Kirsty had no idea her secret habit would steal her smile.
Here, Kristy, 39, tells the story in her own words.
F￼orcing a smile, I tucked my three-year-old son Jason into bed. Then I hobbled down the stairs and finally let myself cry like I did every night.
Suffering from degenerative disc disease – which meant the discs in my spine were thinning – I was in agony. A single mum to Jason, I put on a brave face and ploughed through with help from strong painkillers.
Prescribed by my doctor, they contained codeine and I took six a day. But while they masked the pain briefly, I built up tolerance until I could constantly feel throbbing. So I began to buy extra packets over the counter between doctor’s appointments. Soon I was taking 100 tablets every day. As well as studying business administration, I volunteered at a homeless organisation. I’d keep a bottle of pills in my handbag and would sneak off to gulp four down every 40 minutes.
I need them for my back, I lied to myself. But deep down, I knew I was addicted. I had to ‘pharmacy shop’, so staff wouldn’t recognise me. I tried to cut down, but got withdrawal headaches. Then, when Jason was 11, I met John, 39. ‘I’ve got a disease which means I take painkillers long-term,’ I told him when we got serious.
A truck driver in the army, John was away for months at a time, so it was easy to hide my dependency. One day in 2010, I asked a chemist for a bottle of 96 tablets and she handed me a box of 40. ‘Oh, have you got the bigger size?’ I asked, rattling for my hit. ‘We don’t sell those anymore,’ she said. ‘The law’s changed.’
The crackdown also required a pharmacist to be involved at every sale and record customers’ details. What am I going to do? I panicked. So I started taking just three tablets at a time, then two, until I’d halved my daily intake to 50. ‘You’re taking a lot of those, love,’ John said one day.‘You know I need them for my disease,’ I snapped.
After that, I hid them. When John proposed, I was overjoyed. ‘We better start saving for a wedding!’ I said.
So, each month we put some money aside. But then one day I bit into a biscuit and felt one of my front teeth snap. We’d saved $5000 but I had to dip into it to get my tooth fixed.
A few weeks later, though, I was eating a hamburger when it broke again. And then more crumbled in my mouth as I was talking. Soon I was at the dentist every week. Eventually every last dollar of our wedding fund was gone. And so was my smile. I had six broken teeth on top and six on the bottom.
Ashamed, I knew my tooth loss was down to my addiction, as prolonged use of painkillers can cause tooth decay. The habit began to take its toll in other ways, too. I couldn’t leave the house because I had such a bad tummy and often vomited.My belly swelled and I had to buy clothes in a size 20. John was beside himself.
‘This has to stop,’ he said.‘I told you, they’re for my pain,’ I raged in denial. Then one day I simply broke down. ‘I’ve got a real problem,’ I admitted aloud for the very first time. ‘I know,’ John said, tears spilling down his cheeks. ‘You’re killing yourself.’
An addict for 12 years, I couldn’t carry on anymore. Making up my mind to get help, I confessed to Jason. I then went to a drug and alcohol rehab centre, where they carried out blood tests. ‘Your liver and kidneys are failing,’ the doctor said. ‘You wouldn’t have survived another couple of months.’
With their support, I decided to go cold turkey. Withdrawing made me sick and I paced the room throughout the night.‘I’m so proud of you,’ John soothed.
A month in, I was strong enough that he was able to return to work. After two months, my liver function improved and I felt healthy again. Eighteen months on, I found a closed Facebook page called Codeine Addiction, where people shared their experiences. Chatting to other sufferers, I even supported some into getting clean.
From February 1, medicines that contain low-dose codeine will no longer be available without a prescription in Australia. As codeine is an opioid like heroin, I’m terrified people will turn to this when it’s too difficult to get painkillers.
I’m speaking out to urge them to get help and to see the consequences of long-term abuse. When I look at my teeth, I feel ashamed. I have a partial denture to eat but it causes a lot of pain. My dentist says my only option is implants, but it would cost thousands and we just can’t afford it.So I’ll have to live like this.
I’d marry my darling John tomorrow, but I won’t do it until I can smile again, proudly. Even though I might not show it on the outside, I’m grinning on the inside. I couldn’t be happier to have my life back.