My Codeine Story!

By Ikenga Chronicles June 4, 2018

My Codeine Story!

— Uche Anyanwagu 

The young man, led by his beleaguered mother and two brothers, entered the clinic where I sat with other medical students during our psychiatry posting in a rural outpost of our hospital.

Obviously, he was the first son of this widow, and from whom so much was expected. All hope now seemed lost as he was not even aware of who he was, not to talk of his mother or siblings.

Other students and I sat in awe and pity as we watched as they struggled to sit him down on the chair our consultant/lecturer had offered him.

Insight was glaringly lacking. He was in a world of his own. We were terrified as we gradually began to reconcile the wordings of our medical books with the stark realities on the field with our naïve minds.

At the other end, the family struggled with another reality – holding on to hope or succumbing to the impending and almost inevitable reality.

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After they attained some stability in getting him seated and a bit attentive, the mother gradually adjusted her loosely-fitting wrapper around her breast. She used the index and middle fingers to clear the dripping sweats from one corner of her forehead to another.

She found courage and a few words to relay her anguish. As her story – which is largely her son’s too – filtered through her now brown-stained beautiful gap-dentition, it permeated through the entire clinic’s airspace and soaked us all in pity and most of us in tears.

The consultant, used to similar stories, wrote on his paper, and occasionally looked at her and her son, interrupting her with some leading questions that would enable him arrive at a diagnosis.

The high point of the story was when she took a very snipe summary of the reason for her son’s mental health problem.

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In her own words (loosely translated in English): “He got so used to smoking and sniffing anything – from pit toilet, to ‘shoe-maker’ gum, plantain leaves/stem… just name it…”

She paused and sobbed.

“The most painful one, and the one that got him mad was when he smoked cow dung. Doctor! Cow dung! Is what my son smoked and the final nut loosened.”

We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at this point. It was a recipe of tragedy spiced with comedy.

While she spoke, the young man was in another conversation at another plane with forces our warped minds could not fathom.

Surely, the characters in his own world were more real than the ones playing out in our sights.

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We could sense his brothers own grief as they took turns to look at him and their sobering mother alternately, trying to keep their erring brother in harmony with the tone and mood of the room.

He was admitted and later sent to the ward where he spent many months under the loving care of his family.

He later had to undergo detoxification in addition to many other therapies.

His life later would change and during our ward round, we became acquaintances.

Many years later, as I sat as one of the participants in a conference organised by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, I was shocked to learn first-hand, from former drug addicts, the different drugs they abuse.

I was more shocked to see the young man I met at the psychiatrist hospital almost a decade back as one of the guest speakers.

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He was the one who first sighted me and came up to introduce himself during a short break session. I was shocked.

Later that evening, both sat down for dinner as he narrated to what he later dubbed “My Codeine Story”.

I will try to recall in his own words as much as I can.

“It has been a harrowing experience but I am glad I am here. I grew up a happy child in a loving home. My problem started after my father died in a ghastly motor accident.

“Things became so hard for us that I dropped out of school in frustration. I went on to join some street ‘boys’.

“From smoking cigarette, I went on to smoke weed (marijuana). Mixed with these were all kinds of alcoholic drinks.

“At a stage, I felt I had dual personality – two persons living in me. The normal me who tries to return home and be a good son to my mother and elder brother to my siblings. The other me who yearned to fly to the galaxies in ecstasy.

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“I had no inner peace. In search of this, I was introduced to Codeine syrup which we mixed with Cocoa-cola drink and drank like no man’s business.

“At first, I felt a sense and feeling of calm, warmth and contentment – the very essential ingredients life has denied me.”

I quickly gulped my glass of coke as if it had this same ‘wonderful codeine’. He paused, placed his arm on his chin, and said: “this was how my journey began.”

I recalled when I met him as a medical student many years ago. I placed my arm around his shoulder and nudged him to continue as the brave man he is.

“So, I went for more and more of codeine and literally drowned myself in it in search of this elusive calm.

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“With time, the quantity that could give me this peace increased. From two, I graduated to 4 and 5 and so on. I would literally kill to have my fill.

“When the syrup wasn’t available, I reached out for the tablets (combined with paracetamol). I would feel so nauseous and vomit bile as the paracetamol squeezed my liver.

“I was so entangled with it that even when I tried to keep away for a day, the withdrawal symptoms would literally send me chasing for the next bottle of codeine cough syrup.

“It was a living hell my brother. The shivers were more intense than that of a vibrator. The sweating and diarrhoea dried me up like water poured in a basket.”

Again, his image at our clinic that fateful day flashed through my mind like lightening.

“The grip was tight! So tight that it tightly brought eternity closer.I felt I had disappointed my family who looked up to me and so, I never sought help but sank deeper like one falling under gravity.”

I locked my fingers with his in a camaraderie fashion. He smiled and continued to narrate the toll codeine and other substances took on his health before he finally came to us psychotic.

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“Apart from the ‘feeling of high’ and euphoria, I had severe nausea and vomiting, excessive drowsiness, constipation, and my mouth was always dry.

“As if this was not all, I had many skin rashes, my breathing will almost cease often times, and I kept having tremors.

“One day, my brother, one day, I fainted and was found semi-conscious by the way side. I was later told that my blood pressure dropped and my heart rate was slow. No thanks to codeine abuse!

“Mixing it with other drugs and alcohol worsened these effects. I was involved with loads of things – smoking and sniffing all manner of things.

“In spite of this, I never got that calmness I craved for. I was more depressed, had no appetite, and kept seeing things.

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“When I was brought to your hospital then, I was told that my liver and kidneys were shutting down. I never even knew myself then nor where I was or what I did.

“I am glad my mother and siblings did not give up on me.”

He broke down and wept bitterly. In the midst of consoling him, I paused to clear my own congested eyeballs.

I sought his permission to share his story

“Go ahead,” he said, “That is all I live for now.”

My name is Uche Anyanwagu. I know that Codeine addiction is real.

  • This is the 26th in a series of short stories on “Medical Myths – Tales by Doctors”

*This story was published to add to the ongoing discussion on the negative impact of codeine abuse in Nigeria.

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