There are some forms of addiction that are well known and often discussed. Alcoholism, for example, or gambling. Others, which might be just as widespread, get far less attention. One of these is painkiller addiction, in particular dependency on codeine. An opiate, codeine is often sold in combination with paracetamol. It has sedative properties which can cause feelings of detachment or drowsiness. Some people react badly to it. Others love it. I know a lot about this as I was heavily dependent on codeine for nearly ten years. Today marks the sixth anniversary since I completely kicked the habit.
I first encountered codeine in the year 2000. I was in a job that I wasn’t particularly enjoying and, after a less than successful three years at university, I was suffering from severe social anxiety. While I could be outgoing in a work setting, the thought of being anywhere else – where I might be judged for how I looked or talked – made me nauseous with fear. So whenever I did have to go out – which I engineered to be as rare as possible – I would take painkillers in the days before to calm me down and in the days afterwards to stop me worrying about what people might have been thinking about me.
In 2001 I left my job following a restructure. I was unemployed for a while and had little wish to re-join a world I found so frightening. I wanted to freeze time to keep myself safe.The sedative effect of codeine made me feel that I was drifting outside of events. Very soon, I was regularly taking up to six doses of paracetamol and codeine a day. When I did find a new job, it was with a truly awful employer. From 2003 to 2007, my daily dose increased until I was taking over three times the recommended dose. I was constipated all the time. I was paranoid and more fearful than ever.
In 2009, life and work had changed. I was ready to kick. It hurt. Fuck but it hurt. My arms ached, my skin was red raw and my bowels never stopped. Some nights I didn’t sleep at all. Hardly anyone knew I was kicking, so I had to try and cover up all these withdrawal symptoms. It was a fortnight of agony.
And then, gradually, my body began to feel like mine again. I was sleeping naturally, for the first time in years. Other things changed. I began to see the world in new ways. All those little details my numbed senses hadn’t been able to take in were suddenly clear. There was so much colour everywhere.
Set free, my emotions ran out of my control for a while. I remember people accusing me of overreacting to everything. How could they know what it was like to learn to feel again? I hit some bumps along the way: unexpected changes and plain bad luck. But I never touched codeine again and I never will.
You see, I’m not frightened anymore.