“I did my first drug when I was 12,” says Brett, a former opioid addict.
“I knew at that moment I wanted to be a drug user. I absolutely loved it.”
Opioid abuse is a growing problem in the UK. Britain already has Europe’s highest proportion of heroin addicts, and last year, drug-related deaths hit a record high in England and Wales, with 3,744 deaths. Most of these deaths were related to the use of heroin and other opioids, according to a recent report in the New York Times.
Rachel Britton, the lead pharmacist at addiction charity Addaction, told me about how addictions to prescription pain relievers, heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl are becoming a bigger problem here.
“In areas where there are high prescribing rates of opioid painkillers by GPs, we see more people being referred to our services who then have issues reducing or stopping them.”
More recently, attention has been drawn to the crisis after celebrities including Kanye West and Ant McPartlin admitted they’d suffered from opioid addictions after previously being prescribed medication for other health problems. And, of course, it was an accidental fentanyl overdose that killed Prince.
The trend is widely believed to have started in the US, where more than 115 people die every day from opioid overdoes, before spreading to other parts of the world.
Here ShortList speaks to three former addicts about their very different stories of becoming addicted, how opioids wrecked their lives and how they eventually found a way out of the darkness.
Brett Douglas, author of American Drug Addict: a memoir, had smoked weed every day since he was a teenager and took acid and ecstasy on the weekends. But when he discovered opioids, he stopped taking these other drugs and turned only to pain pills and heroin. Eventually, 50-year-old Brett, who lives in Pensacola, Florida, found himself smoking crack.
What was your life like before you got hooked on drugs?
“I did my first drug, cocaine, when I was 12. I knew at that moment I wanted to be a drug user. I absolutely loved it.”
Brett, who was first introduced to drugs by a family member, says the addiction didn’t seem like a big deal at first.
“Everything in my life was telling me this was the way to go. It was much later when I knew it was a problem and much longer after that before I was willing to do something about it.”
And how did someone so young maintain a drug habit?
“I always managed to get money when I needed it. Never underestimate a motivated addict’s prowess.
“But my life before that was normal. My parents were married. I wasn’t abused or mistreated. I never missed a meal. We were a typical middle-class family.
“I started intravenous cocaine use at 17, but I managed to hold it together. I ran the family business – a pawn shop – and attended college. I guess the real problems started in my thirties when I started opiate use.”
What’s the worst memory you have from your addiction?
“Well. Let me see. It could be having a gun put to my head. Or having my ass beat by drug dealers multiple times. Or being robbed with a screw driver stuck to my neck. Or a razor blade. Or watching someone die from a heroin overdose and trying to resuscitate them. Or wrecking a car twice in one hour when I was on heroin. Or being thrown in a mental health ward multiple times. Or going to jail multiple times. Or having my daughter tell me I disgust her.
“But probably the one memory that still makes me shudder is the day before I got sober. I rented a cheap hotel room and cut my own throat. What I would have missed out on if I had died that day.”
Brett was eventually found in the bath by a cleaning woman who called an ambulance.
“When I opened my eyes, I was being wheeled into an ambulance. When I was at the hospital, a cop handcuffed me to a gurney and informed me I had a warrant in Pensacola and I would be going to jail.”
How did you eventually find help?
“As stated earlier, I started at 12 and got sober at 49. The woman who was my wife at the time got sober and introduced me to AA. I struggled with that program for about 20 years before I understood what they were saying.
“As of the May 1, 2018, I’ve been clean and sober for 2 years, 3 weeks and 2 days, but who’s counting.”
Cathryn Kemp, now 46 and living in Hastings, was living a single, happy fast-paced life as a journalist and travel writer. She’d worked for The Guardian, the News of the World and the Sunday Mirror, as well as writing several Lonely Planet books.
But in 2004 she was struck down overnight with acute pancreatitis and spent the next four years in and out of hospital. It was there that she was first exposed to a morphine drip and morphine-derivative medication OxyContin at home.
By 2008, she’d been switched to fentanyl and was discharged with a repeat prescription for fentanyl lozenges.
How did you become addicted to opioid painkillers?
“I was told to take a maximum of eight lozenges a day, which I managed for a couple of months,” Cathryn, author of Painkiller Addict: From Wreckage to Redemption, tells me. “Then, one day, I took an extra lozenge. My relationship had ended, I was sick of being a passive patient and so I thought I’d take my dosage into my own hands. It was the start of my descent into addiction.”
How bad did it get?
“My worst memory was writing a note every night and putting it under my pillow, knowing that if I overdosed in my sleep, it would be my mum who found it the next morning.
“I wrote that I was sorry and I didn’t know what to do. I was taking 45-50 lozenges a day at this point and every waking moment was filled with the cravings to take them, and the constant threat of withdrawals that started within an hour of each lozenge. It was hell.”
Incredibly, all the opioids Cathryn was consuming were provided on prescription from her GP.
Looking back, are you angry at your doctors for prescribing painkillers to you?
“I’m angry with a system that still has no support for GPs faced with a patient who has been left for too long on ever-increasing doses, and which gave me no support.
“I was refused inpatient NHS detox and offered methadone as an outpatient. I knew I needed to be an inpatient and so I refused the methadone, I also felt, rightly or wrongly, that putting me onto another addictive substance would not be right. I knew I needed to be somewhere that took the painkillers away from me and offered support and help.”
Eventually, Cathryn’s GP cut her off and said he’d only give her one more week – then no more.
She found a rehab on Google, put her cottage up for sale and borrowed thousands of pounds from her parents.
“I’m furious that there are thousands of people out there who don’t have the privileges I had and cannot fund private rehab for themselves.”
Alex, a recovery support worker from Glasgow, started doing drugs when he was only 13. Now in his late forties, his spiral into addiction began with gateway drugs like cannabis. Before long, however, he was also abusing a variety of other substances including solvents, LSD and sleeping tablets.
“I think what started it all off was just peer pressure really – from my friends. Plus, I was smoking cannabis every single day in my teens.”
How did your opioid addiction start?
“I started to spiral out of control in my twenties. It was then that I started experimenting with temazepam. I was heavily using tablets and that’s around the time my opioid addiction started.
“A family member of mine was on heroin and that’s when I started experimenting with opioids. To be honest I just really liked the feeling it gave me.
“I really had no information about drug addiction and just sort of fell into the lifestyle.”
Alex found himself stealing and lying to his family to support his addiction. “It was a dark time and something I’m not proud of.”
“I was injecting heroin and that’s when things got really bad. I was also in prison several times from 1994 to 2000.”
What’s your most frightening memory from your time on drugs?
“That’s got to be when I had a blood clot in my late twenties. I eventually got MRSA and I was close to death.
“There’ve been loads of frightening times like that but that time was the worst – seeing the damage I was doing to myself physically.”
How did you eventually get help?
Alex has now been off drugs for five years after going to a rehab day programme. He went to college and now helps others as a recovery support worker.
“My life was pretty chaotic and I didn’t know about any treatment services. But I found out about community rehab and started volunteering.
“It also took some transforming on my part. I had to learn to smash my ego. I had to learn how to listen to other people and not keep thinking I’m always right.
“I had low self-esteem because of my addictions and was feeling a lot of guilt and shame. And I had to begin resolving some of that damage I’d done to my relationships.”
*Name changed to protect anonymity
What to do if you think you may have a drug problem:
Rachel Britton, from Addaction, says there is some help out there for opioid addicts.
“Treatment journeys are tailored around the individual and their goals and aspirations regardless of what substance they have a problem with. With painkillers, there would be pharmalogical support too with reducing down using alternative medicines.
“The treatment that we offer at Addaction is likely to involve a psycho-social element, so it’s about understanding why someone has become dependent and work around those issues. We might also work alongside GPs if there are unresolved pain management concerns.
“It’s crucial that media publicise that there is a problem. The more that it’s in the public domain, the more people understand that they’re not alone. We need to spread the message that there is help available.”
(Images: Getty / Brett Douglas / Cathryn Kemp)