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Felicity Bielovich's Story
A journey to hell and back
Felicity Bielovich tells of prescribed drug ordeal
Addiction to drugs prescribed by her psychiatrist took a patient on a journey to hell and back. Cynthia Vongai reports.
Felicity Bielovich is a woman who has been to hell and back. Addicted to prescription drugs for two years, she is a living proof of how easy it is to become addicted to drugs such as benzodiazepines, which are the most widely prescribed drugs in this country.
Bielovich has a message of hope for people like herself, which she hopes to spread through her new book, The Judas Window.
In an interview with the Cape Times yesterday Bielovich spoke of her dependency on benzodiazepines, which are minor tranquillisers. She described how her life became one of depression and despair, leading eventually to a nervous breakdown.
She was also committed to a state mental hospital after the side effects of taking benzodiazepines began to kick in.
Her nightmare began after a major back operation, when she was prescribed benzodiazepines by a neurologist to ease her pain.
"Within a week I began to feel the side effects depression, weeping, anxiety, sleeplessness, restlessness and I was anti-social.
"Each time I went back with these complaints the medication was changed and I was left with a whole new combination. This went on for 18 months.
"But I thought I could cope and I forced myself to work harder, and I ignored the symptoms and carried on as normal."
She hid her addiction until one day she snapped and realised she could not go on.
It was the night of her daughter's debutante ball and she made an excuse not to go. When everyone had left she made herself a cup of tea and went to bed with her husband's 35cm butcher's knife in her hand, ready to end her life.
A small crucifix on the bedroom wall saved her life that night, because she suddenly decided she could not kill herself because of her religious beliefs. Instead, she telephoned her husband to come home and bring a priest.
She was admitted to the Johannesburg General Hospital and spent two months there under psychiatric observation and was treated with drugs she had no control over, as the doctors tried to determine what was wrong with her.
"They were puzzled because I was not a victim of incest, child abuse ... and I came from a happy home and they could not understand my depression."
Her husband was told she "would not come right" unless the doctors began shock treatment, and they also gave her more drugs.
During her 10-week treatment at the Johannesburg General Hospital she met a convict "who had been brought in for treatment". She began to talk to him.
"For the first time in my life I was able to express what I was feeling, and he told me I was not crazy but that it was the pills, and that I should stop taking them.
"There was no way for me to stop taking the pills without the nurses knowing, so that night I decided to run away."
She was found later that night, and certified and committed into a mental institution.
The new professor who was assigned to work on her case at the mental institution was the first doctor to ask her what she thought was wrong with her.
"I told him it was the pills and all the pills were stopped overnight." She went cold turkey after 18 months of taking pills, and began her long and hard journey to recovery.
She went into a deep depression, and her personality and behaviour changed. She did not want to see her family after the reality of being in a mental institution hit home.
She began to believe that she was worthless and resigned herself to the fact that she was going to be in the institution "forever". But she began to recover slowly "I smiled for the first time in six months" and regained a zest for life.
She was discharged soon afterwards, but on condition that she see a psychiatrist. He prescribed more drugs.
She knew no one would believe the drugs were making her ill and she decided to stop taking them, and began to feel better.
Everything was going well for her, until one day her psychiatrist decided to perform a blood test to see how the drugs were working.
On the day of the test she decided to tell him that she had not been taking the pills and to prove this, she took 500 pills that she had kept to the doctor.
"He threatened to recommit me to the hospital and I dared him to."
This is when she decided to tell her story, and began work on a book to warn others of the dangers of prescription drugs.
Kicking drugs not so easy – particularly when they are prescribed.
Felicity Bielovich is a 50-something survivor. She's survived what many don't, a nightmare journey into a deep depression caused by prescription drugs.
It's been a slow and painful recovery, but now, 10 years after her ordeal, Felicity can speak about it without animosity or anger.
Petite and immaculately dressed, Felicity's soft blue eyes become fiery when she talks about her mission to tell others about the dangers of prescription drugs.
Her descent into a mental hell began in her forties when her doctor prescribed a battery of drugs after a back operation. These included sleeping pills and painkillers. The pills she was taking changed her moods, brought on panic attacks, made her hands shake and she couldn't stop crying.
"When it began I was too proud to show I wasn't coping. Meanwhile, I was losing my head," says Felicity.
Her addiction to these pills pushed her into a drawn-out depression. At one stage she became psychotic and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where doctors fished for a label for her.
"I had a happy childhood, but they kept on probing it, they were looking for a sickness, a label. For 40 years I was normal, then I underwent personality changes. The reason, the pills, should have been obvious. Instead I lost myself. It was terrifying."
Felicity was further medicated and spent a long time in a psychiatric institution. Her recovery began when a fellow inmate helped her identify the pills as the cause of her depression.
Her story is told in all its hope and despair in The Judas Window (Zoetic Inc 1996), which will touch a chord in many people with similar stories, or in those who know people with similar stories.
And there are many, many of them, says Felicity, who has spent years talking to people and running workshops to warn people about the dangers of prescription drugs.
Felicity's is not a freak or rare case. While there are no accurate figures for the number of people addicted in South Africa, figures from the United States show that 60 percent of admissions to psychiatric hospitals are iatrogenic (caused by medical treatment).
"There's no reason to think we're very different here, says Felicity.
In fact, one doctor who heard her speak urged her not to whimper about her experience, but to scream.
Felicity has made it her business to learn all about psychotropic drugs. In the 60s the Rolling Stones sang about "mother's little helper", the little pill that helped you get through the day. It was also in the sixties that the benzodiazepine drugs were discovered.
"This is the class of drugs I'm talking about," says Felicity. "The benzodiazepines are minor tranquillisers, muscle relaxants and sleeping pills. These are the most prescribed, with the widest range of side-effects of the psychotropic, or mind-altering, drugs."
And they are highly effective drugs in the short term. The problem is that after two or three weeks' dependency kicks in, and with it a whole range of side-effects, one of which is depression.
"When you stop taking them," says Felicity, "you don't feel so good, which is part of the withdrawal process, but you're not told that, so you go back to the doctor and get some more of the same, or maybe different ones.
"Some doctors don't explain side-effects or the duration of treatment. Many don't know or realise that some of these sleeping tablets and tranquillisers are closer than first cousins. That's part of the problem. Taking two of this class doesn't just double the effect, it quadruples it.
"And doctors freely give repeat prescriptions. I know of people who have been on them for two or three years," says Felicity.
She's not against the drugs as such, and says: "There is a valuable place for drugs, if prescribed appropriately. The problems are long-term repeat prescriptions, not being given information about how to come off them and what you can expect from the drugs. That's the information people need to make informed decisions.
"My whole thrust is to tell people about inappropriate prescribing. And to get people to stand up for their rights as patients."
South Africans especially, she says, suffer from DDS, that's Deified Doctor Syndrome.
"What doctors say we do. We have so much trust and faith in them. We believe in a pill for every ill. And we believe that every ill deserves a pill. People think they're coping better on the pills. In fact their power is slipping away. They think they're getting better, but actually they're numb. Mind, body, libido is numb."
Felicity believes that we are designed to cope, that we don't need pills to numb us.
"When something is emotional, you need to look at it. Name it, claim responsibility, and ask yourself what can I do about it? Tame it. And don't take responsibility for other people's behaviours. If your husband is a slob, and your daughter is a drop-out, don't take pills to cope. Do something."
Felicity's workshops teach people about these drugs, and their rights as patients.
"I emphasise the three Rs: the Right reason, the Right drug and the Right dose.
"I want a paradigm shift, away from the doctor's way, which is to evaluate, medicate and evacuate. There must be patient autonomy, a sharing of knowledge, a chance to participate in decision-making."
Patients rights, she says, are the right to know the diagnosis and prognosis, to know what the medication is, what its side effects are, how you will come off the drug and the right to say no.
Women are more often addicted to these drugs than men. They're freely handed out by (mostly) male doctors to female patients for agitation, sleeplessness, violence, abuse, and stress.
This is because of the different way women and men are perceived by doctors.
"Research has found that when men come into a consulting room, doctors, mostly men, see their problems as physical. They're told to exercise, go out with the boys, spend time outdoors. Women's problems are seen as emotional, especially if they're in their forties: PMT, empty nest syndrome and menopause. They don't stand a chance," says Felicity.
It's frightening, but an indication of how addictive these drugs are is that many doctors are addicted to them – 25 percent of them in the United States.
Felicity recently featured on M-Net's Carte Blanche programme. The response was phenomenal and included doctors phoning in asking for help. She's now running workshops around the country.
* Felicity plans to run workshops for people in Cape Town: Contact Liz Norman, (011) 849 2282, or Carolanne Begbie, (011) 783 2843.
Felicity Bielovich was prompted to write her experiences after being diagnosed, treated, certified and committed to a mental institution. At the launch of her first book, New Image People Beyond the Barrier, she discovered for the first time, from a professor of psycho-pharmacology, that she had never been mentally ill per se, but that she had suffered from an iatrogenic condition brought on by psychiatric drugs. This book together with her work in the African Townships, won for her the prestigious Golden Achiever Award from the Permanent Bank.
This award, subsequently became the catalyst for her second book, The Judas Window, which catapulted her into the print media, radio and TV.
The numerous phone calls in response to one particular TV programme, led to her decision to raise the level of consciousness surrounding these drugs in the public domain. For promoting this awareness campaign, she received a Rotary Vocational Award.
Over the past five years, she has been invited by Universities, technicians and the corporate sector to run her informative workshops.
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Telephone: 00 27 894 3538
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