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Alcoholic Charlene begins detox

Monday 10 Sep 2012 4:27 p.m.

By Natasha Utting

By World Health Organisation standards there are 700,000 heavy drinkers in New Zealand. The National Addiction Centre says we have an alcohol crisis. An estimated 2.2 million deaths a year worldwide are linked to alcohol, and 3.6 percent of all cancers are attributable to drinking alcohol.

Charlene is an alcoholic. She has lost close relationships, her high flying career, the chance to have children and now faces losing her life to this disease. She invited us into her world to show New Zealand the ugly truth of extreme alcohol addiction.

“In the last year I’ve had five friends die from alcohol," she says. I don’t want to be the next one.”

Charlene's doctor says she will be.

“She's going to die from this soon if she doesn't beat it,” says Dr Tim Wilson.

This could be Charlene's last chance.

By 9am, Charlene has had a bottle-and-a-half of wine. She says she needs it “to even get up”.

She drinks three to four bottles of wine every 24 hours. She drinks through the night too, to prevent withdrawals.

She invited Campbell Live into her home to see the reality of living with alcoholism.

It is painful and embarrassing, but Charlene wants to tell her story as a warning to others.

Charlene was once a successful business woman, winning awards for her work for major airlines, but for years she hid a terrible secret. She was what's known as a "high functioning" alcoholic.

“It is something that’s almost expected of you: if you're in sales, you drink,” she says.

She also worked in the alcohol industry.

“It became my role to actually go out and drink every night because I had 60 brands of alcohol to promote.”

It was a bad career choice for a woman with a drinking problem.

“I thought I could handle it, but that was the beginning of the end.”

This is where she's ended up – living like a person under house arrest. Her prison is the drink she craves constantly, even during our interview.

“Do you know, I hate the stuff,” she says.

She's so used to hiding her drinking she also finishes a bottle off in secret in her bedroom.

“The whole reason I’m doing this is to show the reality of what actually goes on behind closed doors.”

Charlene's debilitating addiction has meant she hasn't worked for more than five years now. She says alcohol has cost her time with her family.

“My family, my mother, my brother, my niece and nephew who are five and three, it has cost me time that I could have had with them.”

We agree to get the contents of her recycling bin out in the open. There are 26 bottles and another one open in the house.

That is around eight days' worth.

When Charlene rang us at Campbell Live, she was desperate to stop drinking. She told us she planned to detox herself at home on her own, and invited us to film it.

“Charlene has already participated in almost all the treatment programmes, but nothing has really hit the spot,” Dr Wilson says.

Charlene has detoxed and relapsed time and time again. Still, she is determined to do it her way despite the risks.

She agrees to let her GP set up a plan to help her detox safely. Her next call is to her local liquor outlet to ask them not to serve her again.

“I don’t think that when you have this disease you have a choice," she says. "You have a choice about if you're going to continue. I choose to stop."

A nursing agency – Life Health Care – has agreed to help her stop.

They're sending a specialist drug and alcohol nurse to monitor Charlene 24 hours a day through detox. But until it begins, Charlene keeps drinking.

With a handycam she films her midnight run to the supermarket. Whatever is on special goes in the basket, and she captures staff restocking the shelves.

Is this 24 hour availability part of the problem? Charlene thinks so.

“I think our laws need to change and I don’t think it should be available by the bread and the milk.”

Forty-eight hours later Charlene is admitted to hospital. Once she's discharged it's off to the GP.

Her treatment was due to pain caused by inflammation of her oesophagus and stomach lining. Even an extra 24 hours of drinking has a downside – a recurrence of her pancreatitis.

In the six years he's been her GP, Dr Tim Wilson has seen just what drinking has done to her.

“It has damaged her pancreas gland her stomach lining, as well as caused psychological problems,” he says.

Alcoholism is a mental illness, and Dr Wilson says we underestimate the extent to which alcohol ruins lives.

“I unfortunately write out lots of death certificates where it's alcoholism that killed them,” he says.

But Charlene's determined he will not sign hers yet.

Charlene's detox begins now with expert help from addiction nurse Annette Chatterji from the Life Health Trust. She's moving in for the next five days to keep Charlene safe and manage her withdrawals.

Detoxing off alcohol is both unpleasant and dangerous. Charlene is expecting nasty hallucinations. She's been here before.

Charlene only stopped drinking moments ago, and at first she's reluctant to let Ms Chatterji into her bedroom where she keeps her alcohol.

Ms Chatterji is not prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt. Charlene's terrified.

It is nothing the nurse hasn't seen before, and she gets back to the task at hand – looking for alcohol.

Charlene insists that there's only one empty bottle in the bedroom, but Ms Chatterji spots a full glass by the bed.

“No, we're not going to have this anymore. Chuck it out.”

It is her job to keep looking everywhere, even the oven.

“Even though she wants to detox, it's possible that she'd hide alcohol. They're going to lie, they're going to cheat, so it’s going to be hidden.”

Charlene insists she's not hiding any alcohol.

It's 10am and Charlene is already back in bed and needing to sleep. Day one is about alcohol leaving the system, and trying to get some food into Charlene, who barely eats while she's drinking. This is the proverbial calm before the storm.

“And then you know we're in the pit after that, for want of a better word,” says Ms Chatterji.

Eight hours into the detox and Charlene is feeling agitated, clammy and unwell. Emotions overwhelm her at times, so it is back to bed again.

“I'm feeling a hell of a lot of pain,” Charlene says.

Once she's settled the nurse preps dinner. Charlene's up moments later and asking for medication.

When Charlene wakes again in the night, there'll be no glass of wine by the bed to reassure her. That will be Ms Chatterji’s job.

Twenty-four hours into the detox and Charlene can't eat anything. She's very dehydrated after sweating a lot overnight.

Twenty-four hours without alcohol and the real Charlene is emerging from the fog. She admits that she's not just afraid of death – she's afraid of life too.

“You get to a point where you're used to being sick. It’s your comfort zone. There are times when I’m uncomfortable feeling good,” she says.

Alcoholics drink on emotion. Charlene is most prone to relapse when she feels happy.

As well as diazepam, she's on anti-depressants, pills for nausea and anti-psychotics.

By 10am Charlene needs to sleep again, but in the afternoon she's able to tackle light chores and can even enjoy a laugh. But she's still in bed most of the time.

She hasn't eaten anything, but at least day two is almost over.

Watch the video to see Charlene’s journey.

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