Saturday 24 September 2016

The psychological effects of hepatitis C: 'It was a dirty and uneasy feeling and it began to haunt me'

Published 04/08/2015 | 02:30

Lar Murphy works as a drugs worker with Community Response
Lar Murphy works as a drugs worker with Community Response

It was in the early noughties when I first got my bloods tested. I wasn't even thinking about hepatitis C at that time, that wasn't on my radar at all. To be honest, I only got tested because a number of other people in the methadone clinic I attended at that time were getting tested. I had no idea that test would turn out to be the turning point in my life and the reality check that I needed.

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At this point, my lifestyle was chaotic. This was down to my misuse of drugs and the type of life that comes with taking that path.

My issues with addiction started very early on, when I was 14. Like many others from my area at the time, peer pressure to do drugswas a big issue - like many teenagers

I suffered from low self-esteem and drugs were an appealing way to 'fit in'.

Looking back, the sense of mystery and perceived excitement that went with drug-taking made it an easy choice for a teenage boy in my situation. Things spiralled out of control fairly quickly from there.

I had my first child when I was 16. I continued to be an active drug user for another 20 years, finishing with it for good aged 36. I was on a methadone maintenance programme for 14 years - the drug issue for me was not easily fixed but I was determined to turn things around for myself and for my family.

The reason I finally decided to get clean was the realisation that there was a sense of loneliness and despair within me that drugs would never fix. I needed help.

At that time, I was living with my now ex-wife and four kids and the effect of my behaviour on them was very hard. It had such an impact on my kids. It's hard to live with someone going through these issues.

I tried to work through it for them and for myself, I really tried but I lost a lot of great jobs because of it, which always was a knock to my confidence. Anything I built up always fell down around me.

When I finally found out through that blood test that I had contracted hepatitis C through intravenous drug use I was angry, very angry, and I looked for someone else to blame.

After that initial anger and shock, I put it to the back of my mind and didn't take much heed of it for a while. The way I was told was "You haven't got HIV you have only got hepatitis C. You are lucky to just have that."

I didn't know anything about hepatitis C back then. All I knew was that you don't tell anyone about having it. You don't talk about it - that is how bad the stigma surrounding hepatitis C was and is to this day.

I already had this huge issue with addiction - that was my battle, it was the most pressing thing in my life that needed to be addressed above everything else at that time. My addiction was the weight of the world on my shoulders, I couldn't add a hepatitis C diagnosis to my problems and so I didn't really deal with it emotionally or mentally straight away.

I went into rehab in 2009 and dealt with my addiction issues. I finally got things into check and got myself into a positive place.

It was a couple of years later, one of those moments of clarity you have when you are driving, that I realised that this hepatitis C diagnosis I had ignored previously is not a good thing to have. I suddenly felt as if there was an intruder in my body.

It was a dirty and uneasy feeling and it began to haunt me. One of the big issues with hepatitis C is that initially you don't really show symptoms and this was true for me - but I felt contagious.

I had had hep C for a number of years at this time but it was only at this point that I understood the enormity of it; the severity of this disease finally hit me.

I think that I had to deal with the addiction before I could have dealt with hep C emotionally - fixing my addiction had been my focus, now it was time to deal hep C. I was faced with having to do something about it.

The realisation was as simple as this: hepatitis C is attacking my body, whether I am showing signs or not. Being out of addiction for the first time gave me the opportunity to start thinking about the long-term. I started appreciating life and I wanted to keep going down that positive path - my health had to become a priority.

The stigma of having hepatitis C is very difficult, you don't look sick and it can be easy to almost forget about it until something happens. For example, I would forget I had hep C until I was brushing my teeth or if I had an accident and cut myself. I would react badly and would not want anyone to come near me. I felt like an outcast.

After discussions with my doctor I began treatment for hepatitis C in 2013, it was a weekly injection for an 11-month period.

During my 11 months of treatment I learnt how determined I was to get rid of this, I started to feel a cleansing going through treatment; I knew something positive was happening to my body.

'It' was getting weaker and I was getting stronger.

The treatment involved me injecting myself on Friday evenings; I would then give myself Saturday and Sunday to rest and recover. I would have a lot of aches and pains, cold sweats, the treatment was difficult at times. It was worth it though.

The actual effects of it were more psychological, emotional.

I have been cleared of the disease for 12 months now; I have received two negative tests which truly is fantastic and life changing. There is a lot of misinformation about hepatitis C out there that I hope this first ever National Awareness Week can counter - people need to get informed.

My life has been transformed now; I don't drink, I don't smoke or do any substance. I work hard, I am a drugs worker with Community Response. I now work with groups of people who have hepatitis C to support them as they go through their own journeys, I hope I am a positive influence for them so that they know it is possible to turn your life around.

I can now look back and see that the horrors of my past have become the treasures of my now.

I have a new partner and I have a four-year-old son. I do some physical training and try my best to stay fit and active. Through my work with Community Response I see myself 10 years ago in the people that I try to help today. I have even met people from my past through my work who I now help.

Anyone out there who feels alone, and who is fighting the battle against hepatitis C, please know that there is support out there. The first step to take is to get tested - that is what will make the difference.

The first ever awareness week for hepatitis C took place last week, and was coordinated by three community groups - Community Response, HIV Ireland and UISCE.

It is estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 people across Ireland could have undiagnosed hepatitis C. See HepInfo.ie for more information.

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