What works in treatment?: Michael’s Story

rsz_img_1525Treatment for addiction involves a number of different processes. What are the most important? Who better to tell us than the people who have used treatment to help them recover from addiction. 

During the next week, we’ll look at the views of some of those people who have so kindly given us insights into their lives through their Recovery Story.  We’ll start with my close friend Michael from Perth. Let’s look at some of his experiences from the moment he decided to stop drinking over 35 years ago and his views on treatment. 

‘I made the decision to stop drinking on April 10th, 1978, three years after my parents had died. My last drinking session took place at the Shenton Park Hotel. I finished my last drink and slammed the glass down, saying to myself that this was it! “No more drinking!” I have not had a drop of alcohol since then.

I walked home and called an ambulance, saying that I had an alcohol problem and needed help.  The ambulance took me to Sir Charles Gardner Hospital where a doctor started shaking his head in dismay (and probably disgust) at the sight of his wretched-looking patient. I was terribly thin (bordering on anorexic), scruffy, dirty and smelt badly. He referred me to the D20 psychiatry ward at Charlie Gardner’s and I spent a night in this infamous facility.

On the following day, I was taken to the local detox/rehab unit on Ord Street in Perth. I remember this long walk vividly, probably the longest walk I have ever taken. I was completely shot, burnt out by years of drinking, but struggled on, as I knew that I had to do this. At the detox unit, I was given a shower and staff tried to feed me, but I couldn’t eat for three or four days. They therefore gave me bi-daily Vitamin shots in my rear end, which were very painful.

I experienced strong alcohol withdrawal symptoms- intense shaking of the hands, sweating, dehydration and a great deal of anxiety – during the two-months I was in the rehab. I don’t remember craving alcohol. I was treated with Heminevrin (clomethiazole), which is a sedative/hypnotic used for alleviating an acute withdrawal syndrome.

By this time, I was petrified of dying and thought I would die if I continued drinking. I met people in the rehab whose livers were badly affected by their drinking and this scared the life out of me. I didn’t want to end up like them. All the talking about these sorts of physical symptoms increased my fear of bad things happening to me. 

We attended daily group sessions and worked through a manual of self-management training, but we didn’t have one-to-one counseling sessions. The self-management training gave us skills for avoiding relapse in the future. I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing, but something seems to have worked!

I read the manual again years later and understood it, and now believe that such self-management training – and the coping methods it helps a person develop – is essential for people trying to overcome drug and alcohol problems. Someone in the unit gave regular talks, but Mogadon (as we called him) used to put us to sleep.

On the other hand, Norm from AA gave inspiring talks that had a large impact on me. In fact, I started to think that helping other people overcome their drinking problems was a career path I’d like to take.

One important factor that contributed to my early recovery was the fact that I spent a good deal of time with people who were in the same boat as me, people who were also trying to overcome their drink problems. I could relate to the other patients, and we had a mutual understanding of what we were going through. They did not judge or denigrate me. When I was drinking, I was always self-conscious about what people thought of my appearance and behaviour, but this didn’t happen in the rehab. I also didn’t feel isolated; in fact, I felt I belonged.  

The nurses in the rehab were also a powerful positive influence, as they made us feel important. As alcoholics, we had so little self-esteem and the nurses helped us to start to feel good about ourselves. Looking back, the empathy and compassion the staff showed to me was the single most important factor that helped me on my journey to recovery. People in the rehab, clients and staff, saved my life. I am still in touch with one of the nurses, 35 years after leaving the rehab.

My time in the rehab was a time-out period. I had so desperately needed a rest and to be in a place where I could get away from all the stresses of ordinary life. I learnt to gain some respect for myself from the way the rehab staff treated me and identified with other people who were also trying to overcome their drink problem.

For the first time, I learnt strategies as to how to avoid drinking again. And by not drinking, my resolve to remain abstinent strengthened. My desire to get a job helping other people overcome their drinking problems became part of the Recovery Plan I developed for myself…’

‘… Recovering people need empathy and TLC (Tender Loving Care). Rapport with the patient is key to helping them recover. In my opinion, good rapport should be a given working in this field – it is what I experienced in rehab and what helped me get better, and it is what I aim for with my clients.

I chat with them about their Recovery Plan and their Recovery Goals. I emphasise to them that recovery must be fun; they don’t want to be hanging on for grim death in their recovery. I encourage them to get out and do things. I love movies and often encourage clients to go to the cinema. Sadly, there are not enough recovery-related activities going on in the local community of Perth, which is a major shortcoming in our current care system for people with substance use problems.

I believe that socialisation – the learning of interpersonal and interactive skills that a person requires to interact with other people – is one of the most important aspects of recovery and recovery-based care. Sadly, my management believes that our unit must focus on the medical detox, and our client’s underlying psychological and social issues should be addressed further down the track, post-detox in an outpatient or rehab setting.

The patients really appreciate the simple activities I organise in the unit, including scrabble, Wii and Bocce, which are used to facilitate relationships and communication, and help take people’s minds off their troubles. Such social activities help our patients overcome the psychological isolation that is so often intimately linked with addiction.

Learning simple social skills helps them interact with other people and survive in the outside world…’