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An interview with Maxwell: Recovery from mental illness

Categories: Health

Due to the stigma attached to mental illness, an erroneous belief continues to exist that a diagnosis means a patient will never be a useful member of society.  Friends of Valkenberg know this to be untrue.  Here is Maxwell’s story to show you what a difference a combination of professional treatment and your support can make.

It was 1987.  Maxwell’s mother had to move to Khayelitsha in Cape Town for work, and so he stayed with his grandmother in the Eastern Cape.  At the tender age of 10, Maxwell started using drugs. 

The man standing before me is tall and imposing, with an obvious good nature.  “When I was in standard 2, I was doing well at school”, Maxwell informed me.  “But my grandmother had to leave home at 6.00am to go to work”, he continued.  “I was supposed to go to school, but since I was left all alone at home, I got into bad company”. 

He told me about his family.  “My father worked on the railway during apartheid.  Sadly, he passed away in 1986.  My mother remarried, and my maternal grandfather and my uncle both decided to support my younger brother financially - but for some reason, not me.  I had no shoes to wear”.  He looked downcast.  “I was quite upset and distressed at that time”, he admitted.  “I would smoke drugs and feel energised for a time, but afterwards there would be a big come-down and I would feel so low.”

When he was 22 years old, Maxwell moved to Cape Town to join his mother.  It was then that his mental health began to deteriorate, almost certainly linked to his many years of drug-taking, which can cause psychosis. 

“I started to hear voices in my head”, Maxwell said, matter of fact.  “I became angry at the injustices in the world.  To cut a long story short, on New Year’s Eve in 2000 I ended up setting fire to my mother’s house.  It was terrible.  It’s something I will always have to live with.  Of course, I was arrested and taken to the police station, and I ended up in Pollsmoor Prison”. 

In 2002, two years after being arrested, the court finally sent Maxwell for a psychiatric report.  He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and admitted to Valkenberg Hospital.  He spent a year recovering.  “My psychiatrist tried to help me give up drugs, but at that time I didn’t truly want to.  It’s not easy.  I didn’t think I was addicted, but sometimes the drugs need you.  You feel they’re demanding that you use them.  The reality is, well - you’re dependent on them.” 

When he had recovered sufficiently, Maxwell was discharged from hospital to live with a relative.  Unfortunately he lapsed back into drug-taking, resulting in a return to Valkenberg.  When his health had stabilised, his relative refused to house him. 

“So I was discharged to the Oude Molen Food Garden Village, which is just outside the hospital campus”, Maxwell said.  “They helped me to get a job with Woolworths to un-pack their lorries.  I would travel in the van with the driver.  I did that for five years.  It was good to be working, but I have to admit I was still taking drugs at that time.”

It was not until 2010 that Maxwell was able to turn his life around.  “I decided to take some responsibility for my life”, he stated, simply.  “I wanted to get an education, and even though was an outpatient, the occupational therapist at Valkenberg helped me enrol on a course in Business Practice (NQF Level 1) at Boston College.  It was a ‘Learnership’, with my fees paid for by the government.  Finally, I had a goal!”  Maxwell smiled broadly as he told me that he passed the course in 2013.  “And then I took another course in business administration, NQF Level 4!” 

It was then that Maxwell began volunteering with Friends of Valkenberg in the Tuckshop at the hospital.  After six months, he had so enjoyed it that he chose to undertake his practical coursework there too.  His internship in the shop involved checking stock, pricing donations, and generally assisting with the running of the business.  As funds were stretched, his stipend was low – but Maxwell gained valuable practical business experience.  This was Friends of Valkenberg’s first ever internship, and it worked so well that the NGO plans to accept other interns in the future.  

Since then, Maxwell has had a number of job interviews, and has applied for a business administration position at Groote Schuur Hospital in Observatory.  If he is unsuccessful, however, he remains positive about his future.  “Friends of Valkenberg is such a supportive environment”, he told me.  “The help they give is not only emotional and psychological, but also practical.  When I had nothing at all, they gave me free clothes.  I was able to wear a smart suit to interviews.  They provided support in arranging my Learnership.   When I have an interview they always give me encouragement, and they try to motivate me so that I don’t give up trying to make a good life for myself.” 

Friends of Valkenberg run various recovery groups with the intention not only of teaching life skills, but also helping people into meaningful employment to end the cycle of poverty which often contributes to relapse.  For example, it has introduced hairdressing training available, and a sewing skills group.

 “I have to admit that I was unwell before.  I’m now recovering.  I continue to take medication, but my illness is well controlled and my dose is much lower than on my admission to Valkenberg”, he informed me.  So what has aided his recovery the most?  Maxwell exudes warmth and friendliness as he says, “I see the difference that the treatment I received at Valkenberg has made.  With the help of the professional and volunteer staff at the hospital, I’ve had an important mind-set change”, he continues, with a mixture of pride and shy modesty.  “I now take responsibility for my own decisions.  I’m free from drugs.  I take my medication myself.  I want to progress further; to get a job and save money for the future.  Eventually, I would love to be a Professor, teaching business management.  I’m 32 years old.  Finally, I feel I’m on track to have my own family in the future, just like everybody else.  I want to find a secure job, earn a salary, and be able to support my wife and children, along with my elderly mother.”  I thank him for the interview and give him my hand.  He shakes it; a large, firm, genuine handshake of friendship.  I have absolutely no doubt that he will achieve his goals.

With your continued support, we can help Maxwell and others like him to change things around and live happy and productive lives.

By Dr. Laura Davidson June 2016

  Meet Max .......

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