Lili Higgins was prescribed opioids nearly eight months ago to minimize the pain she has from Crohn’s disease.
He never thought about becoming addicted.
The 23-year-old was prescribed two types of opioid-containing medicines to relieve pain; Targin and Palexia.
He said Targin is a slow-release pill that he would take every 12 to 24 hours, while Palexia is a faster-release pill that he would take when needed.
His dosage fluctuated during that time. During a lull in her symptoms where he started weaning them off, she noticed that she was having withdrawals.
“I haven’t been completely myself for two weeks,” she said The feed.
“After the first day or two I was longing for them to feel normal again, then came maybe the third day, the fourth day I was starting to get very agitated and angry.
“It took a toll on my relationships. I live with my mom and was taking out a lot of anger on her.
“I was waking up in pools of sweat.”
Crohn’s disease is an intestinal disease that causes swelling and inflammation in the digestive system. Its symptoms include chronic pain, diarrhea, and rapid weight loss.
Lili made it through the withdrawals, but recently had another flare up that required her to go back on her medication.
“It was probably disappointing more than anything, because I felt like I worked really hard to get off them,” he said.
“I’m addicted again, but I’m working with my doctors to get rid of it.”
Without opioids, Lili says her life is severely limited: She can’t get out of bed or muster the strength to take a shower.
“I will be on the couch all day experiencing a 10/10 pain level. It’s really mind boggling to think about.
Lili has posted many videos on TikTok detailing her struggle with opioid addiction. Some have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
She said she has received many messages of support and people reaching out to share similar stories. One user said, “Girl, I’m in your exact position, go back to my high doses after my last admission. It’s so daunting.
Another wrote, “You are the only reason I weaned myself off. I never thought I could until I saw your videos sis.”
Lili was flagged in the system due to the amount of time she was prescribed opioids and she said it made her feel like a “druggo”.
Every state and territory in Australia has a real-time prescription tracking service that allows pharmacists and doctors to access a patient’s prescription history and can identify when people are taking opioids from different medical professionals in close succession.
He needed to have a consultation with his GP about his dosage and discuss all the details of its use.
The dangers of opioids
Pharmaceutical opioids caused 2669 deaths in Australia between 2016 and 2020, more than heroin (2124).
And in 2021, opioids accounted for 962 of the 1,704 drug-induced deaths that year, more than any other drug class.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, an estimated 14 million opioid scripts were administered to three million Australians in 2020-21.
There has also been an increase in the number of young people seeking pharmacotherapy treatment for opioid addiction.
This refers to people who are taking medication to treat withdrawal symptoms and minimize cravings.
However, pharmacotherapy is more in demand for people between the ages of 30, 40, 50 and 60 years old.
What are opioids?
Opioids are derived from a natural substance found in the poppy plant. In a medical context they are prescribed almost exclusively for pain relief.
Some of these include codeine, tramadol, oxycontin, fentanyl and morphine, heroin is also an opioid.
Dr Nick Carr is a general practitioner in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda. For over 30 years, he has taught doctors about the safe prescribing of addictive drugs such as opioids.
He said opioids are addictive because they bind strongly to receptors in the brain.
“When it’s taken away, the receptors are literally yelling at the body saying, ‘we don’t like it, give it back to us.'”
“They’re dangerous (in high doses) because they suppress the respiratory system, so if you take too many of these things you just stop breathing.”
He said more needs to be done to alert patients to the potential dangers of opioids.
“My son, who is a late teenager, recently came out of wisdom tooth surgery clutching a twenty-tablet packet of Endone, a very potent opioid, without any proper advice or instruction on their use,” she said.
“And especially without advice about what the potential risks and addiction potential were.”
A system is in place to monitor the amount of prescription medicines a person is buying.
Despite the system that tracks how much prescription drugs a person is buying, Dr. Carr said he is very concerned about doctors he calls “reckless prescribers” who will prescribe anyone who asks for opioids.
“The authorities have been ruthless in dealing with it, so I think we as a medical profession have to take a lot more responsibility for not initiating and perpetuating the problem.”
He said it’s important not to demonize opioids because there are people with chronic conditions who need to take them.
“It’s like all the medicines in our cabinets: they’re not all bad and they’re not all good.
“We certainly shouldn’t be saying ‘no one should take opioids,’ that would be a major disservice to the people out there who need them.”
Living with a chronic disease
There is no suggestion that Lili was thoughtlessly prescribed opioids.
She said she used opioids many times when she was hospitalized for her Crohn’s and would have been in great pain without them.
She was diagnosed with the disease when she was 12 and says the disease nearly killed her on three occasions.
Lili says Crohn’s can be an “embarrassing disease to have” and there have been times when she’s been incontinent in public and her friends have had to discreetly help her find a bathroom.
“When there’s a bad flare-up, sometimes I need to go to the bathroom 20 times a day.”
In order for Lili to stop taking opioids, she needs her Crohn’s to be in remission and not flaring up, which involves taking her prescribed medications, eating the right foods, and avoiding stress.
Otherwise he will have to have surgery to remove part of his digestive tract and live the rest of his life with an ileostomy bag.
“It’s a long road. But if I can get remission without surgery, then that will probably be my biggest success in my life,” she said.
“And I’m really determined to get there.”