• When Lily mixes alcohol with codeine, she becomes severely dehydrated, begins convulsing and vomiting, and ends up in the Emergency ward. (Flickr)Source: Flickr
Mandy Sayer has witnessed first-hand the devastating effect of over-the-counter addiction.
By
Mandy Sayer

26 Feb 2016 - 9:14 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2016 - 8:49 AM

The males in my family tend to suffer from addictions more harshly than the females. We had a grandfather who got drunk one night and bashed the family's red setter to death with a shovel; an alcoholic cousin who was drinking methylated spirits when he lit a cigarette, ignited his mouth, throat, and stomach, and suffered fatal internal burns; and only seven years ago, a nephew in his 20s who mixed oxycodone with over a dozen beers and died sitting on a couch, watching TV.

So when my cousin, Lily, 26, confessed to me recently that she'd been addicted to codeine for over eight years, I wasn't so much shocked as I was puzzled.

She'd grown up as the much-loved and only daughter of separated parents who lived on the South Coast [NSW]. It was an ordinary childhood of beach picnics, barbecues, fancy dress parties, and bush walks. She did well academically, until she hit high school, when a combination of hormones and teenage hubris saw her leave at sixteen. Like most kids her age, she experimented with drugs and alcohol - racked up a few court appearances - and eventually left home for a retail job in Sydney. Now, in her mid-20s, she singlehandedly manages an entire floor of a major department store, and is often named Employee of the Month - and no one, not her boss, not her co-workers, and certainly not her customers, know that she takes up to 30 codeine tablets a day.

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“Don't worry,” she told me last month, when I queried how many tablets she was quaffing. She'd begun to grow edgy hours earlier, when she'd arrived for dinner, and had disappeared into Kings Cross [Sydney] to find an open pharmacy. “Some people take up to 70 or 80 a day,” she added, pressing yet another tablet from the blister pack. She says the extra-strong paracetemol-codeine combination, sold over the counter and without a prescription, is easier to access than cigarettes. Lily has a model's good looks and a diplomat's charm, and I know from experience that she can act out a painful toothache more convincingly than Meg Ryan can fake an orgasm. Hence her success rate in pharmacy shopping.

Lily has a model's good looks and a diplomat's charm, and I know from experience that she can act out a painful toothache more convincingly than Meg Ryan can fake an orgasm.

Her addiction, however, is not as benign as it seems. Sometimes, on the weekends, when Lily mixes alcohol with codeine, she becomes severely dehydrated, begins convulsing and vomiting, and ends up in the emergency ward of St Vincent's for two or three days, hooked up to an IV and having her stomach pumped. Last year it happened so frequently that the staff convinced her to enter voluntary rehabilitation, which involved her turning up to a methadone clinic every morning before work and having a nurse administer a synthetic and less addictive drug.

The substitute gave her severe constipation, but she persisted for several months until, on a regular visit home, she witnessed her mother attempting suicide.

Lily had to resign from her job and return to the South Coast indefinitely to look after her. While her mother was sectioned in the psychiatric ward of the local hospital, Lily and I kept in touch via phone. Whenever I'd ring her at night and her mobile was off, I suspected she was back on the codeine and was ensconced in that warm and fuzzy world of opioid intoxication.

To be honest, I didn't blame her. She'd discovered her beloved mother early one morning in the kitchen, covered in blood and self-inflicted knife wounds.

Now, after nearly a year, the mother has recovered and is on daily doses of lithium and Lily has returned to Sydney and to work. In fact, the only thing she hasn't returned to is her rehab treatment in Darlinghurst.

I can't blame “her generation” because mental illness and addiction run through our family like bullet trains.

In public, she's confident, attractive, intelligent, and deeply funny; but when we're alone I see a vulnerability in those wide blue eyes, an inexplicable sense of confusion and loss.

I can't blame “her generation” because mental illness and addiction run through our family like bullet trains; I can't point a finger at her early environment because her childhood had always been safe and happy. And I certainly can't lecture her on the harm she's doing to her liver and kidneys - she knows the risks well and since I'm the only friend or relative she's confided in, I'm keen not to lose her trust.

Last week, I ran into a friend, Amelia, who works as a paramedic, and explained Lily's and my predicament. Amelia sighed and shook her head. “Nope, there's absolutely nothing you can do - absolutely nothing - until she herself decides to get help.”

This morning I was talking to Lily on the phone, and asked her how she became addicted to codeine in the first place, at the age of 17. “Oh, I was hooked on ice at the time,” she said. “It helped me kick my habit.” 

 

For help counselling about drug addiction, contact Lifeline, 13 11 14.

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