The bottle sat on my kitchen shelf for at least a year. Dark green and slimy, it was the proud result of a backyard science experiment, or – as I like to call it – the curious outcome of an alchemical investigation that took not only brains, but serious talent.

What was in this bottle? Why was it so precious that I had left it on my shelf, unopened, for a year or more? The answer is a heady mix of tap water, food colouring and codeine. Yes, crystals of the stuff.

I had been prescribed some panadeine forte for an infected cut in my foot. (Turns out, if you leave stitches in for one extra day, all bacterial hell breaks loose.) After taking a single pill (which felt awesome, thanks for asking), I was left with a mended big toe and a packet of leftover pain medication I had no idea what to do with.

So began a series of rabid internet searches. Soon, armed with a wealth of information (did you know paracetamol isn’t water soluble? I should have known this when I tried to spike my boyfriend’s tea – long story), the distillation process began. It wasn’t difficult and only took an hour, which is a bit scary when you think I was just an arts student at the time. After the codeine separated and dissolved into water, I poured it into a mini Jack Daniels bottle with the label peeled off. Food colouring created the vivid green tinge; I think I was going for an absinthe aesthetic. I’ve always had a taste for the dramatic. I was pretty proud of myself. Who would have thought: Jess Oliver, the chemistry buff. Don’t ask me about the periodic table but god damnit, I can Google.

They say the proof lies in the pudding, but I was never quite game to taste test my own creation. Although tempted, I always had a strange feeling that maybe, just maybe, I should leave my Frankenstein’s monster on the shelf to gather dust. If you’ve read Mary Shelley’s famous yet terrifying book you will understand – this was not a can of worms I wanted to open. The liquid’s green tinge lightened over time and strange, fluffy clouds formed inside, floating silently in their glass confines. Every now and again, I would inspect the bottle, turning it around and watching the soft crystals of codeine at the bottom whirl like flakes in a snow globe.

Months later, a couple of my boyfriend’s friends came up to Canberra to visit for the weekend (we went to the Mint. It was riveting). One of them, a graduate of pharmaceutical science at uni, opened the kitchen cupboard, saw the bottle and asked, ‘what is that?’

‘Oh,’ I replied, nonchalant but secretly proud, ‘that’s just some codeine I extracted from panadeine forte’.

‘Have you taken any?’ He sounded amused, but with there was an edge to his voice that immediately awoke my suspicions.


‘Good, because there’s more than enough codeine in there to kill you. I’d throw it out straight away’.

Frankenstein indeed. 


Jess Oliver is a Canberra based writer and sub-editor in art + theatre for Lip Magazine. She enjoys chocolate, books and red wine, and is a self-confessed 'but why?' person.