When I was 16 I became addicted to codeine. This addiction presented itself in me until I was 22. I worshipped it, and even writing about it now makes me yearn for the taste of that tablet and the wave of relaxation that would make its way down my body 15 minutes later. The ability to forget all my worries and just melt into a drug-induced emotional coma is what I am addicted to, even though I have not taken codeine in 2 years.
My addiction to opiates actually originated when I was having my knee replaced during my period of critical treatment in 2005 (age 9). I became addicted to pressing a button attached to a morphine pump. I still remember the feel of the button and the euphoric pain-free sensation that filled my body shortly after.
My mum alerted the nurses to my addiction when I asked her to keep pressing the button when I was asleep. I lived in fear of waking up in agony, and this escalated to my ‘need’ for the button to be pressed continually. There was a timer between doses to ensure there would be no overdosing. I pressed the button continually so that I did not have to wait one fraction of a second later that I necessary for another dose.
And so, the morphine pump was taken away and nothing more was really thought about this. With each further surgery came more painkillers, but only one packet or so to take home as the pain would ease after a week or to.
Then, when I was 16, I opted to have my right leg (with the knee replacement in) stretched over the period of six months. My legs were different lengths – 1 inch difference between them. This caused a painful, and very pronounced, limp and a need for a built-up shoe on one side. This was a huge problem for me in terms of self-confidence and I saw this procedure as an opportunity to improve. The thought that drove me to wanting my leg stretched was ultimately that I would disassociate further from being the ‘cancer girl’ in the next phase of life; university.
This procedure was an investment, and as with every investment, there is an element of risk. My body is exceptional at battling infections, I’m one of those people who ‘never gets ill’, I can count the number of colds I’ve had on one hand. My family always joke that when I do something I go big, and so when I was sick it had to be cancer – it couldn’t possibly be anything less dramatic. Needless to say, the overexposed risk of infection that came with the procedure I had (an illazrov frame) didn’t discourage me. I knew there would be pain and discomfort, but I already lived with that due to the uneven leg lengths. And, so I thought, what was the worst that could happen? I’d get through it and things would be better afterwards.
This long-term type of orthopaedic pain was not something I had experienced before. Strong painkillers were a necessity for an extended period of time and came in packs of 100. I was prescribed codeine for the pain when I had ‘the cage’ attached to my leg. And it was GREAT. I could sleep, I could eat, I felt ‘happier’.
And then… the cage was removed. The casts were removed, the splints, the wheelchair, and the crutches were all eventually removed through the space of twelve months.
But taking codeine stayed. It was my emotional crutch, even though I was still in pain. It’s hard to draw a line for taking painkillers recreationally when you live in chronic pain, and I’m not resentful to myself for taking codeine as a teenager. I used to be annoyed at myself for taking so much for so long, but now that I’m almost 2 years ‘clean of lean’ I am finding it easier to look back at myself with more kindness. It was what I had available to get me through.
I would visit my orthopaedic team or GP and receive a packet of 100 codeine tablets, enough to fuel my addiction. This didn’t have an end point. I eventually decided to stop taking codeine myself after I finished university and ‘ran out of excuses’. It was always something I would stop taking once the next hurdle of life was over. (It was surprisingly difficult to receive any help in stopping this. I repeatedly asked for help at the GP but there was never a system put in place or any form of support provided).
Perhaps a little perspective on my codeine taking might come in the form of numbers. I took codeine every day for around six years. Some days, I would only take one 30mg before bed, but at its peak I was taking perhaps ten a day, if I were going out in the evening at uni.
And so, I found myself ‘detoxing’ from codeine in 2018 for the first time in 6 years – over a quarter of my life at the time, with no support from medical professionals. I am grateful to have the support of people around me, but there was a month-long period of intense effects of quitting an opiate. I followed a ‘detoxing programme’ that I created myself based on documentaries about addiction. I took fewer tablets each week, rationing them out for myself and asking my boyfriend for help with this to keep my on track, until I was taking a very small amount.
And then the day came where I took the last tablet. That was it. No stashes in my underwear drawer or in an old handbag. It wasn’t available anymore, and I did indeed turn into a wreck like I had seen in movies. Uncontrollable crying outbursts, insomnia, pleading, waking up in cold sweats, shaking, and rock-bottom mental health ensued for the following months.
It was like every film you have ever seen of a heroin addict trying to quit – because this is essentially what it is; an opiate.
It took me a surprisingly long time to see that anything was better about not taking it. I couldn’t sleep, I was depressed, and I was in pain. But I knew that it was the right thing to do. The uncomfortable truth is that I still think about codeine every day. I long for it when I can’t sleep or if I’m having a particularly bad pain day. I even reacted to lockdown with the thought that it would be a great time to take codeine all day again with the absence of work and driving.
And so, painkiller addiction is one of the late side effects of my childhood cancer diagnosis and treatment. It only became an issue 10 years after my cancer diagnosis. It’s problems like this which are very linked to cancer treatment that crop up later in life, and make life-long aftercare for people in cancer remission essential.