Former GP Dr Liam Farrell on his battle with addiction: 'The morphine withdrawal was the most frightening thing that ever happened to me'
A former GP has opened up about his addiction to morphine, which caused him to re-evaluate his future in the medical profession.
Dr Liam Farrell gave his first broadcast interview on this morning’s Ryan Tubridy Show in which he spoke honestly about his morphine addiction, which he developed while working in a practice in Crossmaglen in Armagh during the late 1990s.
The former GP admitted that the long hours he needed to put in to establish himself in his practice contributed to his addiction, which at its worst, saw him injecting an ampoule of morphine several times each week.
“Unfortunately about ten years into practise I developed an addiction to morphine. Doctors are given the responsibility and authority to regulate this immensely powerful substance which has tremendous power for good but also can potentially cause tremendous damage. I began to use morphine and became addicted to it,” Dr Farrell said.
“At the time I was working every second night in Crossmaglen and it was very busy. The Troubles weren’t at their height at that time, but they were busy enough. I was writing intensely for a number of journals and when you’re offered work you have to take it,” he said.
After completing a diploma in Palliative Care and becoming a specialist in the drugs used to alleviate pain in dying patients, Farrell admitted that he began using morphine as an escape from his problems.
“I have no memory of the first time I decided to use morphine. It’s a pivotal moment of my life and the start of my self destruction and I have no memory of the first time I decided to do it.
“At the time I was working for a production company in the UK and I started to travel back and forth to London.
“I would have used one every couple of months, one ampoule. I would have injected the morphine,” said Dr Farrell.
The doctor, who has left the medical profession to focus on his writing career, said that he felt he had control of his morphine use at the beginning of his addiction.
“I never thought I shouldn’t be doing it. Initially I was doing it so rarely. Initially I was using it every four or five months. It was just an occasional diversion but I didn’t think of it as an addiction.
“Eventually I got to the stage where I was using it once or twice or week. Then it got to a stage where I was experiencing withdrawal effects and that was like a sledgehammer hitting me. And that is when I realised I was a morphine addict,” he said.
The husband and father revealed that he has never been more frightened than when he was going through morphine withdrawal.
“The withdrawal from morphine was the most frightening thing that ever happened to me and it still frightens me the thought of it. I was frightened of the drug. I was frightened of not having the drug. I was frightened of the withdrawal. I was frightened of what it was doing to my health and my family and my children and my job.
“I was frightened all the time. The withdrawal was so traumatic and it lasts about 2 to 3 days. It’s not dangerous like alcohol withdrawal. It’s like you’re running a marathon and there’s all this adrenaline in your body, which up to now the morphine has been suppressing so it bursts out through your body. You get diarrhoea, cramps, you’re sweating, you’re intolerant to cold. There is an intolerable anxiety,” he said.
The Northern Irish doctor eventually confided in his wife, who is also a doctor and sought help for his addiction in 1998. However, ten years later he relapsed.
“I was clean for ten years but in 2008, somewhere I just got access to a supply of morphine, which I previously would not have had. Out of the blue I got access and it started me on a slippery slope.
“I stole them from my colleague’s bag which was a terrible breach of trust and a guilt that I have to carry with me and eventually I was found out.”
“I was bitterly ashamed and so full of self loathing because I had been given another chance. Everybody had showed great faith in me and I had let them down,” he said.
The doctor once again relied on the support of his “loving family” and friends and has been clean for a number of years. He is now a leading columnist for medical publications, although he can still practise medicine should he wish.
“I was so fortunate in having good family, a loving wife, lovely children and good friends who stood up for me,” said Dr Farrell.
The doctor has credited Narcotics Anonymous with overcoming his addiction and said there is something to be learned from sharing experiences with other addicts.
“I used to go to Narcotics Anonymous and I was a different species almost from other people at it. They were all young street addicts and I had a family to go home to and a job. To see some of the self discipline they showed it was humbling. I used to meet them afterwards and I was 25 years older than them and they were giving me advice.
“For a long time I stayed clear of writing about [my addiction]. I wanted to stay clear. It was horrible and awful. It was just horrible, nasty, squalid, and selfish,” he said