Chronic Pain

I’m A Refugee Addicted To Painkillers In Canada

But when you have chronic pain and have to work 12 hours a day in a factory or else people back home starve, what's the alternative?

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I am a refugee, working a factory floor job here in Canada. For years, I have lived with chronic back pain.

My days are long. I wake up at 5am to commute two hours each way for a menial 8-hour shift cutting fabric for clothes, the only job a refugee like me can easily get. 12 hours out of the house altogether, and I labor through it all with a piercing back pain that I have lived with for years. At worst, it feels like I am being pierced with needles; at best, it feels like an uncomfortably prickly hug.

To ease my discomfort, my doctor has put me on painkillers: a mixture of acetaminophen and naproxen. I dread looking at the label: “Taking more than the recommended dose for more than two weeks may cause liver damage.”

I feel an overwhelming urge to prove myself as worthy of my adoptive country, and so I work this grueling factory job despite my pain.

I am on month four of taking these pills. I binge them almost in defiance of what they are almost certainly doing to my liver. When I’m honest with myself, I admit I’m probably addicted to them—I find myself popping more even for light pain now–but I can’t just stop taking them, even if I wanted to.

A handsome man from Zimbabwe wearing a blue suit, with a bald shaved head.
Author Ray Mwareya.

As a refugee in Canada, I need this factory floor job. The alternative isn’t homelessness, necessarily–Canada has a fine public welfare system–but I dread being a burden to this country that took me in, that gave me a home, that sheltered me in my house of weakness. I feel an overwhelming urge to prove myself as worthy of my adoptive country, and so I work this grueling factory job despite my pain, even as I’m sure it is taking years off my life.

Even if I didn’t feel this sense of patriotism, though, I couldn’t go on welfare. I come from Zimbabwe, a broken country where public clinics don’t have even paracetamol, and where the local currency is so worthless that people wash and hang up old U.S. dollar bills to dry. I have family there, who need the money I send back: if I give in to back pain here, they may well give away their lives to hunger over there.

Where I come from in Africa, opioid addiction isn’t common, even if chronic pain is.

Where I come from in Africa, opioid addiction isn’t common, even if chronic pain is, because painkillers are impossible luxuries that almost no one can afford. So sometimes, I feel almost bemused by the fact that, as a refugee living in Canada, my circumstances have changed to such an extent that I could be on the edge of painkiller addiction myself.

Yet, what is the choice? My pain is very real, and most of the time very excruciating. I can not afford to stop work, even though it’s making my back problem worse. In the factory, I see women in their 40s with braces strapped around their mid-sections packing boxes with gritted teeth: their backs are finished. And I know, eventually, this is my fate too.

This is the dilemma many refugees face. Politicians and media pundits cast people like me as undesirable, unemployable addicts taking advantage of the system and sucking up welfare, but the reality is that I am an addict because I won’t take the help of the system, or take welfare. I’m a painkiller addict because I work hard, and I can’t ever stop to rest.

Pain comes for everyone. But for people like me, it doesn’t stop until it takes us away.

Pain comes for everyone. But for people like me, it doesn’t stop until it takes us away. Which is why I laughed when my boss the other day asked me to fill out paperwork in case I get hurt on the job, in which case they’ll pay medical expenses up to $20,000.


She asked me if I had any dependents, and I said no. “You need to put a next of kin down,” she said. “If something happens to you, the company will still need to pay anything left over to your survivors.”

I laughed. “My unrelenting back pain will gobble all of this up. Nothing will survive me.”

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