I was sorry to read today that TV presenter Ant MacPartlin was “going into rehab” after admitting a struggle with depression, alcohol misuse and addiction to prescription drugs.
Although McPartlin is in no way my cup of TV tea, I understand that it must have been incredibly hard to have stayed at the top of his game for so many years in a business that delights binning those who have outlived their light entertainment shelf life. I’ve known enough people in the entertainment industry to know how hard they have to work to keep their heads above water.
I understand that McPartlin’s problems have partly arisen as a result of being left in chronic pain following knee surgery, and as a fellow pain sufferer I can see only too easily how this came about.
I suffered a herniated disc back in 2012, as a result of going running to try and control my bipolar disorder. The running was incredibly effective, but my spine was not in agreement andI ended up having to have surgery for a slipped disc. During this time I was placed on high-strength opiate painkillers, on top of my ordinary psychiatric medication, with the advice to “take them, whether you feel the need to or not” (this advice is based upon the reasonable assumption that if you wait until you are in pain, the muscles around the area will be in spasm and the pain will be worse, whereas if you take the painkillers regularly you are less likely to restrict your movement and cause further problems).
Great, I thought. No problem, I thought. 60mg of codeine per dose was easily enough to convince me of the doctor’s wisdom. After the first dose, in fact, I believed I’d never have any problems again. It wasn’t enough to completely kill my agonising pain, but it was certainly enough to help me not care that I was now bedridden.
I had my op. Post-operatively I was prescribed Tramadol on top of the co-codamol and three other painkillers I was taking. I used one of those old lady pill organisers to ensure I was taking my medication correctly and found I couldn’t shut the lid, so great was the number of tablets inside. I didn’t care. I found I didn’t care about much, until I realised it was a year later, I was two stone heavier and I hadn’t left the house for eighteen months.
By this point, I was a long, long way away from being able to enjoy any of the therapeutic effects of exercise on my mental health. I was terribly depressed. The codeine no longer had the same joyous effect, and so I’d drink to try and replicate the blissful state of blotto. When that didn’t work, I’d take extra co-codamol. I remember phoning NHS Direct (now 111) because I couldn’t breathe, and them advising me to sleep propped up on pillows. They didn’t ask the right questions to discover what I know now, which is that my breathing was suppressed as a result of overdosing on co-codamol and alcohol.
This unhappy state of affairs culminated with me being awoken from a drugged sleep one night by the police banging down the door. I’d told my friend online that I’d taken (as had become my custom every evening) about 20 co-codamol, as well as alcohol. Oh and I’d sliced up my arms for good measure.
I don’t know what Ant’s rock bottom was, but I’d hit mine.
But if there are parallels between our stories up to now, this is where they diverge.
Because the thing is, there is no “rehab” for those of us reliant upon the NHS. I spent a few days on a general NHS ward whilst the drip treated my damaged liver. I went on to spend the next six months being buffeted between home (where I could not cope), psychiatric hospital, where they kept on trying to discharge me because, although i was actively suicidal, I wasn’t mentally ill enough, and various short stay ‘crisis’ houses, which had very strict time limits of a week or so. There was no rehabilitation facility for someone who had become addicted to prescription drugs because they were prescribed those drugs by their GP. It was a matter of going home and sitting it out; or more realistically, going home and taking regular overdoses and being buffeted in and out of crisis care, which amounts to one visit every couple of days to check that the knives are hidden. Not “rehab” by a long chalk.
The Telegraph reported McPartlin to have said about his difficulties:
“I’ve spoken out because I think it’s important that people ask for help if they’re going through a rough time and get the proper treatment to help their recovery.”
I’m really pleased McPartlin has spoken out, but let’s be realistic about what this “proper treatment” amounts to for those of us not wealthy enough to afford The Priory. The NHS does not have these mythical rehab facilities. If we feel sorry for McPartlin, we should extend this pity to the average service user who is struggling through these problems alone.