This story is over 5 years old.


The Lonely World of a British Codeine Addict

Codeine addiction in the UK is slightly less raucous than the lean-sipping lives of Dirty South rappers.
empty packets indicating codeine addiction

I probably talk about opiates as much as the next guy. And, like the next guy, most of my rare conversations tend to revolve around heroin, because Kurt Cobain, Irvine Welsh and your year 8 PSE teacher have all done a great job of ensuring it's the only poppy derivative most of us really know anything about. Ask someone what codeine is, however, and they'll either stare at you blank-faced, mutter something about purple drank and DJ Screw, or half-remember their doctor once recommended it for period pains.


Codeine, for anyone not into Dirty South hip hop or self-medicating, is an over-the-counter opiate painkiller, semi-regulated by the pharmacists that sell it. It's also a drug I've been addicted to for a decade, ever since my girlfriend at college introduced me to recreational pharmaceuticals – a cheaper, slightly less illicit alternative to swapping cash for baggies of teething powder and boric acid in the back of a stranger's Audi.

If you're not a regular codeine user, it's a very easy drug to get hold of; you ask for it and the person at the till gives it to you. But when you get into it – and by "into it", I mean going through multiple boxes a day – it becomes a little more tricky. Generally, pharmacists will only sell you one packet once a week, though drug stores vary: some are tight, some don't give a shit. There's one place I used to go, for instance, that would give me two bottles of codeine linctus, the liquid form, and two boxes of co-codamol pills, codeine mixed with paracetamol, every week. I loved that pharmacy; it made my life very easy.

If you don't have the luxury of an easy-going counter attendant, you learn to lie to your pharmacist as to why you use the drug, and very occasionally they believe you and let you buy more in one go. In contrast, I've spent hours in the past driving between multiple towns and cities to get what I need for the day. When you're working full time, this becomes an issue; you very quickly learn that, by some bizarre anomaly in the process of time, seconds, minutes and hours become considerably shorter when you're racing around for more pills before you have to clock back in after lunch.


Besides the time it takes to acquire the drug every day – from around 30 minutes, up to about three hours – it then takes around half an hour to extract the pure codeine from whatever it's blended with. You'll need 250mg for a good dose of euphoria. That comes to about 32 pills of co-codamol (a single packet), which equates to about 16g of paracetamol. All that paracetamol in one go equals an agonising, drawn-out death from liver and kidney failure, so you'll want to get rid of that. I'm not going to go into the details, but considering codeine is soluble in water and paracetamol isn't, it doesn't take a masters in molecular chemistry to work out what you need to do.


One stage of the extraction process

At times, just like any other addiction, all this foreplay can end up feeling like a part-time job – an unpaid internship for the minor satisfaction that is everything finally coming together. And that's not the only downside; there are plenty more negatives to contend with: the dulling of your conscience, the torment and agonising pain of withdrawal, dealing with the negative opinions of others, handling a fucked up sleeping pattern and how it can lead to the absolute obliteration of important, meaningful relationships.

However, all of these quibbles are suppressed by the memory of the first time, and the pursuit of reaching that same high. It's a tired old cliche, and one I'm all too aware of, but even though you know you're never going to hit that point again, the bright, perfect pleasure – free of all the hate, pain and negativity in the world – you once felt keeps you hooked. Thought the reality is that I'll never feel that same bliss again.


Please don't think I'm endorsing going down your local Boots, buying up all the co-codamol and extracting every last grain of the stuff that gets you high. In fact, I'd advise against it – the whole rigmarole of daily use starts to become a pretty tedious chore about a year in, and the cost is around the same as a ten-a-day smoking habit. I've always felt that I know what I'm doing and that I minimise the risks in the best way I can, though admittedly my risk-reward ratio could be a little off at this point, ten years into an addiction I can't overcome.


A bottle of codeine linctus

I've discussed my addiction with my doctor, asking him how much damage ten years of daily codeine use will have done to my body. He told me that since the amount of paracetamol left in the finished product is unknown every time I take it, there's no sure way of telling the harm I've caused myself – though a blood test early last year told me my liver and kidneys are still in good nick.

I've tried quitting before, but the longest I managed was three months. Coming off codeine, my unadulterated brain reminds me why I started taking it in the first place: depression, anxiety and a general distaste for life. I didn't care if it killed me in the long-term, and that apathy for being isn't something I'm particularly keen to have present on my mind, so I continue extracting because it subdues all those feelings. I've been to an addiction centre once, but that clearly didn't work as I'm still using now.


It's a funny place to be, in the midst of codeine addiction. It's technically a legal substance, so the same discourse doesn't exist around it as, say, heroin, or any other drug that provokes mental images of teary families on sombre news reports. Which is maybe why my friends – who all know exactly what I do and how I do it – don't get too involved in my drug use (that, or because they know I'm very headstrong on the subject and would probably just ignore whatever they had to say). But it's still damaging, and something I'm fully aware I shouldn't be doing.


Co-codamol pills ready for the extraction process

Of course, that weird middle ground also means I'm not left with many places to turn when it comes to my addiction. In my ten years of taking codeine, I've only met two people who knew how to extract it properly. From what I can tell online, codeine in the UK is commonly viewed as a drug bored housewives use to tide over the void between lunchtime chores and afternoon TV.

There are some in the US who use codeine the same way I do, but most mix cough syrup containing codeine and promethazine with Sprite to make a drug called lean, or purple drank (or sizzurp, or Texas tea, or purple jelly, or a load of other stuff depending on where you're from). The lifestyle around lean is vastly different to the codeine culture I know here – all Three 6 Mafia, styrofoam cups and backyard parties, not quiet, blissed out evenings on my sofa in front of the telly.


The past ten years have been a decade of continuity, leading a life where codeine is both in the backdrop and foreground of everything I do. My relationships have always fallen apart thanks to my inability to summon the courage I need to quit, and the dulling of my conscience has led to a regrettably long list of mistakes and bad decisions. I realised a long time ago that drugs don't solve anything – that they're just a way to tone down the fall out from the self-perpetuating cycle I've found myself in.

I figure I've got to quit eventually, but the problem there is that going through withdrawal isn't exactly compatible with a full-time job. Although you can function, it's a hellish existence. For now, I'm happy to stay on the ride; even when it's not at its best, there's always the promise of a relative peak again sometime soon. So at least I've got that going for me.

More stories about addiction:

The Sad Demise of Nancy Lee, One of Britain's Ketamine Casualties

I Dated a Mephedrone Addict for Two Very High Months

Addiction Isn't a Disease, I'm Just a Dick