ways to manage my pain, like frequent hot baths and using an oversized hot water bottle, which were incredibly effective. I actually feel like a new person.
Sometimes I’m really in agony, but no matter how difficult things get, I won’t let myself go back to my old ways.
Since I quit drugs, my life has only gotten better.
I now live with my boyfriend and set up a small business marketing and social media consulting firm called Jessica Bruno, Social Media Coach. After just seven months, business is booming.
I am also very proactive about my Crohn’s disease, and for the first time in my life, I really take care of myself and try new drugs with the blessing of my doctor.
But it still troubles me how easy it was to get prescribed potentially dangerous drugs. I needed codeine, was in pain, and the initial prescription was completely needed, but it was far too easy for me to keep using it – something I’ll always be ashamed of.
And it looks like I’m not alone: A report from Public Health England in 2020 found that 13% of England’s adult population were prescribed opioid pain relievers.
Earlier this year, the National Institute for Care and Excellence updated its guidelines for treating chronic pain, advising general practitioners not to prescribe opioids to patients as they can be “harmful” and addictive. .
Still, this is only a recommendation, and I can’t help but wonder how many other people are still putting their lives at risk with long-term use of prescription pain relievers.
The pain is very difficult to live with, and codeine can be a life-saving medicine, but it can also be abused. I would love to see the NHS create more holistic resources for people with chronic pain.
There must be a lot more control over people like me, who might also benefit from pain relievers, but who are tempted to abuse them as well. So if you think you have a problem I urge you to say it frankly and talk to your GP.
I can honestly say that I would rather suffer 70% of the time, but fully present and in control of my life, rather than living in a hazy bubble of addiction.
As told to Lucy Benyon.
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