Painkillers: jagged little pills

When Cathryn Kemp was dangerously ill, she was given powerful painkillers. But the drugs turned out to pose a greater threat to her life than the disease

I've always been a diarist. I used to be a journalist and travel writer; writing was part of my everyday life. So from the moment my pancreatitis hit in 2004 until the day I staggered out of rehab six years later, I wrote about it. I did so because it felt natural, but also because I knew that there was something extraordinary about it. It was all so extreme.

At that time, halfway through 2004, I had been feeling quite tired, and had a lot of backache. So I went to my doctor. He gave me a leaflet on how to deal with muscle pain. But then one day, bang, that was it: the most amazing pain. By seven o'clock that night, I was in A&E, and my life would never be the same again.

It took several weeks for the pancreatitis to be diagnosed. My surgeons later described it as the wild west of modern medicine. Not much is known about it and not many surgeons like to deal with it because it is so difficult to treat. It also brings their survival rates down.

I was told it is the most pain a human can endure. On the pain Richter scale, childbirth is between five and six, pancreatitis around seven and eight. Hence the need for massively strong painkillers. I was put on painkillers from the start, initially a stronger version of ibuprofen. A few weeks later, it was discovered I had been given the wrong kind of opiate, which only exacerbated my situation. It was then I was put onto fentanyl, an opium-derived pain reliever almost 100 times stronger than morphine. NHS guidelines dictate that the maximum amount you should take – in the form of lozenges – is eight a day. I ended up on about 60.

But there is no doubt that fentanyl saved my life. When you are in that much pain, you can die from it. I was told that each attack of pancreatitis was the equivalent of a heart attack. Over a three-and-a-half-year period, I had 40 attacks.

I was 33 years old and it had come out of the blue. Alcohol can sometimes prompt it, but in my case, it was a genetic condition just waiting to erupt. I had to stop working immediately. The flat I had just bought I had to rent out and I went to live with my parents, who looked after me. I did have a little nest egg, which took me through the first 18 months of the illness, but after that I had to apply for incapacity benefit. I developed ME as well and could barely leave the house. I was in incredible pain and extremely tired. All the time.

The yearning for fentanyl quickly became something I couldn't control – the craving, the shaking as the withdrawal pangs took hold, the relief when I opened another lozenge. For a long time I had nothing except for the drugs, day in, day out. It was awful to be so physically dependent, of course, and I try not to think about it today – but now and again, I'll be really honest, I miss it, and think: wasn't life so much simpler on it?

But the fentanyl did alleviate the pain. It helped. It affects the opiate receptors in your brain, and removes perception away from pain. It's like having a blanket that settles on you. It brings you down, the pain slips away, everything goes foggy and softly tinted, and you feel woozy and a bit high.

I have to admit that I didn't do any research on the drug, or its dangers, beforehand. I was too ill, in desperate pain, really clinging on for my life. All I cared about was that it was working. When you are in that kind of pain, nothing else registers. I was so relieved that there was something that would get me through all the hours and days, that's all.

Even though fentanyl is incredibly strong, the body learns to metabolise it. You get used to it, and so you need more. I went back to my doctor for more and more, completely and utterly dependent on it for my survival. My GP knew within eight or nine months that I was addicted and spent a long time telling me so, but I wouldn't have it. I refused to listen.

Once I did accept I was an addict, I went into rehab. They said they had never seen someone on such a high does of Fentanyl before. It was so hard to get off them but I did. I'm a member of a 12-step group now, which is a spiritual programme. I'm not sure whether I'm religious myself, though I do feel spiritual. The way I look at it, I must have been helped through all this by something: fate, luck, a guardian angel. Who knows? I just don't see how I could have survived without a bit of help. For a long time, I was a self-pitying victim, but then I realised that half the world has to deal with being ill, and so basically I got a grip. I started to laugh at myself, or at least try.

These days, I live every day as it comes. I still have pain, still have fatigue issues and I live with disabilities. Pancreatitis is a recurring condition, so it could strike again. I am aware of that. I went to my specialist just last month and was told that I have to be grateful for every day that I am well. People die from this condition.

But I am making a life for myself, learning to live without fear but with dignity and even an eye to my future. I've found myself a husband and I have a stepson. I live in a lovely little house – and I've written a book. So, yes, today is OK. Life is good.

Interview by Nick Duerden

'Painkiller Addict' by Cathryn Kemp (Piatkus, £13.99). To order this book for the special price of £12.59, including P&P, go to independent booksdirect.co.uk

A hidden addiction

* Fentanyl is an opoid analgesic, one of a class of powerful drugs, often prescribed for severe chronic pain.

* Their use has grown over the last two decades, with a six-fold increase between 1991 and 2009, partly due to an ageing population more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses.

* As patients develop tolerance to the drug and it becomes less effective, doctors often increase the dose, until patients are taking many times the recommended dose.

* Consequently, addiction is likely to be widespread, and the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse has expressed concern. But there is little data regarding the extent of the problem.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
Nadine Gordimer died peacefully at home yesterday
people
Arts and Entertainment
Neil Young performs on stage at Hyde Park
musicAnd his Hyde Park set has rhyme and reason, writes Nick Hasted
News
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Extras
indybestThe tastiest creations for children’s parties this summer
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Paolo Nutini performs at T in the Park
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Supply Chain Manager

    Not Specified: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's most progressive and innova...

    SQL Developer

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SQL Develope...

    Senior .NET Developer

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: This exciting c...

    Business Analyst - Horsham - Competitive Salary

    Negotiable: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Business Analyst - Horsham, West Su...

    Day In a Page

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

    Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

    The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor