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How injury makes you an addict; Mel leads the way in finding painkillers are the new Valium.

Byline: GINNY CLARK

FOR any addict, the first step to recovery is making the decision to change. And for a drug addict, it is the beginning of what will be a long, painful, but ultimately rewarding journey.

When actress Melanie Griffith checked into a clinic last November, she declared she was ready to take that route. Bravely, she also decided do so in public.

Through her own website, she has charted her battle to beat her addiction to sleeping pills and painkillers. She also has a message board where she replies to pleas for help and expressions of support.

She is just one of many big-name stars - and even more ordinary people in the UK - who have found that their addiction has been fuelled entirely innocently.

In fitness-crazy Hollywood, sports injuries are common. Griffith, Matthew Perry, James Brown and Johnny Cash say injuries started them off on prescribed sleeping pills or painkillers.

Michael Jackson, NFL superstar Brett Favre and Cindy McCain, wife of Senator John McCain, have also had addictions.

Without realising it, people can easily become addicted after suffering a genuine problem. One expert says 12 per cent of those using strong painkillers become hooked on them. Of course, if any substance can create feel-good highs, there will always be people ready to abuse it.

Hollywood is gripped by a new addiction epidemic. The painkillers (Vicodin, Percodan, and Percocet) and tranquillisers (Xanax, Ativan and Valium) have replaced cocaine and heroin as the trendy drugs.

These pills have become fashionable and socially acceptable because they are legal and easy to obtain. They don't make you twitch and you don't get arrested.

Rap star Eminem even has a tattoo of a Vicodin pill on his left arm.

The drugs have become so accepted that bowls of them are served at parties. On party-goer said: "It isn't like the old drug parties where everyone's off in their own world. You can listen to music, eat dinner and talk. If you didn't know people were doing this stuff, you'd never guess.

"Vikes (Vicodin) are like smoking a joint. You go home, sleep well and on Monday morning, you feel great. No hangover."

But the dangers posed by the misuse of painkillers or tranquillisers are just as real as those associated with illegal drugs.

An overdose can be fatal or may damage the liver or kidneys. They are also addictive. Regular users require bigger doses in pursuit of their buzz - and this produces unpleasant and distressing side-effects, such as extreme anxiety, depression, palpitations and even hallucinations when the supply is cut off.

So what about the thousands of people in this country addicted to painkillers and tranquillisers through no fault of their own?

They are the ones who, many years ago, were prescribed these drugs by their GPs for pain, panic attacks or sleepless nights and had the dosage repeated, or upped, until the cycle of dependency became unbearable.

Former teacher Mavis Strudwick, 70, now lives on Orkney. Like many other people, she began to take an interest in environmental issues in the late Seventies.

She was passionate about protecting the planet, but became increasingly emotional about the subject. She said: "I kept getting upset and started having anxiety attacks."

Mavis was living in England and her then doctor prescribed the tranquilliser Ativan.

Mavis said: "The attacks weren't that bad. If I had been given advice about relaxation techniques, which I'm using now, that would have been all I needed."

That's what would happen now if someone consults their GP about anxiety. Unfortunately for Mavis, and many others, this was not the approach 30 years ago.

She said: "I began to feel that I couldn't function without Ativan each day. I ended up taking it for 20 years."

The irony for Mavis was that the symptoms she had been prescribed Ativan for had become a side-effect of taking the drug.

She said: "I had dreadful episodes of panic and I was virtually hysterical sometimes. I was in an appalling state in the supermarket one day and my husband Frank had to help me out."

The couple decided she needed help to get off Ativan. Mavis said: "There ar programmes to help people off illegal drugs and alcohol, but there seemed nothing for people addicted to prescribed drugs."

Then Mavis discovered the Council for Involuntary Tranquilliser Addiction (CITA).She said: "You can't do this yourself. The withdrawal must be gradual and you need people to guide you. CITA were marvellous.

"Withdrawing from the tranquillisers was hell. You suffer from tremors, hallucinations and depression, but CITA were always on the phone telling me I'd get through it."

Mavis began her recovery on October 17, 1997 and by the end of August 1999, she was off Ativan and was taking a little Valium."

But sadly, as Mavis grew stronger, Frank become ill and died. Now on her own, Mavis feels that there is no follow-up service for people like her.

She said: "I had to phone an organisation in Liverpool for help. I can't consider myself completely recovered, I still have problems,though I'm learning to cope." Mavis is not considered disabled and can't claim benefit help. But that may change. Last October, a conference of scientists and campaigners demanded a change in the use of the tranquilliser drugs known as benzodiazepines (which includes Ativan and Valium).

Some believe that the manufacturers have known for years these drugs have dangerous side-effects and there is now a campaign for compensation.

In the meantime, there is help there for people who are addicted to prescription drugs. Organisations such as Benzo or CITA have a vital role to play for those who are addicted. But a doctor's help is vital and should always be a first port of call.

That is after doing what Melanie Griffith recommends: "Decide to take control of your life."

CITA Helpline. Tel: 0151 949 0102 (Monday to Friday, 10am-1pm, some afternoons, weekend emergency number available).

www.benzo.org.uk

www.melaniegriffith.com
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Apr 11, 2001
Words:997
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