“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.
This World Mental Health Month 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.”
Peta-Lyn Foot, COPE manager and occupational therapist at Akeso Randburg – Crescent Clinic, notes that mental health issues are often misunderstood, delaying or preventing people from accessing treatment. “Even though there is more awareness and open mindedness about the importance of mental wellbeing generally, in some families and particularly among older generations there is still a lot of judgement and stigma attached to seeking help,” she says.
“There is often a misplaced belief that people experiencing mental health difficulties have the option to ‘just get over it’, without fully realising the complexities of recovery and that it usually requires professional assistance.”
‘Something to take the edge off’
Michelle describes how she was first introduced to the medicine she later became addicted to. “I spoke to my gynaecologist about the way I was feeling after the birth of my first baby. I thought there was no way I needed antidepressants, I just wanted something to ‘take the edge off’. She prescribed a certain medication and, at first, I thought ‘What an incredible little pill’. It made me feel ‘normal’ again, and I could do everything and more – for a while,” she remembers.
“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. I felt completely helpless.
“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 the anxiety of the afternoon. 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,” Michelle recalls of that dark time in her life.
“And so, in 2012 my life took a drastic turn for the better. I was admitted to Netcare Akeso Randburg – Crescent Clinic for three weeks of rehabilitation in the dual diagnosis unit for panic and anxiety disorder and alcoholism. I had been in another mental health facility years before but lapsed after my discharge as the facility did not offer a support programme after discharge from the inhouse stay.”
“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.”
The dual diagnosis units at various Netcare Akeso mental health facilities run 21-day inpatient programmes involving a multidisciplinary team of psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, an addictions counsellor, a general practitioner, and a social worker, where required, who work closely together with the individual to provide comprehensive treatment to help them regain control of their lives.
“We all wish there was a quick fix – a pill that would take all our problems away ¬¬– but recovering from addiction and underlying mental health conditions is a process that requires work. We help teach clients the skills to cope, however the person needs to be willing to accept help and take responsibility for their actions to commit to their long term recovery,” Foot says.
Recovery is an ongoing process
“By my third week in Netcare Akeso Randburg – Crescent Clinic, I was able to smile with honesty and cry with real tears, I found emotions that had been buried so deep I was not sure they still existed. I saw colour in the world again,” says former patient Michelle, who has now been in recovery for more than 10 years.
“After I was discharged, I became independent again. I disconnected from all the friends that had encouraged my addictive behaviour 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 Netcare Akeso 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.”
Foot adds: “It is an ongoing process, and we encourage clients to continue their progress after the inpatient programme. We understand it is more challenging to take time for yourself when life is busy and stressful. We also recommend regular follow up sessions with a mental health professional on an outpatient basis, and this provides a dedicated space for the person to work on their 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.”
For information about mental health and services, and accessing care, or for help in an emotional crisis, Netcare Akeso is here to help. In the event of a psychological crisis, individuals can phone the Netcare Akeso crisis helpline on 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day, to talk to an experienced counsellor.
About Netcare Akeso
Netcare Akeso operates a network of private inpatient mental health facilities and is part of the Netcare Group. Netcare Akeso provides individual, integrated and family oriented treatment in specialised inpatient treatment facilities, as well as certain outpatient services, for a range of psychiatric, psychological and substance use conditions. Please visit www.akeso.co.za or contact [email protected] for further information.
In the event of a psychological crisis, call 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day for emergency support. Psychiatrist consultations can be made through Netcare appointmed™, online at www.netcareappointmed.co.za or by calling 0861 555 565.
For media enquiries, contact MNA at the contact details listed below.
Issued by: MNA on behalf of Netcare
For media enquiries, contact: Martina Nicholson, Meggan Saville, Clementine Forsthofer and Estene Lotriet-Vorster
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