Chemical dependency is a complex disease that changes lives forever, but help is available, and recovery is possible.

It was an incident at a family weekend away that finally made Matt* realise he needed help. “When I was drinking, I would become aggressive – making a scene at family gatherings, fighting, and so on. It’s been years that I’ve been struggling with this, but I didn’t know what to do,” he says.

But that weekend at the end of April, things took a turn for the worse. He became so aggressive that his sister called the police. It was then that Matt realised he needed help. “I told my wife that I need to book myself in [to a clinic] because this has been bothering me for years – that I drink out of control and become aggressive. But when I’m not drinking, I’m not like that.”

Signs of trouble

“The change Matt needed was to address the uncharacteristic aggression,” says Dominique Maclou, a social worker at Mediclinic Crescent Mental Health Services, where Matt was two weeks into a 21-day stay at the time he was interviewed. Maclou explains that loss of control is one of the biggest signs a person has a chemical dependency – which includes dependence on alcohol.

Initially, a person uses the substance because it feels good. But over time, they’re no longer able to go without it, she says. “And they’re willing to go to whatever lengths, breaking down their own morals and values to get the substance.”

This can look like a change in mood, energy and responsibility and in more extreme cases, money or household items going missing, car accidents, a drop in performance at school or college and phone calls from employers wanting to know where the person is. “You’re definitely seeing an overall decline in functioning.”

Multidisciplinary help

Regardless of what someone suffering from chemical dependency might say or believe, this is not a disease you can work through on your own. “Addiction changes the way you think – it takes your brain filters and reshapes them,” explains Imraan Muscat, also a social worker at Mediclinic Crescent Mental Health Services. He says the only way a person can address this is with support and guidance from a structured programme.

“If someone is saying, ‘I can do it on my own’, they’re not ready to stop,” agrees Maclou. “People often use the term ‘functional alcoholic’. There’s no such thing. That’s denial talking.”

Mediclinic Crescent Mental Health Services, a respected primary care facility, adopts a multidisciplinary approach to treating chemical dependency. “When we’re dealing with addiction, we’re not just dealing with the individual, but also what the individual brings in,” explains Maclou.

A specialist recovery programme provides a safe, non-judgmental environment for people with chemical dependency.

Maclou and Muscat oversee the addiction element of the programme, which uses the 12-step model used by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). “We help the person understand what it means to be an addict, what addiction looks like as a disease, and what recovery looks like,” says Maclou.

Other members of the team include a doctor, occupational therapist, physiotherapist, psychologist and psychiatrist, as well as AA and NA sharers who come in to share their experiences. Which members of the team the patient spends time with will depend on their individual needs.

Supportive environment

For many people, the idea of spending time in a clinic may be daunting. This was certainly the case for Matt. “I was quite nervous. I didn’t know what to expect,” he recalls. But what he found was a welcoming environment where he could finally find answers. “From the first day they were nice to me,” he says. “And these past two weeks I’ve learnt a lot.”

Muscat stresses that the clinic environment is not what people may expect from the movies. “First, we don’t sit here with needles and knives. We don’t have lock-up rooms or put you in a straitjacket. If you want to leave, you can leave.”

Patients have all their meals provided and are allowed phone calls and visitors. But there are boundaries – one of which is a strict policy of no electronic devices. “A lot of patients struggle with that,” notes Maclou. “But we really want them to focus on themselves for those 21 days.”

A new person

When someone goes through the recovery process, they’re not going to go back to who they were before. “We want them to be different to what they were before because that was took them into addiction,” explains Muscat.

“The essence of who they are, their values and character, will always be the same; but their behaviour and how they interact with the world has changed, so they’re actually becoming a different person,” adds Maclou.

Another factor is that chemical dependency interrupts development. “If a person starts using drugs at age 10 and stops at 30, they still have the coping skills of a 10-year-old,” explains Muscat. “So, you have to teach them how to be honest, how to communicate, how to ask for help and manage conflict. They haven’t learnt that because every time there’s an issue in their lives, they’ve used drugs to sort it out. That’s why people relapse – because they can’t cope with life again.”

Accepting expert treatment gives you the best chance to turn your life around.

This metamorphosis is tough for patients, says Maclou. However, it can also be exciting and liberating. “I’m way, way different to what I was two weeks ago,” says Matt. “I can feel it in myself. I don’t even have a craving for alcohol since coming here and starting the programme.” And he’s not the only one who’s noticed: “When my wife came to visit me, she saw a big difference in me and that felt so good!” he says proudly. “She told me, ‘Matt, you look very good!’. I looked at her and I was smiling because she saw a change already and it was only one week that I’d been here at Mediclinic Crescent Mental Health Services.”

He encourages anyone who needs help to get it. “Come for help and come immediately. Here they have all the answers for your addiction. You won’t regret coming here because the programme is fantastic. You learn a lot and you can change your whole life.”

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