First person: ‘Painkillers
saved my life, then they almost killed me’
British women are turning to prescription drugs in their millions, with the number of opioid analgesics doled out leaping by 500 per cent in 20 years. Here, journalist Cathryn Kemp, right, who was diagnosed with pancreatitis and ME in 2004 and prescribed powerful pills to cope with the pain, describes how her life unravelled as addiction tightened its grip
I used to think a drug addict was someone who lived on the far edges of society. That was until I became one. If by the grace of fate and fortune you have not yet had to take strong painkillers, you may only be one car accident, one operation away from becoming an addict like me. Strong painkillers saved my life, but then they almost killed me. Each year more and more prescriptions are written for powerful painkillers and tranquillisers. When powerful drugs are packaged as prescriptions, taking one more when the going gets tough can seem as harmless as having a drink to drown your sorrows.
My fentanyl doses carve up my days: two lozenges in the morning, one at 8am, the other at 10am to cope with the breakthrough pain of eating breakfast. The next two lozenges are after lunch, which I eat tentatively and in fear of the pain that starts about half an hour later. I brace myself, praying it won’t lead me back to hospital. I dread meal times. The pain after lunch is generally the worst of the day. Then I have two after supper and two at bedtime to get me through the night. Eight lozenges every day, the NHS maximum, each one keeping me this side of sanity, or so it feels.
When my partner tells me that he doesn’t think he has ever loved me, I stagger from the room to the bathroom, where I am sick. My mind turns to the two new boxes of 30 fentanyl lozenges in the kitchen cupboard. My next dose is due in two hours’ time but I know I am going to go downstairs and take one now.
This thought fills me with the first happy feeling I have had in weeks. I have been out of hospital for four months now and the thought of changing my dose has never crossed my mind. Until today. One more won’t hurt, will it The feeling of opening the illicit dose is like opening an unexpected gift at Christmas. I feel giddy, naughty as I stash it in my pocket and head back to bed.
I feel so much better, like my old self again. I am finally back in charge of my life. What harm can it do I know that the fentanyl is not the answer, but as the pellet melts into my cheek, calm creeps over me. It does not occur to me that this could be the start of something I cannot control. My doctor prescribed them so I presume I am ‘safe’ using them even if I am pushing the limits by taking the extra few.
I am already feeling a bit woozy when I take the second lozenge but I don’t care. I would rather feel a little woolly than cope with this pain. Then I take a third. There is a different feeling now – a quiet, connected feeling that tells me that I can handle this. That I am strong enough to get through it just as long as I keep feeling this peace. I feel magnanimous towards my ex-boyfriend as the day dawns when he is due to leave – like I needed to let him go and I am better for it. The ripped-apartness subsides into a blossoming serenity and I feel love for him again. My heart is soaring and I feel ready to take whatever life throws at me. I’ve got through so much already – why would this be any different
My lozenges are now my constant companion. I always leave one for ‘just in case’ on the days I need to pick up a new prescription. I live in fear that the delivery lorry to the chemist will break down or that some unforeseen disaster might rob me of my prescription. I never crunch the lozenge. I treat each one with respect, placing it on my tongue and making it last as long as I can. This way the dose can last for ten minutes per lozenge, ten minutes of peace, ten minutes where the pain softens, my muscles relax and I feel normal again. I am always waiting for the next lozenge. The craving follows me around all the time like a lost puppy.
‘You’ve taken 60 lozenges in three days,’ my doctor replies when I ask for a repeat prescription. ‘You know that’s too many – you are going to have to cut down.’
‘I have been in such pain, I needed them…’
‘Well, I’ll sign your prescription today but you are going to have to draw up a chart so that we can work out how to reduce them slowly week by week.’
I nod. I agree. But in all honesty I am trying to hide my smile of utter delight. I’m safe again for the next few days. His words don’t sink in. They don’t even touch the surface of my elation. I’ll worry about cutting down next time.
This yearning for the drug is something I cannot control. When the cravings start, the prickles of sweat creep over my whole body and I shiver. The shaking, the trembling hands and stretched feel of everything as the withdrawal pangs take hold, every part of me is shivery and uncomfortable, my muscles ache and twitch as if I have the flu. My skin feels itchy and sensitive to the cold, to the touch of air itself. Using fentanyl is becoming more complicated by the day – calculating when I need to take them, when I need to collect another prescription – and I am finding it harder and harder to conceal from family and friends.
I have been calling the chemist since 8am, knowing he wouldn’t be there. I have to do something to pass the minutes, which feel like hours as the last traces of last night’s final dose leave my quivering body. When he finally answers and tells me that my prescription will be ready in half an hour I am so jubilant I would skip through the house if I could. Then I realise that I’m too sick to get to the chemist, so without thinking I pick up the phone again.
'As my mother hands over the bag, I beg her not to listen to the desperate messages I've left on her answering machine…'
‘I need your help, Mum. Could you pick up my prescription for me as I am not good today’
There’s a small sigh at the end of the phone and she says ‘yes’.
I know I am sending my retired mother out in the cold of mid-winter on a snowy day. But the craving for the drug is so strong it knocks out everything unconnected to it, such as the needs of other people.
I sit and watch the path leading up to my cottage and an hour later she still hasn’t appeared. I don’t for a moment wonder if she’s OK, if she might have slipped on the icy path and hurt herself. Shuffling over to the phone I call again. I call four or five more times until I am openly swearing into the phone, leaving angry, scared messages on the answer machine. Then I see her out of the corner of my eye. Thank God. Thank God. And as she hands over the bag with the NHS logo on it, I beg her not to listen to the messages when she gets home…
‘I didn’t know where you had got to,’ my voice trails off weakly. I can barely look her in the face. The guilt is always there – I am a burden to my mum. Her life stopped the minute I got this foul disease and she has been at my beck and call ever since.
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Cathryn went to a rehab clinic and came off opiates for good. 'I am incredibly lucky to be alive and each day is a blessing'
The rehab clinic had never admitted anyone on such a high dose of fentanyl before. They said their best hope was to reduce Cathryn back down to the NHS limit of eight lozenges a day. Cathryn, however, was determined to come off opiates for good. She reduced the number of lozenges week by week with just three days at the clinic without any fentanyl at all before lack of funds meant she had to leave. She went through terrible withdrawal pains, hallucinations and was unable to eat or sleep. She became thin and frail but she eventually conquered her addiction and discovered subsequently that the clinic believed she only had three months to live. She is now married with a stepson and still suffers from pancreatitis. She says, ‘I have pain all the time. Some days are worse than others. I deal with it through breathing, t’ai chi and staying positive. I don’t take painkillers of any description, not even paracetamol. I am incredibly lucky to be alive and each day is a blessing.’
This is an edited extract from Painkiller Addict: From Wreckage to Redemption – My True Story by Cathryn Kemp, which will be published by Little Brown on 6 September, 13.99. To order a copy for 11.49 with free p&p, contact the YOU Bookshop on 0843 382 1111, you-bookshop.co.uk