One person with first-hand experience of opioid painkiller dependence is Ron Smith, who owns and operates a small engineering firm in Western Sydney.
Ron’s problems followed a relatively minor injury at work. He was prescribed oxycodone to mitigate the pain, and initially it worked. But what Ron didn’t know and his GP did not correctly diagnose was that his injury was going to be the source of chronic pain – pain that he would have to live with and manage for the foreseeable future.
“At first the painkillers were brilliant,” says Ron, “I’d be in absolute agony, take a pill, and the pain would disappear. I could get back to work, and there was even a very mild feeling of euphoria to go with it.”
The problem was that the pain would always return. And over time it seemed to get worse. Ron was becoming dependent on his medication – his body had become accustomed to the opioid painkillers and needed higher levels to achieve the same effect as before.
“I remember going back again and again to my GP and to specialists, and their answer was always a pill; stronger, faster acting, slow release; they gave me so many medications I lost track of their names. But eventually the pain would win in the end,” says Ron.
“It got to the level where it was seriously affecting my mental wellbeing. It was hard to think straight – I couldn’t trust myself to drive or operate any machinery. And it was getting harder to control my emotions,” he adds. “And when I told the doctors this, the reaction was to give me more medication.”
“I remember thinking that this could be the death of me and told the doctors that I wanted to get off the medications as soon as possible.”
What happened next was the final straw for Ron. “They told me that the only way I could get off the opioids was by taking more opioids. It was almost as if they had a vested interest in keeping me doped,” he says.
This news only served to strengthen Ron’s resolve, and he set about finding alternative methods for managing his chronic pain. Now, more than a year later and after extensive physiotherapy, exercise, cognitive behavioural therapy and sheer determination he has learnt to live with his pain.
Like many people who have fallen foul of overprescribed medications, Ron never even considered himself a drug user. After all, all he did was to follow doctors’ orders. These were legal drugs. They were produced by proper drug companies.
“What’s most worrying,” says Ron, pointing to the massive increase in the use of opioid painkillers, “is that these drug companies are literally making billions out of this, and the medical profession is helping them. They hand out prescriptions for these ‘magic bullets’ that will solve all your problems, without fully explaining the consequences.”