When most people think of life behind convent walls images of thoughtful prayer and quiet contemplation spring to mind, but for 52-year-old nun Sister Mary-Lynne Cochrane, life was far from simple for many years.
Just like thousands of other Australians, Sister Cochrane was addicted to opioids.
For decades, Sister Cochrane, who is a devout member of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict in Sydney, had been dealing with the onset of aggressive arthritis and started taking painkillers to relieve the pain.
“That’s how it started,” the 52-year-old told Starts at 60. “It started with Panadol, then Mersyndol. In my late-20s I had surgeries. After surgeries, I was on Morphine or Oxycodone and from there it just developed.”
Over time, Sister Cochrane’s arthritis got worse and she underwent 23 different surgeries. During this period, she was prescribed many different opioids, as well as cortisone injections, opioid patches and anti-inflammatories and Panadol Osteo for daily use.
After each surgery, she noticed it was taking her longer to recover and harder to control the pain, although she didn’t for a second think of herself as addict or dependent on opioids.
“Whatever the doctors told me or suggested, I did,” she explained. “Over all those years, I just thought it was the way to go, because I was in my early-20s and naïve about all this.”
In addition to longer recovery periods, Sister Cochrane noticed an array of other symptoms. She recalled a time where she fell asleep at the wheel and she also fell into depression. She was sleeping all day and wasn’t sleeping at night, so began using sleeping tablets. As is common those those who are addicted to prescription medication, she also began taking other medication for the side effects she was experiencing.
Sadly, Sister Cochrane is not alone in her addiction battle. Recent figures released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that between 2016 and 2017, 3.1 million people were prescribed 15.4 million opioid scripts. Opioids account for 62 per cent of drug-induced deaths, with pharmaceutical opioids more likely than heroin to be involved in opioid deaths and hospitalisations.
The stigma attached to addiction has also made it difficult for many people suffering in the grips of the disease to speak out.
“It’s been hard to tell my story in public because I’m a sister of The Good Samaritan who lives in a community of sisters,” she said. “It’s been harder for me to admit that I had this when it seemed my focus was on me internally, rather than what I chose my lifestyle to be. I was trying to do both things and that was really difficult.”
It wasn’t until Sister Cochrane started with a multidisciplinary approach that she realised there were other ways to manage pain. She decided she wanted to come off all opioids and with the help of a special clinic, was able to do so, insisting it was her choice and not the advice or recommendation of her pain specialist.
“It was hard but I also had the energy and enthusiasm to learn another way to manage my pain,” she explained. “It was like looking in the mirror for the first time.”
While she still uses painkillers when she needs them, Sister Cochrane said they’re not the dominating presence in her life they once were. Now, they way she manages pain depends on the type of pain she’s dealing with. She often uses pain pods with electricity to assist with pain management, as well as physiotherapy.
“As soon as I say that, people say, ‘Well we can’t afford all this physio’ and I understand that, but my physio, I asked to come to my home to see what I could do at home and what bands or balls I needed to do it every day,” Sister Cochrane explained.
For her, being equipped with the right information and equipment means she doesn’t have to see a physio every day and can use Pilates and similar activities to manage her symptoms at home. Just a month after her most recent surgery, Sister Cochrane explained that she’s doing really well and managing pain in a way without opioids.
Her advice for others is not to question whether they may be addicted or dependent on opioids, but for opioid users to assess their quality of life while using the medication.
“What’s your quality of life now on the opioids and did you know you could have a better quality of life doing other things that would be suiting you better?” she asked. “You can get out and live another lifestyle with other ways of handling chronic pain that taking opioids.”
If experiencing pain, it’s always advised to speak to a GP or health professional about the best ways of managing it.