Today, a news story broke about Chris Kirkland, the one-time Liverpool keeper, and his long-term addiction to painkillers.
He tells how he became addicted to Tramadol whilst injured, and that addiction gripped him for ten years or so, to a point where it took over his life. It’s a tough tale to read and a valuable glimpse into the story behind a popular player, one I don’t doubt is happening elsewhere in the country right now. It might not be an addiction to Tramadol, it might be the mental anguish of injury, but it focuses on an area I’d quite like to talk about to you today; legalised, state-sponsored drug addiction. It’s a subject I know a fair bit about because, like Kirkland, I, too, was addicted to Tramadol for many years, an addiction I only kicked during lockdown. I hope that by adding my story to that of Kirkland’s, anyone else out there currently experiencing issues with such substances will feel they’re able to beat it.
In 1996, I was involved in quite a serious car accident, a head-on collision in Edlington hollow between Baumber and Horncastle. We were lucky; we were in a taxi on the way home when another car ploughed into us coming the other way. It could have been much worse, but we all walked away alive and happy. A couple of months later, I began to get back pain that would last a few hours, something I never really thought much of. I do remember, aged 17, being helped off a bus in Wragby marketplace because I couldn’t stand, but inevitably I’d always manage to walk it off.
There’s a pretty big revelation coming now that I don’t really speak about, but in 1999 the pain started again and I turned to cannabis to help. I’d read it could benefit and it did, for many years. I guess whatever damage had been done to my back wasn’t immediate, but after 13 years or so, even the weed stopped helping. By then, I’d got a job working in Bourne, driving from Cambridge every day. That journey, coupled with a slow degradation of my condition, was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. One day, in early 2014 with me having been helped to my desk, a staff member brought me a tablet. “Try this,” she said. It was Tramadol.
Immediately, I felt the pain subside. It wasn’t gone completely, but it was like a light had been turned out on the agony, and I went off to the doctors the next day and told them all about my condition. I explained how I’d taken one of my friend’s Tramadol (which they frowned upon by the way) and how it helped. I was prescribed 50mg capsules and told I could take one, up to four times a day.
For a year, I did. However, they soon began to wear off too quickly and the pain would return. By now, I’d reached a tipping point; my back needed attention and I’d ignored it for too long. I began to take 100mg four times a day, which was eight tablets. Then I upped it again, this time to 200mg four times a day. When that didn’t feel effective, I went back to the doctor and they gave me a slow release Tramadol, as well as the other stuff, so I threw that into the mix as well. It was hard to keep track of what I was taking, and it wasn’t helping either. There was also the problem of not taking a tablet; if I now didn’t drop at least two tablets four times a day, I began to get withdrawals. That would be aching in my joints, cold sweats, headaches, the works. I recall spending a weekend in Norfolk with Fe and forgetting my tablets; I was a nightmare for two days. The pain seemed ten times as intense as ever, and I could sleep or eat. I realised I had to stop and see the doctor about coming off them. Just before I relocated to Louth, I weaned myself off them and then, during a week off work, went cold turkey. It was horrible, but it worked.
Fast forward to August 2016. I was off work with stress and anxiety and my back was still bad. People would say ‘take some ibuprofen’, but it had zero effect. I likened that to cutting off your foot and putting a plaster on it; ineffective. One day, after a particularly horrible night of constant pain, I found a rogue blister of Tramadol in a draw and, just for the comfort, popped two. Instantly, I knew it was a mistake, but 12 hours later I was in my new doctors’ surgery in Louth, asking for a prescription. I got one, no questions, and within weeks I was back on 100mg a day, four times a day.
It’s hard to explain the social impact it has on you. One evening, we went to the Bluebell with our neighbours, and I’d forgotten to take my tablet before I went out; I’d got them on the side, but you know how it is. The withdrawal comes quick, and halfway through the meal it was Game Over. I also had the issue where I couldn’t drink on them at all. Some of my friends will recall the time I stopped drinking completely. I wore it like a badge of honour, like I was achieving something, but the truth is I couldn’t drink on my painkillers. I tried, oh how I tried, but it always ended the same. Some of you might remember me on Andy’s Bus when we beat Burton 2-0 in December 2019 – I was having a great time until the beer and tablets rendered me almost unable to move. I sat, frozen in one space, all the way home and threw up as soon as I got off the bus. Notts County away, the same. Mansfield away, the same. It was like a process, I’d convince myself it would be fine, and when it wasn’t, I’d wish I’d never been on Tramadol.
I had my operation in 2018 and in the hospital, they told me I could have one 50mg capsule twice a day. They thought that was being generous, but my body wanted 200mg a time, morning, no one, evening and bedtime. I was not only in pain, unable to move and pissing in a little tube, but I was withdrawing as well. My Tramadol were at home, Fe couldn’t have brought them in (and wouldn’t in that quantity) and the hospital gave me paracetamol for the pain. How I ever got through that I don’t know, but rest assured the first thing I did when I got home was neck four tablets.
By that point, I needed too much to mask the pain, but by Burton away in 2019 I didn’t need them at all. My back op had been a success, I suffered minimal discomfort and yet morning, noon and night I was dropping Tramadol. I got down to 100mg, but I knew when I wanted to come off them I was in for a nightmare time. Lockdown arrived and I remember one day looking at the tablets that had held me prisoner for so long and just thinking ‘fuck this’. Ever since 1999, I’d medicated in some way for my back, and I didn’t need to after the surgery. I put the packet to one side, and told Fe what I wanted to do. She braced herself for a tough time, and we approached it together.
Oddly, it wasn’t all that bad. I got through the nights with herbal sleeping tablets off the shelf and occasionally moved to the spare room. The days were spent working freelance, so I could wander off and sit somewhere. I did it with tablets all over the house; there still are. Eventually, after probably ten days, I woke up and didn’t feel the aching in my joints with my face stuck to a sweat-soaked pillow. I was completely free.
I think they affect people differently; I never hallucinated on Tramadol (although when they gave me morphine for a spell, things got a bit trippy), and I always remained lucid (I think). It’s a weird addiction because you can exist normally, have a job, friends and stuff, but the impact is there. One holiday, in late 2014, Fe and I went camping in Cornwall and she had to drive my car, help me in and out because of my back pain, but also I had to drop tablets four times a day just to stay focused. It’s like they start by helping you through the day, but then become like petrol in a car; you’re going nowhere without them. For me, the drinking thing was an issue, even a single pint would lay me out and I’d be completely leathered on three, and certain bodily function (ahem, you know what I mean) wouldn’t happen.
I’d like to say it’s been two years and I’m Tramadol-free, but that’s not the truth. In fact, it’s been about 15 hours. That’s partly the irony in this whole article, I still use Tramadol. I have lots left around the house and every so often, I have back pain, completely unrelated to my original injury. This comes from twisting into the wrong position, and last night on a run, I turned to check for traffic and ‘boom’, that stabbing pain came. I know how it goes, it lasts three days or so and the first night is the worst. This is the third time I’ve had it since I gave up Tramadol, and the third time I’ve taken one 50mg tablet for the pain. If it persists, I don’t have another as I know where that goes, but I do have restraint. If you’re a previous addict I don’t recommend it by the way; I just have this weird thing with addiction where once I give something up, I now seem to be able to dip in and out. It’s like smoking, I had a packet of cigars to myself on Saturday night, but they’re the first in months; I can take it or leave it.
My point is this; Chris Kirland’s story is different to mine, and the same as well. If you’re on painkillers you can’t get off, then they’ve become the problem, not the solution. However, it isn’t impossible to come off them, and cold turkey on Tramadol isn’t pleasant, but it won’t be as impactful as, say, coming off heroin. My view on it is this; if the solution becomes the problem, and you recognise its the problem, then it needs action. It’s easy for me to say, I ate Tramadol like Smarties for almost seven years on and off, but after a week of intense discomfort, I was free of that demon.
You can be too.