Two months after Annie* was given painkillers for an injury, she noticed she was taking more than the amount prescribed by her GP. At first, it was to ease her back pain, but she soon found dihydrocodeine helped ease the stress of balancing a high-pressure job with raising two children under five.
She started running out of prescriptions early, so began lying to her surgery, saying she’d lost her pills or was going on holiday so needed more. To her surprise, they prescribed a year’s worth in one go – which she finished in three months. ‘They took the edge off and made me feel calmer,’ says lawyer Annie, 37.
Suddenly, she realised she couldn’t cope without them. ‘I grew obsessed with how many packets I had left. My husband started to suspect, but I kept denying it to him and myself. From the outside my life looked perfect: I’ve got a good career, a first-class degree and a lovely home. My children have tutors and we live in a nice area. I couldn’t be a drug addict, I thought. I had to keep up that narrative.’
But Annie is one of a growing number of women who have turned to prescription medication to manage anxiety or pain– and then found themselves hooked.
Earlier this year, Dr Owen Bowden- Jones, consultant psychiatrist for Central North-West London NHS Foundation Trust, opened the AtOM clinic (Addiction to Online Medication) to help teenagers addicted to prescription drugs, such as Xanax. But he was surprised when adults in their twenties to forties – many of them women – sought treatment as well.
‘We see people for whom the label “drug user” would be a shock; people with good social networks, jobs, families, partners,’ he tells Grazia. ‘They seem to feel that by using a medicine, rather than an illicit drug, it somehow legitimises the use. One thing that has been striking is that people often keep their use a secret from their partners or friends. They buy prescription medication online, it arrives through the letterbox and then they try to conceal it.’
He says the drugs most commonly misused by women who seek treatment are benzodiazepine (Xanax and Valium), some opioid painkillers and cognitive enhancers. In fact, a recent study found one in 12 adults have taken these ‘smart drugs’ – a new breed of pills that can be bought online without a prescription to improve concentration at work. Modafinil is the most popular, with many experimenting with it in the workplace to get ahead or keep up if they are exhausted.
‘The accessibility of prescription medicines online, without medical supervision or quality control, is a real concern,’ says Bowden-Jones. ‘My advice to anyone who thinks they have a problem is to go and have an honest conversation with their GP.’
Nicki Hari’s addiction started in a similar way to Annie’s after she was prescribed drugs for her chronic knee pain. After a year, she realised she had panic attacks and flu-like symptoms whenever she stopped taking them. The pills made her feel like she was ‘on a pink fluffy cloud’, so when it dawned on her she could buy them – easily and legally– online, she was delighted.
She carried on for a decade until, in her mid-thirties – and now a mum-of-two – she couldn’t hide it any more: ‘I’d wake up late because I was so heavily sedated and would lie to work [a management firm] about why.’ Until, one day, she simply couldn’t get out of bed. ‘Alarm bells rang among my friends so they drove over, climbed up on my bins and came in through my bedroom window to find me in bed. One of them took the children to her house, the others helped convince me to get help and, eventually, I spent 28 days in rehab.’
A decade later, Nicki is still in recovery and works as an admissions counsellor at UKAT, a private addiction treatment centre where admissions for prescription drug addiction have risen by 33% in the last two years. There were almost 50% more women checking in for prescription drug addiction last year compared to 2015.
‘Today alone I’ve taken 10 calls from people addicted to prescription drugs,’ says Nicki. ‘There needs to be more awareness and help. Local drug services don’t have enough knowledge or funding to help and those suffering might assume clinics are full of people injecting themselves. But these people are also addicts. There needs to be a lot more help from the NHS and awareness among GPs that a lot of the drugs they are prescribing are very addictive.’
Eventually, a doctor noticed something was awry with the way Annie was speeding through her medication and he changed her prescription to a slow-release form of the drug. However, she quickly learned to open the capsules and swallow the powder to offset the slow-release element. She also managed to convince her GP to give her another year-long repeat prescription.
‘It was irresponsible of him not to spot the signs,’ she says. ‘I wonder whether he knew what was going on but didn’t have time to open that can of worms. A few months later, I realised I risked losing my family and job if I didn’t get help, so I started a 12-step programme at Narcotics Anonymous.'
She thought it would be full of ‘people on heroin’ but was surprised to meet other professional women with similar stories to hers. ‘NA worked for me because I made a strong group of friends. If we’re ever tempted to relapse, we support each other. But we haven’t ever properly admitted this secret side of ourselves to the others in our lives.’
Annie thinks women are especially susceptible to this kind of addiction, ‘Because we feel slowing down isn’t an option. We spend our lives trying to keep up appearances, to seem like strong, independent women... There’s probably loads of successful mums in my nice, quiet neighbourhood knocking back pills just to get through the day.’
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*names have been changed