I’ve always been a hard worker: at school, at college, as a tennis coach, in my hospitality career managing cafés, restaurants, nightclubs and hotels, and bringing up my daughter. But looking back on my life (I’m now 35), it seems I worked the hardest at hiding my drug dependence and my mental health problems from my family, friends, colleagues and employers.
From an early age I was crippled by feelings of low self-worth and lack of belief in myself, and I didn’t trust anyone. I probably had depression, but I just thought that was the way you felt growing up and that I would feel better about life soon. I didn’t. I started using drugs at around the age of 13 in an attempt to control my emotions, fit in and feel ‘normal’.
At first it was marijuana and alcohol, but over the years I’ve also used amphetamines, including ice, and ‘benzos’ [benzodiazepines; drugs prescribed for anxiety and insomnia]. Drinking and drug-taking became a regular part of my life and I was dependent on using to get me through each day.
I managed to complete school and had early hopes of being a professional tennis player, but my career went downhill when I was about 18, so I qualified as a tennis coach and turned to coaching others instead for a while, but it wasn’t as satisfying.
Determined to get ahead, I went to TAFE to study hospitality and tourism management. Again, I worked hard, and eventually achieved a Diploma with double honours, but I had a few interruptions along the way when I couldn’t get to class or complete course work because of my drug use.
No one knew the real reason. There’s a significant element of shame and guilt you feel when you have an addiction, not to mention mental illness as well, so you learn how to mask the effects, put on a good front, and make plausible excuses. Plus, I thought I could get through things on my own, that I didn’t need help.
I enjoyed hospitality management, but my job satisfaction wasn’t enough to stop me using alcohol and other drugs. I sometimes went to work under the influence and I’m sure my performance suffered. If I was feeling really bad (like when I suffered drug-induced psychosis) I’d call in sick and colleagues had to pick up the slack for me.
Yet none of my employers or my workmates ever asked what the matter was or if they could help – instead, I was sacked from two jobs. Obviously, getting rid of a poor employee was an easier option than supporting someone who might need help. So, after that, I learned to read the early warning signs and would resign from a job before my employer could sack me.
I can understand in hindsight that managers might feel overwhelmed and not know what to do in these situations, but it simply compounded my low self-esteem and lack of trust in others, and escalated my alcohol and drug use.
I did try a few short detox and rehab programs, but they just scratched the surface of my problems and I would soon go back to using.
My family eventually became aware of my drug dependence and I’m very grateful for their support, particularly when my relationship with my daughter’s father broke down and we separated when she was three years old. We lived with my sister and also my parents for a while, and they looked after my daughter eight years later when I finally made the decision to get help and entered Odyssey House in September 2013.
I started in the Withdrawal Unit because I needed medical supervision to come off the alcohol and drugs, and then I moved to the long-term Residential Rehabilitation Program to undertake what’s turned out to be a 12-month ‘odyssey’ to identify and deal with my personal issues, drug dependence and mental illness, and relearn ways of living without drugs.
I wanted an easy journey and thought about leaving every day for the first few months, first because I found it confronting and uncomfortable to have to change my thinking and behaviours, and later because I thought I’d learned enough to cope. Thankfully my peers and the Odyssey House staff were there to support me and convince me to stay… and that I was worth the effort. As I know now, when you’ve been in addiction and living with mental health issues for twenty years it takes more than a few months to get your feet firmly on the road to recovery.
So, I’m proud to say I worked hard (on the right things) and made good progress in the program. I will officially graduate at Odyssey House’s annual Celebrate Recovery Day on 12 October 2014 and I’m really looking forward to rebuilding my life, reconnecting with my daughter and my family, and getting back to work. There will be no more need to hide who I really am… and my new life begins at 35!
People seeking help for alcohol and other drug dependence, including those with a co-existing mental illness, can contact Odyssey House on 02 9281 5144 or www.odysseyhouse.com.au (no referral is necessary), or the Australian Drug Information Network www.adin.org.au.
Managers seeking to help staff affected by dependence or mental illness can contact their Employee Assistance Program (if available) or their state government workplace health and safety authority e.g. Work Cover NSW’s booklet “Alcohol and other Drugs in the Workplace” outlines how to identify alcohol and other drug-related users and how to develop an alcohol and other drug policy.
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