From the euphoric highs to the crashing lows and the tumultuous in-betweens, substance abuse is no trivial matter for those who merely exist for the next hit. As Carissa Paglino, 34 from Newcastle puts it, “I didn’t want to die but I wasn’t keen on living either.”
For 20 years, Carissa, a former drug addict who battled every chemical drug under the sun including prescription medication, had meandered through life spending time in and out of hospital. From the age of 14, Carissa has had a long-standing history that started out with recreational use of marijuana and cigarettes but quickly became a life completely devoted to the heavy use of alcohol and amphetamines.
The use and misuse of licit and illicit drugs in Australia is undeniably a major public health concern with considerable social and economic costs that impose a heavy financial burden on the community. It was reported in a 2016 survey commissioned by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare that daily or weekly use of meth/amphetamines has more than doubled from 9.3% to 20% during 2010-16 and that use of ‘ice’ was even higher from 12.4% to 32%. Of the 24,000 people surveyed, 4 in 10 either smoked daily, drank alcohol in risky quantities or used an illicit drug in the past 12 months, all of which leading to premature disease and death.
One of the common effects of heavy drug use is the increased risk of injury due to violence and self-harm. “I had no self-respect or self-confidence and was regularly cutting myself from when I was 16,” says Carissa. “The last two years is when I really gave up on life”
“Addiction to illicit drugs can be very damaging to the abuser and their everyday life,” says Dr Ryan Harvey of House Call Doctor. “Most may find it impossible to continue in paid employment or work. The focus of their day becomes on ensuring they have consumed the illicit drug, often to simply prevent the withdrawal symptoms.”
“Relationships also suffer as the abuser’s priorities are on the drug rather than on fostering or maintaining a relationship. The toll on everyday relationships between the abuser and their partner or family is often heavy resulting in the breakdown of the relationships.”
Carissa worked in graphic design, events and administration at the same company for 12 years. Despite these powerful drugs disrupting her emotional and cognitive functioning, she continued to try and live a normal life. Eventually, she quit her job and met her partner in 2015, where a series of events would quickly set her on a steep course of destruction.
“This guy I met was an ice dealer. I had an endless supply of ice, marijuana, ecstasy pills and anti-psychotic medication and soon developed a daily ice habit for over a year until I had a mental breakdown.”
Ryan Hassan, former ice addict turned Co-Founder at the Melbourne Centre of Healing states that substance dependence isn’t always due to the chemical ‘hook’.
“These substances hijack the reward system in the brain, namely the neurotransmitter Dopamine. There is 10 times more Dopamine released than any other illicit drug. If the substance is helping people escape from their emotional pain, then that’s when addiction starts.”
Carissa’s toxic drug habit had spiralled quickly out of control, causing depression, anxiety and agoraphobia. After smoking one of the most powerful psychedelic narcotics called DMT, also known as Dimethyltryptamine, Carissa found herself in the Mater Hospital – Mental Health and Substance Abuse Unit due to vomiting, kidney failure and drug psychosis preceding brain damage.
“It was actually the best Christmas I had in years as it was the first one I spent sober,” Carissa cheerfully states. “My beautiful mother was very supportive, visiting me regularly and bringing me a Christmas hamper.”
Following recovery, Carissa still had a long road of fighting her demons ahead. Mixing with the wrong crowd would lead to a relapse that involved bingeing on ice and abusing prescription medication. The final call that saw her on death’s door at her local ICU was when she had taken so much ice, cocaine and pills she suffered a major asthma attack.
“The last thing I remember was the ambulance arriving and then waking up in hospital with tubes coming out everywhere. My CO2 levels were so toxic, I was put into an induced coma.”
Carissa’s family were urged to say goodbye while her body continued to deteriorate. Though there was a slim chance of her survival, her Mum held a strong faith that she would make it. The doctors suggested shutting off her life support but another doctor intervened, offering a heart and lung bypass machine. Carissa was given a 45 percent chance of survival. As her family huddled and prayed in that hospital, Carissa miraculously woke up after four days.
Carissa adds, “The doctors were so amazed by my fast recovery they called me the ‘miracle child’!”
The following few weeks in hospital saw Carissa learning how to walk, talk and eat again through intense physiotherapy and speech therapy. Being fiercely independent and determined, Carissa was self-sufficient in no time. Finding her physical strength once more, it was then her emotional healing that needed to come into focus.
Still feeling isolated, lonely and moody, Carissa took to adopting a cat named Mr Meowgi and an old friend, a dog named Tiger. Her strong bond with her pets was an outlet to show love and be loved. As Carissa says, “They just needed love, like me.”
Today, if you took one look at Carissa, you wouldn’t recognise her from the girl she was a few years ago. Carissa’s life has completely turned around and she attests it all to her faith, a supportive community of friends and family and spending time in meditation and prayer. What’s more, Carissa has gone back to her passion, once again pursuing art, craft and graphic design.
“My strong faith in God and determination saved me. Now I wake up every morning happy about the day ahead. I work out every day, eat super healthy and regularly see my drug and alcohol counsellor. I am healing and learning to love myself, love others and love life.”
Dr Harvey suggests that drug addicts have the best chance in treatment by engaging in the health system such as programs designed to help with addiction.
“Often your General Practitioner is a good first point of call. From there, you can access the many programs and counselling services necessary to try and kick the addiction. The programs combine the use of replacement medication and psychological counselling and support, as well as social welfare support.”
The journey to recovery didn’t play out easily for Carissa. With faith, strength and an unshakeable willingness to never give up, she has gone on to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. For the thousands of Australians who are battling substance abuse and addiction, Carissa has shown us that all things are possible if you are committed to change and ready to make that 180° turn. If not for you, then for your loved ones. You will not regret it one bit.
Help and Resources
- Lifeline 13 11 14 | www.lifeline.org.au
- Alcohol and Drug Foundation 1300 85 85 84 | www.adf.org.au
- Counselling Online 1800 888 236 | www.counsellingonline.org.au
- Alcoholics Anonymous 1300 222 222 | www.aa.org.au
- Health Direct www.healthdirect.gov.au/drug-and-alcohol-rehabilitation