Wednesday 18 September 2019

The doctor, the drugs and his own case of addiction

Liam Farrell was a GP - and a morphine addict who stepped back from the edge, writes Liam Collins

LESSONS: ‘One of the things I learned was to understand my own frailty,’ says Liam Farrell.
LESSONS: ‘One of the things I learned was to understand my own frailty,’ says Liam Farrell.
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

He doesn't remember the moment he first injected morphine - but Liam Farrell will never forget the consequences of what he now calls, "that pivotal act in my own destruction".

He didn't fit the stereotypical image of a drug user. For at the time he first injected Liam Farrell was a doctor and local GP in Crossmaglen, Co Armagh - a so-called ''pillar'' of the community and a regular and respected columnist with medical publications such as the British Medical Journal and The Lancet.

"For so long it wasn't a problem, I just did it a couple of times a month, but at some stage, it is hard to know when I became a highly functioning addict," he says, reflecting without bitterness on his dark past.

Liam Farrell is adamant that being an addict "doesn't define me" but he is willing to talk openly about it because he is certain that he isn't alone, the professional classes are also afflicted by the drug problem. They are just better able to hide it and to cope with its consequences.

When his wife Brid - who is also a doctor - found out, Liam had to confront his addiction and he did so with the help of his family and old college friend from their days in University College Dublin, the late Dr Pat Foy from Greystones.

"I was in a position of authority and I reneged on that responsibility," he says now. "It is a serious transgression and it's not enough to say I was under pressure, every doctor is under pressure, and so it is not an excuse" he says.

Aware of the "unsavoury reputation" of Crossmaglen where he was working in general practice at the time, Farrell - who comes from Rostrevor, Co Down - has nothing but praise for the local people and the community during his difficulties, or what one of them recently described to him as "that wee bit of addiction you had".

But he remembers the Troubles as nasty and difficult.

"I would have been called out to treat injured soldiers and policemen, and I once received a 'thank you' from a British commander after I treated army personnel who had been injured in a mortar attack on a checkpoint," he says. "And I can also say I was never threatened by anyone for treating soldiers."

It was the local community and the letters of support, letters of commendation sent to the Medical Council on his behalf that he says "still bring a tear to my eye". As a result, he was suspended from practising for only three months and was not allowed to prescribe opiates as a sanction for his drug addiction.

In his new book Are You the F**king Doctor, he describes in detail the minutie of living as an addict - even if he was a functioning one. The book's title is taken from a greeting at the door of a house when Dr Farrell was late for a call. "I answered, 'no, I'm the ordinary doctor.'"

Dr Farrell, who wrote the entry on sex for the Oxford Companion to the Body, also writes on a myriad of other medical matters, his "fantastical adventures in family practice"; living through the Troubles as a doctor; hospital life - and the subject that confronts every doctor and patient, death.

But his book opens with a frank account of his drug addiction.

"How did it come to this, I ask myself again and again, how did I let this happen to me? My mind races; I went through withdrawal before, vowed it would never happen again, that this time I would stay clean. Why did I have to start using again and get myself into this mess?"

After getting himself out of "this mess", Dr Farrell resumed practising for 10 years and was clean until, through unforeseen circumstances which he can't discuss because of patient confidentiality, he found morphine was once again easily available to him.

When ''the supply'' ran out, he began to take morphine from the practice, hoping it wouldn't be noticed, until he was confronted by his partner and owned up.

"I did the right thing, I realised how far it had gone and I just wanted to get clean again. So I said: This is what I did, this was the priority and it entailed reporting it to the police."

This time the authorities weren't so forgiving and he was tried and convicted of possession, getting a six months suspended sentence and a criminal conviction.

"I had been given a second chance to re-shape my life and I let everybody down, I was chairman of the local GAA and an under-age coach. I had to withdraw from all that," he recalls. He was also what he calls a "Z-list" celebrity in Northern Ireland and seen by some as a "soft target" because of his writings on medical matters.

When he went back to his first GAA match in Petit Park in Rostrevor, two friends, Tom and Pat Fee, his own doctor, walked on either side of him. "Some bonds run deeper than sex," he says with a smile,. "And running a GAA team is one of them."

Even after his conviction, Farrell wanted to return to medicine, but there was just too many bureaucratic obstacles. So he got on with life, writing columns, many of them funny or darkly humorous. It is these which make up the backbone of his "life's work" - his first book.

He also ''curates'' Irishmed, a popular medical tweet site and is a staunch defender of social media. "You hear about it being pernicious, but on medical matters it is different, there is much more about information and if I get it wrong people point it out in a much more gentle fashion."

His son Jack lives in Washington where he is involved in conflict resolution, his daughter Katie works in finance in London and his youngest daughter, who played in goals for the Co Down GAA ladies football team, is studying at the Sorbonne university in Paris.

"One of the things I learned from addiction was to understand my own frailty and that made me a better doctor when I was practising, because I understood frailty in others. The real secret of medicine is not the patient liking me, but me liking my patients.

"I never wanted being an addict to define me but patients can't be defined either. They come in with a specific problem that is often the tip of the iceberg, and you don't get to see what's below the water in a 10-minute consultation, you have to look deeper."

There is a fellowship among addicts, he says. "Some people could have been coming to a meeting and they are at the lowest level and it is inspiring to see them more bright and alert. It is inspirational.

"I see myself as lucky, I had a steady job and a family who supported me, a lot of other addicts are on a knife edge and when they left a meeting they went back into the same environment, you see them come for a couple of weeks and disappear..."

Are you the F**king Doctor: Tales from the Bleeding Edge of Medicine is available on Amazon

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