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Coping with . . . tranquilliser addiction

I had to be drugged up to the
eyeballs to function

Best Magazine
February 20, 2001

With the support of her husband Roy, Sue
is overcoming her addiction and is dealing
with that anger to help her recover

Sue with Baby Zoe (left) feels angry that she missed out
on Zoe, Ben and Zac's childhood

When Sue Pittaway, 45, was given tranquillisers for panic attacks and depression, she had no idea that the drugs would eventually take over her entire life . . .

How did it all start?
When I met my husband Roy on a blind date in 1980 I was lively and outgoing. We clicked straightaway and were married within six months.

But my whole life changed less than a year later when our daughter Zoe was born. I had a straightforward pregnancy but was given an epidural at the birth, which for some reason went wrong. Instead of my lower half feeling numb, my chest and arms became paralysed.

The doctors wanted to give me a 'top-up' but I was so terrified I refused and ended up giving birth in agony. After Zoe was born I couldn't hold her because my arms were so numb. Instead, I had to lie flat on my back for 48 hours. I left hospital 10 days later and although the numbing sensation had gone, I didn't feel right. I couldn't even hold my head straight and suffered from dreadful headaches. I loved my baby but just couldn't cope. Roy took over completely.

Then one day I was pottering around the house when a rising feeling of panic came over me. I didn't feel in control. I was shaking and sweating and unable to concentrate what I was doing. It lasted just a few minutes and then seemed to pass, but it was the most terrifying experience of my life. Soon I was having panic attacks like this nearly very day and Roy became so worried he persuaded me to go to my GP, who diagnosed depression and gave me antidepressants. I don't even remember how long I was supposed to take them for; I was just to desperate to get back to my old self.

What happened next?
Even though I took the pills I was still very depressed and having panic attacks so after a few weeks my doctor suggested I go to a psychiatric hospital. I was embarrassed at the thought of having a mental problem but by that stage I knew I needed help.

Roy came with me to the hospital and as soon as we walked in we spotted a young girl dressed in a white gown coming down the steps before us. Her hair was lank, all her teeth were missing and she was foaming at the mouth. I only stayed one night because my mum and Roy came to visit and could see how desperately unhappy I was. A couple of months later her doctor recommended another hospital which was much nicer than the last. That's where I was put on diazepam, a powerful tranquilliser to calm my nerves.

I missed my husband and Zoe, who was 5 months old, and 8 weeks later I was relieved to be allowed home, although I was still quite ill. I had no motivation and my energy was sapped. I couldn't even make a cup of tea because I suffered blackouts.

In 1986 I fell pregnant with my twin boys Ben and Zack, now 14, but the pregnancy passed in a whirl, as did the actual birth because of the state I was in, they recommended I have a Caesarean. Doctors said the pills I was still taking wouldn't affect the babies, but I am ashamed to say I don't think I could have come off them anyway. I couldn't even get out of bed without them. I should have been overjoyed to be a mum again, but instead, I was too drugged up to appreciate it.

What was the worst moment?
My darkest moments were at night. I suffered with insomnia and spent night after night alone with thoughts of suicide occupying my mind, even though I knew I couldn't put my family through the pain that that would cause. They'd already suffered so much. I spent my time constantly in tears or completely spaced out.

There came a time when I begged Roy to leave me, because I felt I was such a burden on his life. I still couldn't go with him to the pub or out for a meal. He worked all day and then came home and did all the chores I couldn't do.

The children spent their early years in and out of nurseries because I couldn't cope, and I missed out on so much of their childhood. They all deserve so much more, but I felt powerless to change. I vaguely remembered what I used to be like and wished I could get back to being my old self, but I couldn't stop taking the pills and I was scared I'd feel worse without them. Whenever I tried to come off them, I turned into a physical as well as an emotional wreck. I'd shake and sweat would pour off me. My body couldn't cope - I was addicted. Roy was desperate to help but my doctors couldn't offer any alternatives to the repeat prescriptions.

What was the turning point?
In July 1999, having taken the pills for over 18 years, I started seeing an occupational therapist who told me about a new treatment called family therapy. It involved the whole family talking about their feelings and asking questions about my illness. It helped all of us to understand what I was going through and why I felt so depressed. The only thing I could put it down to was the terrible pain I felt having Zoe, who's now 20 and the depression that started afterwards. I realized I was taking the world's problems on my shoulders and propelling every minor decision completely out of proportion.

It has helped me to start dealing with my anxiety rather than seeing it is one big, irreversible, black hole. I'm also being weaned off the drugs, which has been hard because I was so scared I wouldn't be able to cope without them. I was on 90mg (9 tablets) of diazepam a day. Now I only take 30mg and I am reducing the dose by 2mg a month so the side effects aren't so bad.

How do things stand now?
I feel there's finally a light at the end of the tunnel. I've managed to go on the bus twice and even took a trip to the supermarket. Ideally, I'd like to get a job. But there's such a stigma about mental illness but it's easier to get a job if you've been in jail.

Roy still has to run the house because my concentration is poor, but I'm making a little progress every day. I know it won't happen overnight, but I'm happy just to feel a little better. I feel guilty that the children haven't had big family holidays, because I couldn't get on a plane and that I can't go shopping with Zoe like other mums, but I love them to bits, and worry about them like mad.

Roy always says he loves me and this year we renewed our wedding vows. It was my way of saying thanks for sticking by me. He's had to put up with an awful lot, which I'm angry about - I feel like I've lost 20 years - but I have to get rid of that anger if I'm going to get better.

What advice would you give others in the same situation?
Firstly, I would say avoid drugs at all costs. Secondly, you need to talk about the condition with someone who understands. If I'd known the impact taking tranquillisers would have on my life, I never would have started taking them. These days, there is a great deal more discussion about depression and mental illness. It can happen to anyone and at any time, but drugs aren't necessarily the most suitable treatment. Talking about your feelings is the first step to getting better.

As told to Dianna Kehoe.

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