An Australian man who sold his house and moved into a caravan to fund an addiction to codeine-based painkillers is speaking out ahead of a government crack down early next year.
As of February 1, 2018, all codeine-based products, including Panadeine, Nurofen Plus, and some cold and flu medication, will be banned from sale without prescription after new state laws were passed earlier this year.
Mark Wulff hid his shocking secret for years and was taking 90 PILLS A DAY in the grip of his addiction. But he was forced to tell his family when he was rushed to hospital with kidney failure, due to the damage he’d caused. Now the 57-year-old from Northam, WA, fears addicts will turn to the black market.
“I’m terrified addicts will start taking other drugs like heroin, or take their own lives rather than endure the withdrawals,” Mr Wulff said. “They’re already stocking up and even recruiting people on line to buy codeine over the counter, but their supply won't last forever.”
Mr Wulff first started taking the drug after he realised it calmed his mind.
“I suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and anxiety which meant my brain was always racing,” Mr Wulff explained. “I avoided doing anything that had a one or three in the combination, so I didn’t leave my house at certain times, I counted my steps to avoid those numbers and I didn’t dare go anywhere on certain dates in case something bad happened. Then one day I was admitted to hospital with a burn on my leg. I was given morphine for the pain and a sense of euphoria washed over me. For the first time, my busy mind was completely calm.”
As soon as Mr Wulff was discharged, the OCD returned with a vengeance. Desperate for a similar feeling, he bought some painkillers that contained codeine, which he didn’t need a prescription for.
“Swallowing a few, my mind instantly slowed down,” he said. “Soon I was buying a packet a day from different pharmacies. They’d ask whether I’d taken them before and I would lie and say about six months ago.”
Warning him that the codeine can be addictive, they told him not to take them for too long.
“As I built up a tolerance, I needed more to get the same effect, so I bought boxes of 96,” Mr Wulff said. “When they asked what I needed them for, I fabricated stories, limped to the counter or pretended I had a bad back.”
So as not to get caught out, Mr Wulff started travelling to chemists out of town. When he’d exhausted those, he’d drive up to 300kms to new ones.
“Knowing I was out of control, I did try to get help,” he said. “I joined forums and went to a drug and alcohol support service. Too ashamed to admit the truth, I told them I was taking 30 tablets a day. Really, I was swallowing that many before I got out of bed, then I’d take another 50 during the afternoon.”
Other times, he attempted to go cold turkey. But within hours his muscles ached, he felt sick and sweated profusely. Back on the tablets, his skin turned grey and his family noticed something was wrong. When his mum, Grace, or sisters, Colleen and Gypsy, visited, he’d often have to lie down, lying to them that he was just tired.
“The fuel and drugs cost a fortune, so I sold my house and bought an old caravan, then I spent the profit on feeding my addiction,” Mr Wulff admitted. “I didn’t care that my home was infested with rodents or that the roof leaked. All I cared about was satisfying my cravings. As I didn’t work due to a disability, my days revolved around my next dose.”
A crackdown on codeine abuse saw packets reduced in size in Australia and New Zealand in 2010. Then countries around the world made codeine-based painkillers prescription only.
“I started panicking. Knowing that I wouldn’t cope with the withdrawals, I thought it would be better to take my own life. I’d sold everything I owned. I was a drug addict and bankrupt, I didn’t think it couldn’t get any worse. Then one day, I woke up and couldn’t walk or move my hands.”
He was rushed to the Royal Perth Hospital by ambulance where he finally confessed he was taking 90 painkillers a day. There, he was diagnosed with kidney failure and told he was lucky he hadn’t done permanent damage.
“When Mum and Gypsy arrived, I revealed my shocking secret,” he said. “With everything out in the open, relief flooded through me. Then Gypsy gave me a big hug and said they would support me.”
After being paralysed for four days, Mr Wulff regained movement and was discharged after a week. A specialist prescribed Suboxone, a drug to help with his dependence. And after three years and nine months, he was able to stop taking it.
“No longer addicted to codeine, I moved into a new home and rebuilt my relationships,” he said. “I even got a job in a pharmacy where they knew my past.”
His boss encouraged him to share his story, so in July Mr Wulff set up a closed Facebook group, Codeine Addiction, where people can seek support and ask for advice in confidence.
In February 2018, codeine based painkillers will be up-scheduled to prescription only due to abuse.
“The codeine tentacles have extended far and wide into every fabric of our society,” Mr Wulff said. “Six point three million people take codeine every year and two million abuse it - and it only takes three to five days to become addicted.
“I want them to know there is help available before that time comes. I know. I was a slave to codeine. But I have a life again.”
For support with a drug addiction 24/7, call Lifeline Australia 13 11 14 or the NZ Alcohol Drug Helpline 0800 787 797.
As of February 1, 2018, medicines that contain low-dose codeine will no longer be available without a prescription in Australia. Codeine is an opioid drug closely related to morphine, and can cause dependence, addiction, poisoning and, in high doses, death.
■ Most people are unaware that over-the-counter medicines containing codeine offer very little additional pain relief when compared with medicines without codeine.
■ Talk to your pharmacist or doctor for advice.
■ The NZ Medicines Classification Committee is currently considering whether to support the reclassification of all codeine containing medicines.
A version of this story was originally published in that's life! Issue 38, 21 September 2017.