A woman who spent 22 years of her life addicted to prescription medication and painkillers has shared her story in the hope it will encourage others to get help.
Nicki Hari, 49, from Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, tells HuffPost UK that having her tonsils removed at the tender age of 14 spiralled into an addiction which saw her stashing pills around the house - even in her children’s bedrooms - because she lived in fear of coming off them.
Today (Wednesday) public health minister Steve Brine announced there’ll be a review of prescription drug addiction in the UK, after figures revealed one in 11 people were prescribed potentially addictive drugs last year.
Brine said the issue was a “huge problem” in countries such as the United States and added: “We must absolutely make sure it doesn’t become one here.”
But could it be too late? Eytan Alexander, founder of UK Addiction Treatment Centres (UKAT), tells HuffPost UK that prescription drug addiction is already “a very real crisis in the UK”. At current rates, UKAT estimates treatment for prescription drug addiction will soon overtake admissions for alcohol and ‘harder’ drugs.
Prescription medications that are often abused in the UK include opioid painkillers, sleeping pills, weight loss pills, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds and ADHD medication.
Nicki’s prescription drug problem began when she was 14 years old and having her tonsils out - she just didn’t know it at the time. She received pre-meds (medication administered before anaesthesia), anaesthetic, and took paracetamol and codeine after the procedure.
When she turned 18, she needed to have her wisdom teeth removed - and the process began again. She continued to take painkillers after the procedure, and for far longer than needed, because she liked how they made her feel.
In the years following, Nicki had multiple operations which resulted in more prescription drugs. When she feared doctors might stop her prescriptions she took matters into her own hands, changing doctor or buying over-the-counter medicines.
“I started taking things like paracetamol with codeine in and Night Nurse,” she recalls. “I’d tell the doctors that because of the pain, I was unable to sleep, so I was then prescribed zopiclone 7.5mg [a sleeping pill].”
Over the next two decades, until age 40, she “became more and more addicted”.
Addiction to opioids, such as codeine, can cause bowel problems, constipation, sleep apnoea, sexual dysfunction, infertility and fractures caused by falling as a result of dizziness and sedation. More generally, prescription drug addiction can harm the liver, which has to constantly overwork to break down whichever drug is being abused, and cause problems for the digestive system and kidneys.
Over the years, Nicki’s addiction gradually worsened to the point where she had a stash of pills hidden in her bathroom, desk at work, handbag, car and her children’s bedrooms. “I was protecting my resources,” she explains.
She ended up buying medication online to fuel her habit and became highly addicted to sleeping pills - at her worst she was taking 12 a night. She also used family holidays as an opportunity to stock up, spending £200-£300 on pills which she’d then bring home with her.
“I’d just put it down to the fact I was in an unhappy marriage, I was depressed, I had issues with my younger one and life was crap,” she explains. “I had no zest for life, I lost all my inhibitions, I had no motivation. I felt like a robot - just existing.”
She claims doctors did nothing to stop her, either. “The doctors were pushing it, they didn’t try and talk me out of it or wean me off it,” she says. “I’d run out, spin them a story that I was going away for a month and needed the supply and they’d happily write the prescription for me.”
Eight years ago, when her children went back to school after the summer holidays, Nicki got the wake-up call she desperately needed: “I read a story my eight-year-old had written about what he’d done over the summer holidays, where he said ‘mummy was ill in bed all the time so I just stayed in and played on my xbox and watched TV’.”
Two weeks after, Nicki’s friends staged an intervention and, despite being visibly upset, she said deep-down she was relieved that someone had stepped in because her life had become “unmanageable”.
It’s not uncommon for people to be oblivious to the fact they’re addicted to painkillers and medication - and it can go on for years and years without anyone noticing. UKAT’s Eytan Alexander explains: “People believe if they’re prescribed a drug or if they can buy it in their local corner shop, then they’re not an addict.
“The fact of the matter is that in most cases, the recommended dosage and length of time of consumption is exceeded, meaning that person is now a drug abuser, regardless of the ‘legality’ of the drug in question.”
After a trip to see a psychiatrist, Nicki was booked into a private rehab clinic on a 28-day programme. There, she was gradually weaned off prescription medications. “I went through severe anxiety and pain and night sweats,” she says. “I’m grateful that I was in a place where I was safe and secure.”
At rehab she was able to reflect on her life and why she turned to prescription pills in the first place. “A few things came up about abandonment issues mixed with the fact I was the baby of the family and mollycoddled. As I got older I was quite vulnerable and scared. That’s why I was taking the medication - it made me feel safe and secure, like a pink fluffy cloud.”
Nicki and her family’s lives and futures are far brighter now she’s removed prescription pills from the equation. And she’s using her experience to urge others to do the same.
“People need to be aware that the medication they’re prescribed could be highly addictive,” she says. “You shouldn’t be on it for a long time. I would urge anyone that has any concerns to pick up the phone and speak to your local drug and alcohol team or a private rehab clinic.”
Need friendly, confidential advice on drugs?
- Contact FRANK on 0300 123 6600 or visit the website for alternative contact methods.
- For more information on prescription drug addiction and the treatment available, visit www.ukat.co.uk.