Painkiller addict reveals she had nine unnecessary operations just to get drugs
Whenever Nicki Hari gets a headache, the last thing she does is head to the medicine cabinet.
Instead, she’ll drink water, massage her temples, or lie down in a darkened room – anything to avoid taking pills.
A couple of painkillers might seem harmless to the rest of us, but for Nicki there is always the worry she could spiral back down into the depths of dependency.
For 25 years, the mum-of-two, from Hertfordshire, battled a crippling addiction to prescription painkillers that wrecked her marriage – and almost destroyed her life.
Nicki’s addiction began after she had minor surgery at the age of 18. She’d been working as a nanny and kept getting niggling pains in her knees.
‘My GP had no idea why,’ the 50-year-old recalls.
‘He put me on co-codamol – a mixture of codeine and paracetamol. It helped at first, and I loved the mellow feeling it gave me.’
But after five months the pain kept coming back, so Nicki was referred to a specialist. He said the pain was due to small pieces of cartilage that had come loose in both knees, and she was booked in for surgery a few weeks later. That operation changed everything.
‘When I came around, I was given morphine to help ease my discomfort,’ says Nicki. ‘It made me feel like I was floating on a cloud and nothing mattered. I loved the high.’
After being discharged she was given co-codamol once again, to help with the post-op pain. This time the dose was much stronger – 30mg of codeine instead of 15mg, and 500mg of paracetamol. Nicki was advised to take two tablets three times a day.
‘I thought nothing of it,’ she says. ‘After all, a doctor had given them to me, and they did help with the pain.’
As the weeks passed, Nicki got used to the relaxed, spaced-out feeling the drugs gave her. But soon, their painkilling effects began wearing off quicker – so, she upped her dose to 10 a day.
‘I began suffering from anxiety and flu-like symptoms whenever I went too long without taking co-codamol,’ says Nicki. ‘I had no idea I’d developed an addiction to it. I had just assumed the jittery feelings I keptgetting were down to an underlying cold or stress. Some days I’d ache and sweat all over, so I’d take ibuprofen or paracetamol, but the symptoms kept coming back.’
When her prescription ran out three months later, Nicki went back to her doctor, claiming she was still getting pain in her knees, and asked for more painkillers. It became a regular routine. Whenever one GP suggested she take a break from the pills, Nicki would go and see another who’d agree to give her more.
‘Years passed by and I kept going back to various GPs insisting that my knee pain still hadn’t gone away, or I’d say I had other health issues like stomach pain, and beg for more co-codamol,’ admits Nicki.
‘I was eventually given a repeat prescription with a review every six months but, strangely, the doctors rarely questioned it. If they did I’d manipulate them by saying I had constant pain, or I’d buy the pills from online pharmacies. I never mentioned the weird symptoms I was getting, I was scared they would take the pills away.’
Aged 27, Nicki was in the full throes of addiction, taking double her prescribed dose.
‘I kept saying I was getting recurrent knee pain, even though my consultant sent me for X-rays and scans, which showed there was nothing wrong. The thing is, I was in pain. The trouble with opiates like codeine is that once you get used to them, they affect the pain receptors in your body, so you feel pain even when there’s nothing wrong, or you convince yourself psychologically that you feel it.
‘It’s all part of the addiction process, as is lying to yourself and others – something I’m ashamed to admit I often did.’
The lies included telling doctors she’d lost her pills to get more, or that she was going away for a few weeks and needed extra to tide her over. She’d even lie to friends and family, claiming she couldn’t get a doctor’s appointment, and ask them to give her any leftover prescription painkillers they had.
By the time she had reached her 30s, Nicki was also taking Tramadol occasionally, an even stronger opiate, and relying on sleeping pills to help her sleep through the withdrawal symptoms she’d get at night. She was now married to Steven, a buying director.
‘He’d say he was worried about me and that I should cut back on the painkillers, but I’d just hide my pills and say I’d cut down,’ she says.
As time passed, Nicki became so desperate to keep her supply of medication going that she persuaded doctors to give her further surgery on her knees. She had six more operations over the next 12 years, and when she was sent for physiotherapy she claimed the exercises weren’t working.
The only time she stopped taking the pills was when she was pregnant with her two sons.
‘Each time I suffered severe withdrawal,’ says Nicki. ‘As well as flu-like symptoms, I was moody, anxious and tearful, I couldn’t sleep and I would snap at Steven. Everyone put it down to the hormonal changes of pregnancy. It was tough, but I wasn’t prepared to put the lives of my babies at risk.’
By that point, Nicki had started to make a connection between the drugs and her symptoms. She vowed to stop taking co-codamol for good after her youngest son was born, but then bad luck struck.
‘I suffered a tear during the birth and was given co-codamol for the pain,’ she explains. ‘It triggered my addiction all over again.’
Within weeks, Nicki was dependent on the drugs once again. And as her sons grew older, while she managed to look after them, her job at a call centre began suffering. Eventually she went part-time.
‘I’m ashamed to say family-life suffered, too,’ remembers Nicki. ‘At weekends, instead of enjoying time with the boys and Steven, I’d spend hours in bed, zonked out by the drugs.’
Steven warned Nicki that her behaviour needed to change. ‘Enough is enough,’ he insisted. But she refused to listen. Instead she went one step further to ensure she’d get her regular supply of painkillers – by exaggerating other medical issues to have more surgery.
‘When I was 35, I repeatedly complained about a problem with my sinuses, leading to an operation, and when I needed wisdom teeth removing I refused to have it done under local anaesthetic at the dentist, knowing I’d be admitted into hospital,’ admits Nicki. ‘I knew each time I came out of the operating theatre I’d be given painkillers – I got excited about it.’
Nicki even agreed to have a hysterectomy aged 41, after doctors suggested it because she’d had several irregular smear tests. ‘I said yes to it partly because I knew I’d be prescribed co-codamol afterwards,’ she says.
But, like any drug addict, Nicki’s dependency eventually caught up with her. A few months after the hysterectomy in 2011, she hit rock bottom. Barely getting out of bed most days, she’d spend hours in a ‘zombified state’.
‘I had no life,’ Nicki confesses. ‘I would take most of my pills in the evening after making dinner for the boys. I was so out of it I couldn’t even remember if I’d taken them sometimes, so I would pop a couple more then pass out.
‘During school holidays , I was so lethargic I would sleep all day while Steven took the boys out. Friends noticed my behaviour and tried to talk to me, but I shut them out. And Steven had had enough. Our marriage hadn’t been going well, this was the final nail in the coffin.’
Luckily, two of Nicki’s closest pals refused to give up on her. Worried, they turned up at her house one day, climbing in through the window when she wouldn’t answer the door.
‘They just marched into my bedroom and declared, “We’re taking you to get help,”’ Nicki says. ‘Despite my protests, they forced me to get dressed and took me to see a psychiatrist they’d pre-arranged an appointment with.’
The psychiatrist told Nicki she was in the depths of a serious drug addiction.
‘Part of me knew what he was saying made sense, but the other part of me kept denying it. I mean, these were drugs prescribed to me by doctors. As far as I was concerned, people like me couldn’t become addicts,’ she says.
When the psychiatrist asked Nicki how she would feel if all her medication was suddenly taken away and she felt panicked, it was a rude awakening. Reluctantly, she agreed to go to rehab for 28 days. And with the help of therapy and regular Narcotics Anonymous meetings, she’s managed to stay clean since.
‘I finally feel like I have my life back on track,’ she says. ‘I go out with friends, spend quality time with my sons, and I’ve started working for the private addiction treatment company UKAT, helping others like myself. I’m also engaged to a lovely man called Stuart, 56.
‘I don’t blame the doctors, as I manipulated them into prescribing the drugs. But the medical profession needs to look at safer, alternative methods of pain management rather than just dishing out pills, and people need to be aware of the risks. A painkiller here and there might seem harmless, but it can soon spiral out of control.’
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