One woman’s journey to sobriety: ‘I thought of my precious children and knew I needed to get professional help’


There are a couple of different ways that addiction happens.

You think “I just need something to take the edge off”, and before you know it, one tiny tablet quickly multiplies to two, then three, then four, to get the same effect.

And soon enough you are completely addicted, and then having to admit that you’re needing help comes with anxiety of what if your vulnerability is rejected?

Addiction coupled with mental health disorder is crippling, not only to yourself, but most aspects of your life.

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In honour of National Mental Health Awareness Month, Changes Addiction Rehabilitation Centre released a report estimating that 20% of people with mental illnesses also struggle with substance abuse issues.

Patients who have mental health disorders often use drugs and alcohol as a way to cope and manage their condition, which often results in addiction. This phenomenon is referred to as “dual diagnosis” when someone has a mental health issue as well as a substance abuse problem.

For a long time, Michelle, who we will give a pseudonym for privacy reasons, struggled with crippling anxiety and addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs. She shares how living with a mental disorder and substance use problem (dual-diagnosis) consumed her life.

Although for years Michelle struggled with anxiety, it was only after giving birth that she shared with her doctor how she was feeling. Over the years, she admits to becoming progressively more overwhelmed and anxious and, as a result, started using prescription drugs and alcohol to cope with day-to-day living.

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“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.

“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 would return with a vengeance,” she says.

Patients who have mental health disorders often use drugs and alcohol as a way to cope and manage their condition, which often results in addiction. Picture by Haley Lawrence/ Unsplash

Peta-Lyn Foot, manager at the Centre of Psychotherapy Excellence and occupational therapist at Akeso Crescent Clinic in Randburg, says that people’s perceptions of mental health conditions are frequently misunderstood, which delays or prevents them from seeking treatment.

While there is more awareness and open-mindedness about mental well-being, there is still a stigma attached to seeking help, especially among older generations.

“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,” says Foot.

Like too many people, substance use and mental health had taken over Michelle’s life — that is, until one day when she found the inner strength to ask for help. She had been in another mental health facility years before but relapsed after she was discharged, as the facility did not offer a support programme after discharge from the in-house stay.

Dual diagnosis treatment centres give their patients a much greater chance of long-term recovery or sobriety, according to psychologist Kate Saxton, practice manager at Changes Addiction Rehab in Northcliff, Johannesburg. However, many of these facilities lack the capacity to handle dual diagnosis cases.

In order to cope, Michelle says she “managed to justify how the medication had become my answer to living a normal existence.

“I felt I could use it as a crutch for a short while. 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 says.

The road to recovery was long and difficult, but in the end, rewarding. And like any type of progress, her recovery did not happen in a straight line.

Michelle was admitted to the dual diagnosis unit at Akeso Crescent Clinic for three weeks of treatment for alcoholism, panic and anxiety disorders.

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“I disconnected from all the friends that had encouraged my addictive behaviour and reached out to my family for support.

“It was not easy in the beginning, but it got easier and easier,” she says.

Michelle has been sober for more than 10 years.

Foot advises follow-through for this suffering dual diagnosis.

“Recovery is an ongoing process, and we encourage clients to continue their progress after the inpatient programme.

“We 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,” says Foot.

Read the latest issue of IOL Health digital magazine here.



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