PST Wales Online

These people are all drug addicts – though they defy the stereotypes you might attach to that label. This is the truth about being hooked on prescription medication

Around nine years ago Derek was doing some routine painting outside his house.

As he stood up he felt a pain in his back and within hours he was unable to walk.

Like most of us would do he headed to the doctors where he was given some painkillers. Now, almost a decade later, the drugs have taken over his life, almost cost him his marriage, and have left him with a devastating addiction.

Derek is just one of the “substantial” number of people across Wales who are addicted to prescription medication.

In March Welsh Assembly members said more priority should be given to dealing with prescription drug dependency, saying there was a high volume of prescriptions across Wales, a lack of advice on how to come off certain drugs, and the Welsh Government has no strategy to tackle the issue.

Despite the recent critical findings for many affected people the issue has already had a devastating impact on their lives for years.

These aren’t people hanging around on street corners trying to score a fix to chase a high. On the face of it they are entirely typical members of society, often with jobs and a family, who due to some life event or illness are left burdened with an often crippling addiction that can last for decades.

From taxi drivers to journalists and people recovering from an operation, these are the stories of people addicted to prescription medication.


Around nine and a half years ago Derek was painting outside of his house when he stood up and felt a twinge in his back.

It turned out he’d prolapsed two discs in his back and, then in his mid-40s, he was prescribed strong painkillers by his doctor.

Within a few weeks he was already on a handful of different drugs including OxyContin, OxyNorm, Ibuprofen, and Lyrica.

Now, almost 10 years later, Derek said: “The drugs have taken over my life. Literally.

“The side effects and the coming down – I wake up in the night and my body is calling for them.

“The only way I can explain it is like that your blood is itching – like a heroin addict would be I suppose.

“Your body is calling for it and you’re just trying to fight it. It’s been a nightmare for nine and a half years, an absolute nightmare.”

Before injuring his back Derek said he had no previous medical issues, no history at all of drug misuse, and only occasionally had a pint.Derek said: “Never in my life did I have any other drug misuse problems.

“Nothing, not even a [cannabis] joint. I didn’t even like taking a paracetamol unless I absolutely had to. My medical records from before were non-existent.”

Now his life revolves around the pills he keeps tucked in his pocket in a small silver case.

He said: “I could not leave the house without my medication. Wherever I go my pillbox has to come with me because I would be lost without them – no matter where I was in the country or the world.”

When most people think of drug addicts they think of someone trying to chase some pleasurable high.

But speaking to Derek it would be impossible to tell that he was a drug addict. He retells his story eloquently, is smartly dressed, and has full understanding of what’s going on around him.

For Derek and many others in a similar position they need the drugs purely to satisfy a chemical addiction.

And if he was to just stop taking them he’d face crippling side effects.

The former taxi driver said: “You have got to live in my shoes to know what it’s like. For argument’s sake if I went for a day out to London and I forgot my tablets I would seriously have to get a taxi quick home to Cardiff because I couldn’t stay without [the drugs] because I would be in a hell of a mess.

“I’d be shaking, sweating, stomach cramps. You would picture a drug addict that’s clamouring for their next fix. That’s how you are, you’re literally shaking.

“I get that quite frequently in the middle of the night. Because your tablets are staggered some nights are worse than others.

“Your body will, say at 2.30am, 3am, start calling for them and you fight it for so long but come 4.30am you’ve got to take half a dose to calm your body down. It is dreadful.”

But Derek said the idea of suddenly stopping taking the drugs was impossible. “You couldn’t just stop. It’s a physical impossibility. I would be rushed into hospital. On the floor, physically shaking, you just couldn’t stop.

“The cravings are unbelievable. If it was due at 6pm tonight and it’s now 7.35pm, I’d been shaking and sweating and fidgeting, argumentative.”

OxyContin and OxyNorms, the main drugs Derek was prescribed and continues to take, is the brand name for oxycodone.

The drug is used to relieve severe ongoing pain such as cancer and is similar to morphine in its effects.

Across the Atlantic in America the drug has been given the nickname ‘hillbilly heroin’ due to widespread addiction.

In March a huge pharmaceutical company reached a $270m settlement in a lawsuit which claimed its opioids had contributed to the deaths of thousands.

The deal is the first by Purdue Pharma amid around 2,000 other lawsuits linked to its painkiller OxyContin.  

Derek said there’s no “high” when he takes the tablets and that doing so just gives a feeling of relaxation. Now Derek is tapering off the drug, gradually taking less and less.

He said there should be more awareness around the addictiveness of prescription medication.

Derek said: “I’m very strong-willed – I gave up smoking without any help. But this is too difficult, it’s something else.

“My biggest bugbear is that you aren’t informed. The doctor should have said to me: ‘You’re on this for three to four weeks because of the addiction side of it and then we’ll put you on to something else, it’s not long-term’.

“But to me the help is not there and they dish them out like Smarties.”

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