The insidious nature of alcohol

Brenda is a 37-year-old woman who runs a small design and publishing business in Cape Town.
Her life appears normal to outsiders, who see her as an outgoing and vibrant person.

This is largely the case — but for the physical and mental scars left from years of alcohol and prescription drug abuse.

A product of a convent education, Brenda was raised with strict morals both at school and by protective parents.

As a result of her father’s position in the diplomatic core, she escaped many of the hardships her peers faced and considered herself privileged.

But Brenda suffered headaches as a teenager and was soon taking large amounts of scheduled medication.

Living in a home where drinking every night was considered normal by both her parents, she was soon enjoying a few drinks with her friends on weekends.

While this was considered normal for teens her age, the 17-year-old was oblivious of the combined effects of prescription medication and alcohol.

A pattern of binge drinking was formed and she began to enjoy the effects that alcohol gave her when taken with codeine.

Her first encounter with the dangers of alcohol came as a rude awakening — her boyfriend was killed in a car accident after a night out.

Feeling partly responsible for the accident (she had allowed her boyfriend to drive home, knowing he was drunk), Brenda upped her drinking and drugging habits to numb the pain.

A succession of boyfriends and unprotected sex found her pregnant at 19.

“Abortion wasn’t legal at that stage and my horrified father whisked me off for a procedure in the United Kingdom.

“Two weeks after the abortion I found myself registered at the University of Cape Town, ready to pick up my life as if nothing had happened.

“I wrote my increased drinking and self-medicating off to normal varsity partying and living with the headaches, which still dogged me,” she says.

Brenda dropped out university after the first year and began working. Her pharmaceutical habit grew with her binge-drinking, “party-girl” attitude.

After several years of full-blown addiction, Brenda’s mother and friends finally intervened.

“The really sad thing is I had completely enlisted my mom’s support in my addiction. So often parents are the last to see a problem and are often unwittingly the enablers of an addiction.

“My first trip to rehab was as a result of my mum finally waking up and seeing what was happening. By that stage I was drinking and taking up to 150 painkillers every day.”

The toll on her health was staggering. The result of her addiction was an inability to hold down food and when she went into rehab she weighed just 38kg.

A perforated ulcer and two emergency operations have left Brenda with just 20% of her stomach.

She has gone through extensive rehab and, although she has been clean and sober since 2005, she still sees every day as her first day of sobriety.

“Without the booze and drugs, I finally woke up to the emotional work I had to do. I finally understand that I have to choose to stay alive. It has to be a conscious decision every day.

“If I pick up a drink, I am choosing to die. I’m just not prepared to do that.”

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