It was September 2000. Things were going well for me – Mr D and I had got married earlier that year, my job was going well, and a couple of months before, I’d had a procedure done on my spine that alleviated about 80% of the pain I’d been getting from a back injury. The only thing that was bothering me was that I was still taking the strong painkillers (dihydrocodeine) for it, and was getting incredibly fed up with the side effects.
A couple of years earlier, a GP had told me (when I said that they weren’t working any more) that I had developed a tolerence for them, and my body was basically better able to flush out what it considered to be ‘poison’ from my system. He told me that to get the same level of pain relief, I’d need to take more of the drug. Although he never wrote that in my notes, and the instructions on the prescription remained the same, the message was very clear. At the time, I was in so much pain that I could not get out of bed by myself, I was walking with a stick and I was constantly having time off work. Terrified of losing my job, I took an extra tablet with each dose. By September 2000, I was taking five times the maximum recommended dose, and feeling no effect whatsoever. I had been taking dihydrocodeine for approximately four years.
The side effects were unpleasant. Profuse sweating, sickly headaches, nausea, and a constant feeling that my head was filled with cotton wool. I made an appointment one day to see my GP after work to make sure it was okay to come off the tablets. The appointment was for 5pm – probably not the best time of day to see a doctor for advice, and I wonder in hindsight whether that had anything to do with his attitude.
The surgery was running late, as it so often does. I was called through, I knocked on the door (as I always do) and went in. The doctor was writing in someone’s notes. I sat down and waited. I felt a bit uncomfortable, as though I was interrupting. He finally confirmed my name, and asked what the problem was. I said, “I’ve been taking dihydrocodeine for a while, and I don’t like the side effects I’m getting.”
“Well don’t take it, then.”
He didn’t even look up from the notes he was writing. He didn’t look at my notes. He didn’t ask what dose I was on. I mentioned that I was worried about what to take if the pain came back, and he wrote me a prescription for tramadol, and said to take that instead. That was it. I thanked him, and left the room.
I’m often aksed why I didn’t probe further, why I didn’t ask about how to come off them, and the answer is that firstly, I think I simply wanted someone to say it was okay to come off them, and secondly, his manner was not conducive to asking more questions. I felt awkward, and just wanted to leave. I still wonder just how much the dihydrocodeine was affecting my thought processes. I made a lot of little decisions then that didn’t make any sense.
I took my last dose on a Friday evening. By Saturday evening I had a headache and felt a bit sick, and by Sunday morning, after a poor night’s sleep, I felt like shit. My first thought was “Great – I’m getting flu or something”. I told you my thought processes were screwed…
Initially, the side effects were just like that – a feeling that I was going to come down with a really stinking cold or flu. My entire body ached like it never had before, my head felt like it was in a vice, and every time I blinked it felt like I was being smacked in the face with a brick. Before long, I succombed to extreme restlessness. I felt exhausted – not being able to sleep – yet I couldn’t sit still. My body felt sensitive, crawling. I’ve felt nothing like it in my life. It took about five days before I realised that it was the withdrawal symptoms that were making me feel like this. I didn’t know what to do. I toyed with the idea of going back to the doctor, but really didn’t see what they could suggest apart from “start taking them again”. I felt like I’d gone too far to do that.
Two weeks or so later, I didn’t feel as bad, although I was incredibly tired. I made an effort and went into town for some fresh air and possibly a bit of retail therapy. I felt weird, and everything seemed different somehow, but put that down to having been ‘unwell’. In Boots the Chemist, I sniffed bubble baths, and tested lip gloss on my hand. Suddenly, I felt awful. My heart pounded and I struggled to breathe properly. Everything was swimming, I was scared – and I had a strange sensation of not really being there. I was fairly near the door where there was a seat. Thinking I was going to pass out, I aimed for it and sat down for a few minutes, leaning forward, watching my hands as they shook. After a while, I felt okay to get up again, and decided to go straight home. Maybe I wasn’t as well as I thought. Maybe I just needed to take it easy for a while.
A few days later, I tried again. I felt bored at home, I needed some distraction. This time, I was in Marks & Spencer when it happened. I was in the womens shoe department, and again thinking I was going to faint, I plonked myself down on the seat in the corner. This time, a member of staff saw me.
“are you alright?”
I shook my head, aware of the feeling in the back of my throat that I was going to cry. She asked me things – could she get me a drink, did I want to go somewhere quiet, that kind of thing. I shook my head each time, and eventually said, “I’m okay now”. I brushed off the “are you sure”s and said I would go home and have a nap. “I haven’t been well, lately” I said, managing a smile. She walked me to the door, and said “take care” as I left. I went home, my journey silent and almost dazed. I went into the house and sat on the sofa feeling weak and utterly shattered. I sat there, stroking the cat as he came up for a cuddle, and I cried.
The rest, as they say, is history…