At first it was just one pill, then two, then three, and too many to keep track of. Anxiety and addiction took hold of a woman’s life as she struggled to get through the day. She shares her story of hopelessness and eventually hope with Health For Mzansi.
“At that time, I thought psychiatrists were for people who needed serious intervention and help. I didn’t think that included me, and I did not want to waste their time with my ‘silly’ problem,” recalls Michelle.
*Michelle, whose name has been changed to protect her and her family’s privacy, has emerged from years of crippling addiction to prescription medicine and alcohol, and debilitating anxiety.
She is sharing her personal journey to regaining control of her life, hoping to reach others who may be on a similarly destructive trajectory and encouraging them to seek help before reaching crisis point.
“Over a number of years, I became progressively more overwhelmed and anxious, and I was starting to have panic attacks. Everything was an effort, and I felt like my days were all black. It got to a point where I was unable to drive, stand in queues, be in a crowd and sometimes I could not even leave home. By 2005, anxiety was completely dictating my life.”
‘Something to take the edge off’
Michelle describes how she was first introduced to the medicine she later became addicted to.
“During this time, I managed to justify how the medication had become my answer to living a normal existence. I was under so much pressure in my relationship with my husband, raising a family, and coping with a demanding job, so I felt I could use it as a crutch for a short while. One little pill soon turned into two, then three, then four to have the same effect. I was completely addicted, and I knew it. Addiction made me feel completely helpless.”
Searching for other solutions
“I tried to wean myself off the medicine several times without success, it completely controlled my waking hours. Even though I was taking the maximum daily dose, my anxiety and panic attacks returned with a vengeance.”
Michelle realised she could not keep taking the medicine, and instead of seeking professional help, she tried to self-medicate with another substance.
“Alcohol was the answer, a glass of wine at night helped me to relax and get a good night’s sleep. Then a glass of wine at lunch helped with afternoon anxiety. Soon I was drinking throughout the day, and still, my anxiety and panic attacks continued. I was a wreck. I hated myself, I didn’t know how I could do this to my precious children,” she recalls.
“Eventually, my self-worth and self-esteem were non-existent, and I knew I had two choices, either death or professional help. I thought of my precious children and knew I needed to get professional help.”
In 2012, Michelle’s life took a drastic turn. She was admitted to the Crescent Clinic in Randburg where she received treatment for the dual diagnosis of panic, anxiety disorder, and alcoholism.
Peta-Lyn Foot, Centre of Psychotherapy Excellence (Cope) manager and occupational therapist at Crescent Clinic, says that mental health issues are often misunderstood, delaying or preventing people from accessing treatment.
Taking that crucial step
“People often have reservations about admitting that they need help in the first place, and therefore don’t get the help they need when they first develop dysfunctional coping mechanisms or start feeling symptoms of stress, depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns,” Foot points out.
Recognising that you need and deserve professional help is the first step.
“Unfortunately, all too often people only access the mental healthcare they need once their substance use or other disorder has progressed to become so intense that it starts affecting other people at work, in relationships or within families. Eventually, all areas of the person’s life can be impacted, including their physical health and hygiene.”
Recovery is a commitment
We all wish there was a quick fix or a pill that would take all our problems away, but recovering from addiction and underlying mental health conditions is a process that requires work, says Michelle.
Today she has been sober for more than 10 years.
“After I was discharged, I became independent again. I disconnected from all the friends that had encouraged my addiction and reached out to my family for support and embraced holistic therapy. Within a few months, I was back on my feet and still am. Continuing to regularly consult my psychiatrist and psychologist at the facility, at first, helped me keep my resolve and I now check in when I need to. Trust me, it was not easy in the beginning, but it got easier and easier.”
Considering dropping the habit? Here’s how
Foot encourage clients to continue their progress after the inpatient programme.
“We also recommend regular follow-up sessions with a mental health professional on an outpatient basis. This provides a dedicated space for the person to work on their addiction recovery and resilience.”
She also advises setting a daily routine. “Although life isn’t always predictable, having a routine helps us to focus and regain a sense of being in control of our lives so that we are more prepared when we encounter tough times. Taking things one step at a time also makes a situation feel more manageable once you have the tools needed to cope when life throws something unexpected our way.
“Check in with yourself regularly and look for help in the right places, you can’t expect it to come to you. Family alone may not always be able to provide the kind of support you need.
*Support groups, such as those organised by Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and the South African Anxiety and Depression Group can be invaluable for empathetic support from individuals who have walked the same path.”
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