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Armagh doctor Liam Farrell reveals depth of addiction to painkilling drug

By Patricia Murphy

Published 14/03/2016

Dr Liam Farrell is now a columnist
Dr Liam Farrell is now a columnist

A former GP from Northern Ireland 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 RTE's Ryan Tubridy Show, revealing that his addiction developed while working in a practice in Crossmaglen during the late 1990s.

The ex-doctor admitted that the long hours he needed to put in to establish himself in the practice contributed to his problem which, at its worst, saw him injecting an ampoule of morphine several times each week.

"Unfortunately, about 10 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."

After completing a diploma in palliative care and becoming a specialist in the drugs used to alleviate pain in dying patients, Farrell admitted he began using morphine to escape his problems.

"I've no memory of the first time I decided to use it. It's a pivotal moment of my life and the start of my self-destruction.

"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," he explained.

The doctor, who has now left the profession to focus on his writing career, said he felt he had control of his morphine use at the beginning: "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 a 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."

The husband and father revealed: "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 two to three 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 eventually confided in his wife, also a doctor, and sought help in 1998. However, 10 years later he relapsed.

"I stole them (the morphine) 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.

With the support of his loved ones he has been clean for a number of years: "I was so fortunate in having good family, a loving wife, lovely children and good friends who stood up for me."

Dr Farrell - who credits Narcotics Anonymous with helping him overcome his addiction - is now a leading columnist for medical publications, but can still practise medicine should he wish. He added: "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."

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