Vikki Harris’s daughter was 12 when she took her first overdose. Why on earth was someone so young able to buy the pills, she asks.
I’ve become hyper-vigilant and on constant high alert, my mind mirroring my daughter’s mental health symptoms. No more early afternoon or late evening gin and tonics for the fear of receiving ‘the call’.
I held my breath all day Sunday, my birthday, unable to relax. My daughter nonchalantly informed me that it was three years to the day that she’d taken her first overdose aged 12. I remember. I’d missed my flight to Estonia to celebrate my 50th birthday and a nightmare began.
With morbid fascination I’d asked her if she’d planned to take tablets on my birthday and she replied with candid honesty that she’d planned it for weeks. I struggled to keep my face from collapsing. From heartache or disgust? I was wrestling with both emotions. She looked up at me standing in her doorway, “It was the best present that I could think of, to rid you of something so worthless,” she whispered. And I actually felt another piece of my heart break.
“One British study reported that, of children aged less than 15 years presenting to hospital after deliberate overdose, more than 50 per cent had taken paracetamol.”
I’ve told her a thousand times and I’ll tell her a thousand more that a child of 12 cannot be a ‘slut’, despite how many other children had made her believe so. A 12-year-old virgin slut.
Yet the chemist who sold my child 16 paracetamol was the same man who had sat with her for an hour until the ambulance arrived several months earlier. I’m not apportioning any blame. My child must ultimately be responsible for her own safety but it’s galling.
I struggle to keep her safe. I have to let her move forward to aid her recovery but society won’t help me. The local chemist won’t help, the supermarkets won’t help, the garage won’t help. In fact, I feel like they’re taunting me, as there sitting within all children’s grasp is paracetamol, the self-harmers’ friend.
There are no guidelines from either the Royal Pharmaceutical Society or the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) with regard to selling to children. Paracetamol poisoning is the most common form of poisoning and the most common cause of acute liver failure in Britain. Deliberate overdose with paracetamol is a common method of self-harm. This is particularly true for young people, with one British study reporting that, of children aged less than 15 years presenting to hospital after deliberate overdose, more than 50 per cent had taken paracetamol.
Would-be suicides and self-harmers may take a handful of pills expecting to drift into a pleasant sleep, only to find that nothing happens. By the next day they may well have changed their minds about killing themselves, but it’s too late: the drug, by then, is already doing its best to destroy their liver.
By the time they start feeling unwell they may be approaching the end of the (roughly) three-day window in which the antidote, acetylcysteine, can save them. Paracetamol is a hepatotoxin. As it is processed by the body, one of its metabolites starts to destroy the cells of the liver.
If the patient is too late for the antidote (which is given through a drip usually) and does not receive an immediate liver transplant, then death is extremely painful; there may be constant vomiting combined with abdominal pain. Providing added horror, in the case of a half-hearted suicide, are the feelings of remorse, anger and foolishness that are likely to beset the victim. This is not a drug to be handled by children, let alone purchased by them.
Legislation came into force on September 16, 1998, limiting the maximum pack size of solid doses of paracetamol and aspirin for general sale to 16 tablets or capsules. It also limited the maximum pack size of solid doses of paracetamol and aspirin to 32 tablets or capsules in pharmacies. The sale or supply of more than 100 aspirin or paracetamol tablets or capsules at one time requires a doctor’s prescription. However still no guidelines were issued regarding the sale of paracetamol to minors.
My daughter is still on her journey to recovery. At times life is good and at times sad and frustrating. I’ve asked myself several times since starting this petition whose needs I’m trying to meet. My own. to assuage my hurt and frustration? Maybe. To the bullies and tormentors, to show them that something positive can come out of something so bad? Yes. To society, which claims to protect our innocent? Definitely. We owe it to our children, vulnerable or otherwise, to protect them from all harm, paracetamol included.
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Vikki Harris is mother of four girls and ‘Manna’ to four grandchildren, with twins and a little girl due early summer. Tomorrow is another day, hopefully.