real life

"I've experienced codeine addiction, and I believe this ban is dangerous."

Warning: This article does not contain medical advice and should not be used as a substitution for medical advice.  If you are experiencing symptoms of drug withdrawal, see a medical professional or present at a hospital urgently. For help with addiction, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the 24-hour website Counselling Online

I was in university when I had emergency gallbladder surgery. Once the organ was out, the pain was gone. I had one remaining box of codeine – the drug I’d been taking daily for almost a year to deal with agony I’d been in.

And when it was down to the last two pills, I remember feeling oddly anxious. I didn’t need the medicine anymore, but I also didn’t want it to run out. So I went to the pharmacy, and bought a box over the counter – 15mg codeine with ibuprofen.

Addiction didn’t cross my mind – I was recovering from surgery, there was still pain, I reasoned.

But I didn’t stop taking the pills, even when the scars were healed. I didn’t stop taking them for years afterwards. Eventually, I was taking upwards of 25 a day. I’d reach for pills every three hours so the effect never wore off.

In those days, you could get them straight off the shelf. I’d buy five boxes at a time to raised eyebrows, but no other consequence.

I was ambitious, hard-working and seemingly healthy, but I was hiding a secret.

Then, my kidneys began failing. I knew what it was right away. But those pills had comforted me. Given me a warm, floating sensation, keeping me a few safe inches from reality. They placated the anxiety disorder I've suffered since childhood.

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I'd convince myself I wasn't that bad. I was "only" taking double the recommended dose at once, I reasoned. I was still in pain from my arthritis I told myself, and that was true. It was also true I didn't need 25 pills to take that pain away. But my addiction was so strong.

My intelligence, willpower, logic, were meaningless, steamrolled by something with a far bigger grip on my sense of self.

I was scared all the time. I knew I was hurting myself, but the sound was turned down. The fear would rise as if from static, howl from within like a voice down a well. It would scream in the distance and beg me to hear it.

Now my body was breaking down, and I couldn't ignore that. I tipped the rest of the pills down the toilet. I knew there would be some kind of withdrawal, but I didn't envision what that would genuinely entail.

I took two days off work, either side of the weekend. The first day was fine - the drugs were still in my system and I thought, maybe this won't be so bad. The second day, I woke drenched in sweat, in absolute agony. Every muscle hurt and twitched. My bones ached, my hips burned. There was a sensation of immense restlessness in my legs and arms. I'd swing them in circles to try and stop it. I felt as if I wanted to tear my limbs from their sockets.

Sitting up didn't help, laying down didn't help. It was impossible to get comfortable. There was no relief anywhere on earth.

I threw up a dozen times, I constantly had to run to the bathroom. Even kneeling at the bowl hurt.

By the third day, I was so dehydrated I told my mother I had a stomach flu so that she would come care for me.

Day four was the worst. I lay there in a puddle of my own sweat and wept. I'd never felt so alone. Suffering was a solitary thing. It was pure helplessness. This is what dying will be like, I thought.

I had to go back to work on the fifth day, and I was nowhere near recovered. I shuddered, sweated, my legs twitched. I bolted from meetings to throw up. Getting through a normal day was torture. The exhaustion, the pain - it was indescribable.

Then there was the guilt - the horror of what I was experiencing, the demonic force of it, attached to me. A heinous secret. Not being able to tell a single soul. The crushing shame.

It took ten days for the withdrawals to stop, but for a month afterwards, I struggled to feel 'normal.' I'd been an addict for five years, in a constant, disconnected fuzz. Simple things, like sunlight on my face, would cause surges of dizzying joy.

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Other times, I'd be horrifically sad, like part of me was missing. That's the part drug counsellors will often tell you is as difficult to survive as the withdrawal. The not feeling normal. Feeling hunger, constant gnawing hunger, as if for water or air. That's where relapse climbs in, into those cracks.

Six weeks after I quit, my kidney function returned to normal. My doctor was baffled, but I never told him the truth. I was quite simply ashamed. People like me weren't drug addicts. I had two degrees. I was a professional with a job that I was good at.

Listen: Cameron Daddo opens up to Mia Freedman about his battle with addiction, on No Filter. Post continues below. 

As of February 1st, codeine is available only on prescription in Australia.

There are people about to go through what I went through. Some don't know they're addicts. Many just feel that same anxiety when a box of tablets runs out. Maybe they've decided to stop now, to be bigger than the cravings, only to find that addiction is embedded in the blood, the muscles, the bones. Maybe they've stockpiled hundreds of pills.

But the end is coming, and it will hurt.

And once that pain comes, some will doctor shop for prescriptions. Some will buy illegal drugs. Most will suffer in silence. Go through dangerous, painful, life-threatening, withdrawals with no medical intervention.

But the very least of them will seek medical help. The very least will tell a doctor, "I'm hooked, help me." The shame is great, the addiction insidious, and no safety, no sense of understanding, no lifting of stigma, has been offered alongside this ban.

It feels there is no plan to help those suffering, and who are about to suffer. Their supply has been simply cut off with instructions to see a GP.  Everyday people are about to be plunged into hell.  Where are the support services?

So what happens now, to all those addicts who are apparently being saved from themselves? Perhaps we'll see a flourishing illegal opiate trade, as they have in the USA. Perhaps will see a medical system stretched by the sick and desperate. Perhaps we'll see more lonely deaths, overdoses and withdrawals gone wrong. But what we won't see is a solution.

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