Sunday, November 2, 2008

Women and drug addiction

The most shocking thing about the modern drug user? That she could be someone like you.

Andrea Mackenzie 57, a divorced mother of three from Newquay, was first prescribed valium for back pain as a trainee teacher in 1969. She became addicted and continued to take it for almost 40 years.

When I think of the person I was before I took diazepam, or Valium as it was called back then, I don't get angry, I get upset. I was at college in London, training to teach dance and drama and I loved putting on shows. Most students around me looked forward to the holidays, but I looked forward to the start of each term.

I went to my GP because of muscle ache in my back. He prescribed some pills and in those days you didn't ask questions, you just took them. It helped with the pain and seemed to relax me. When I went for a repeat prescription no questions were asked. For year upon year the box was just ticked. They really were handed out like sweets.

Diazepam is probably one of the most addictive drugs there is and that doctor was prescribing me an illness. It gives you a numb feeling, blanks out your emotions so everything becomes sort of dull. If you've suffered a terrible bereavement it can calm you down, but if you take it all through life you sleepwalk; nothing touches you.

My overriding feeling was always, 'I can't be bothered.' I qualified as a teacher but didn't work as one because I met my husband, an engineer, young and started a family. I took those tablets three times a day, as prescribed, and my life revolved around them. I had to have 'my tablets' with me all the time just to feel safe and, if I forgot them, I'd start hysterically panicking and we'd have to go back.

It's funny – even though I built up a tolerance, I didn't ever up the dosage or abuse them because they were on prescription. My body was craving them so I had all sorts of symptoms and went through life feeling unwell with so many non-specific things. I'd feel strange and dizzy, I'd shake, sound would be magnified, lights were too bright. I basically thought I was a hypochondriac. My family used to laugh about it.

We had three children; I loved them, I lived for them, but I was removed from them. The best way to describe it is the way you feel when you have a hangover and you've kids to look after. I didn't crawl around on the floor playing dress-up or jump on a trampoline with them. I didn't participate at children's parties. They weren't neglected, though, and I don't feel guilty because it wasn't my fault. Thank goodness they're all happy, healthy adults. We've never sat down and talked about my addiction – though of course they must know.

No one ever really suggested I should stop taking Valium. After my mother died of a heart attack right in front of me, I became hysterical and the doctor just put me on a higher dose. It comforted me – but stopped me grieving. When my marriage broke down, I really wasn't that bothered. People would talk about the 'trauma of divorce', the 'stress of moving home'; I didn't feel it.

As the years passed, people became more aware of the dangers of diazepam. I read about it, realised what was happening to me – and by the time my last daughter went to university I knew it was time to come off it. It took me three years. By then I had a fantastic, supportive GP who helped me do it so, so gradually. It made me really ill – my speech was slurred, I was permanently exhausted. At one point I had to be tested for Parkinson's.

I've been totally clear for two and a half years now and I'm a different person – the person I would have been. I don't smoke or drink alcohol or caffeine and I exercise daily on my Air Walker. I'm motivated, full of energy. I spent last week with friends at Center Parcs. My daughter joined me for a day and we rode around on our bikes – something I'd never have done when she was younger.

The real difference, though, is emotional. I feel so much more. I'm affected by things. When my own children were born, yes, I was happy – but somehow nothing seemed to stick. When my first grandson was born seven months ago it was absolutely amazing. I couldn't believe how excited I was. I've so many activities planned for him. It's like my second chance.

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