atie was just 16 when she was first prescribed strong painkillers. It wasn’t long before her addiction spiralled out of control.
One night last year, I lay in bed next to my boyfriend, waiting for him to fall asleep. Once he had dropped off, I leaned over and grabbed my bag from his side of the bed, and started frantically searching through empty pill boxes for a fresh pack of the strong painkiller co-codamol.
The noise woke him up and he just looked at me. “You took some before bed. Why do you need more?” he asked.
“I’m in pain. Go back to sleep.” I turned away, still rifling through the bag.
“Katie, I’m scared that one day, you’ll take so many tablets that you won’t wake up again.”
His words hit me like a smack in the face.
It all started when I was 16 and was rushed to hospital with what the doctors thought was appendicitis. I was at home watching Coronation Street, when, out of nowhere, I felt a stab of intense pain in my right side, like I’d been kicked in the stomach.
I was taken into surgery to remove my appendix but it turned out the mysterious pain wasn’t appendicitis after all. Doctors then put it down to a burst cyst on my ovary, which they removed in surgery. I came around in a hospital bed feeling groggy, with my worried dad sat beside me.
The next day, I hobbled out of hospital, clutching a prescription for co-codamol which I had been told would ease my pain.
Nine years later, my life would revolve around those tablets.
The NHS says that it’s possible to become addicted to the codeine in co-codamol but it’s rare if you’re taking the painkiller under medical supervision. It comes in three strengths, with the strongest (the type I had), only available on prescription.
After the operation, I felt relieved. I’d had the cyst removed, surely the pain would fade away in a matter of days with the painkillers, I thought. But it didn’t – if anything, it got worse.
My parents aren’t together, so it was just me and my dad at home. After a few days of me being in agony, he drove me back to hospital. I was prescribed more co-codamol and told to keep an eye on the pain.
Doctors over-prescribing strong painkillers is contributing to a “mounting health and social crisis” in countries like the US and Canada, with England and Wales also impacted, according to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The UK now has the world’s third fastest-growing rate of opioid use, the research also said. Last year, a BBC investigation found that GPs in England prescribed almost 24 million opioids in 2017 – a rise of 10 million prescriptions from 2007, leading a drugs counsellor and former user to claim that the NHS was “creating drug addicts”.
The numbers of overdoses and deaths are also soaring, according to research by The Sunday Times. An investigation suggested that five people a day in England and Wales, with opioid deaths up by 41% in a decade to 2,000 a year. Although the majority of those deaths are linked to the illegal drug heroin rather than prescription medication, the OECD report does say that an increase in prescription and over-prescription of opioids for pain management is among the factors driving the crisis.