Prescription drug addicts have opened up about how they became hooked on over-the-counter pills and the rock-bottom moments that propelled them into re-evaluating their lives.
Eight people who have battled with drug dependence answered confronting questions from curious members of the public for an episode of the ABC’s You Can’t Ask That that aired on Wednesday.
The group, which featured men and women from different walks of life, revealed the various reasons they started using authorised medication – before they all gradually became obsessed.
Many were prescribed pain-relief due to injuries or agonising health conditions, while others began dabbling recreationally or to subdue anxiety.
Naomi Truran, from Newcastle, (pictured) became addicted to Endone after taking the pain-relief medication for endometriosis
For some, the zombifying effects of the drugs helped quieten the pain of traumas such as childhood sexual abuse – but they all had one thing in common: the dependence led to downwards spirals and the eventual need to rebuild their lives.
Naomi Truran, from Newcastle, suffers from severe endometriosis, a painful condition in which the tissue that typically lines the inside of the uterus grows on the outside, sometimes attaching to other organs.
Her first introduction to prescription painkillers came after she suddenly collapsed on the floor one day while getting ready to go to work.
‘I actually had two cysts in my right ovary.. I was unable to move due to pain and was admitted to hospital,’ she told the program.
‘Waking up after surgery, I told my doctor how much pain I was in and she gave me a script for Endone.’
Endone, the brand name for an opioid-based medication, contains the active ingredient Oxycodone, which is used for short-term treatment of moderate to severe pain.
Naomi said the drugs ‘took the edge off’ from the pain from the ‘excruciating’ pain, and became the ‘one thing in my life giving me any happiness’.
But by the time she received her second script, she found herself taking more pills despite the fact her pain had begun to alleviate naturally.
As she upped her dosage, she began to transform her into a ‘giddy smiley, laughy, person’ – but would not be able to remember interactions she had with friends.
Leo, from Melbourne, said he started taking prescription pills recreationally before his habit turned into an addiction
Eventually, she would go around to different doctors to access the drug, because her 20 tablets – which were meant to last three months – would be gone within 10 days.
Sometimes she would exaggerate to doctors, saying she had vomited for two days straight and thus needed more pills.
While she can’t pinpoint the day the addiction first took hold, she first realised her body had become reliant on the medication after suffering from intense withdrawals.
‘Everything was burning, fire pain,’ she said.
‘I realised I hadn’t had Tramadol for four days and I dropped my blade and sat in the shower for half an hour hysterically laughing.’
Naomi eventually sought help and was provided with an alternative treatment, cannabis oil, which is ‘natural’ and ‘really helps her symptoms, while she works towards getting off Endone completely.
‘I have two left. It really stresses me out because what happens when I have one left. I can’t let go of how good that feeling is.’
However, she thinks doctors should have done more to inform her of the potentially addictive nature of the drugs prior to prescribing them.
Leah, from Sydney, was prescribed opioid-based drug Mersyndol after sustaining a neck injury while running backwards during an event at her son’s school
‘I’m a lot more careful and ask a lot of questions. I am more vigilant [now]’.
Leah, from Sydney, was prescribed opioid-based drug Mersyndol after sustaining a neck injury while running backwards during an event at her son’s school.
She suffered whiplash and a concussion and was in acute pain that prevented her from sleeping, washing her face, or even moving her face to one side.
‘I went to my GP and I said “I’m in a lot of pain” [ and he gave me pain relief],’ she said.
‘I had developed an involuntary muscle spasm and I was chatting with one of the women at the gym and she said “Oh you should try Mersyndol’.
The drug fixed her ‘initially’ and she couldn’t believe her doctor had not given her the ‘awesome’ pain relief in the first place.
But slowly over time, the pills became less about her injury and more about managing other aspects of her life that she had lost control of in the wake of the accident.
‘It was not just about a neck thing for me. It was about fear, it was worry, it was anger…anger you can’t put anywhere,’ she said.
‘I had a great life before all of this s*** started happening. The opioids help you deal with those emotions.’
‘It’s like you take a pill and then you’re like “ok, I got this”.’
Leah said the powerful addictive nature of opioids can take any body hostage
Leah said she started to up her dosage as the chemicals hijacked her brain and made it ‘more greedy’ for the drug, going initially from one to two until a few months later it escalated to two in the morning and two at night.
‘Then it was two in the morning, two around lunch time, two around dinner, and two before bed,’ she said.
‘It was just a slow, f***ed up slide into more and more… It’s basically heroin in a pill’.
Leah said she kept her addiction secret as she did not want to talk to anyone about it, repeatedly telling people she was ‘fine’.
But eventually she entered a dark place and realised it was time to seek help, gaining the assistance of a pharmacist to eventually quit by slowly tapering off her dosage.
‘My little voice just went “You are taking 15 of these things a day, what is next? You’re going to take 16? 17? 18?”,’ she said.
‘It is hard to manage pain differently, but it is much more worthwhile.’
However, Leah believes issues with the medical and pharmaceutical industry disadvantage Australians seeking pain relief.
The episode featured eight people from across Australia and different walks of life. Pictured: guest Rustie, from Gippsland, VIC
‘[Now] I understand more about multidisciplinary pain management, things like physio massage, exercise,’ she said.
‘But the system is not built for that. That is really expensive. I was buying a box of Myrsendol for $5.95.’
‘I think you can be a perfectly normal woman with a career and kids and still be addicted to these opioids.’
Leo, from Melbourne, first tried a prescription drug when he was around 13 and he discovered some pills in his mother’s draw.
At the time, the pair moved around a lot and the teenager found himself frequently feeling ‘alone’.
But he eventually got hooked on Xanax, a tranquilising drug used to treat anxiety and panic disorders, after taking them for recreational use.
‘For me, it just made my mind go blank,’ he recalled. ‘Going hard, I could take up to 10 Xanax pills a day. I remember having that confidence. There were all of these guys smoking bongs and taking pills and I remember wanting to be just like them.
The group were asked confronting questions by members of the public, including whether or not they went ‘doctor shopping’. Pictured: Fiona, from Bendigo, Victoria
‘When I think back about Xanax, they are still quite appealing to me because they do do the job.’
Leo said it felt like the relaxant ‘hijacked him’ and turned him into ‘someone else’, giving him the ‘courage to go out and steal and break into cars’.
‘I feel shameful at the harm I caused,’ he said.
‘I would pinch my mum’s money or my sister’s jewellery. There had to be locks on the house.’
As his addiction spiralled, he ‘did everything he could’ to access the medication, sometimes telling doctors he had ‘really bad anxiety’ as an excuse.
On occasion, he would be told he had to only pick up one or two, leading him to try and get pills off the street where they were more accessible but more expensive.
Leo’s decision to turn his life around came after he tried to steal drugs of a guy during a wild bender with friends which resulted in them being injured.
Ali, from Melbourne (pictured), became addicted to Panadeine Forte as an ’emotional reliever’ for the sexual abuse she suffered as a child
Afterwards, a mate announced he was going to check into rehab, and Leo decided he would too – heading off to a facility on a farm where he partook in group activities and a regimented schedule that ‘teaches you how to live’.
He relapse after his first visit to rehab but is now almost five years drug and alcohol free.
Ali, from Melbourne, started taking Panadeine Forte as a teenager as an ’emotional reliever’ after suffering sexual abuse as a child.
‘I didn’t think I could talk to anyone about what happened to me.’
‘I crushed one up and snorted it…. I was like, ‘woah.. this is fun’.”
‘It was my security blanket. I was drinking by the age of 12 -13 as well. It’s just about doing what you can. It’s about coping. I hated my life. I hated myself.
Ali said the sensation would start in her brain and ‘just run down and go over you’ and the addiction became ‘one of the many’ secrets inside of her.
Leo has been alcohol and drug free for almost five years after deciding to go to rehab
She said ‘doctor shopping’ soon became like a ‘fulltime job’, spending her time constantly scheduling appointments in a diary and frequently telling practitioners she had bad period pain to get them to sign prescriptions.
But after one day taking a cocktail of alcohol, drugs, and prescriptions pills, Ali realised she had hit rock bottom.
‘I just had enough. I took ten Endone, ten Tramadol, and five Valium and downed a bottle of vodka and a few ciders,’ she said.
‘My breathing went low, but my heart was going between high and low and I got the nods. That was my wake up call.’
Ali said she is now off prescription drugs and is thriving.
‘How about a round of applause for myself,’ she said.
‘I’m really proud that I have been really good at sobriety.’
FOR CONFIDENTIAL SUPPORT, CONTACT:
Lifeline: 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 or beyondblue.org.au
National Alcohol and other drug hotline 1800 250 015 or alcohol.gov.au