Patients with alcohol related brain damage (ARBD) have been referred to as a forgotten group – and Heather Magee is one of them.
The County Down woman was diagnosed with ARBD more than two years ago.
With symptoms including memory loss, the condition is similar to dementia, according to a report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Unlike dementia, though, ARBD can improve to some degree in up to 75% of cases.
A specialist rehabilitation unit for ARBD patients is to open in Northern Ireland in January 2020.
The residential facility will be run by the charity, Leonard Cheshire, and patients will be referred by the Belfast and South Eastern Trusts.
Heather, 58, from Holywood, drank heavily from about the age of 20, but said eventually she was completely reliant on drink.
“The bottle ruled my life,” she says.
“I was drinking vodka. I would have gone to the off-licence and bought a litre bottle and didn’t stop until about three days later.
“When I did come round, I would find maybe four or five empty bottles and not remember drinking them. I was so ill.”
‘Signs of dementia’
In the end, Heather says she lost interest in everything but alcohol.
“I would forget to eat, to wash, it was horrific. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
Her daughter, Tara Mclean, says her mother was showing signs of ARBD, although she thought it was dementia.
She recalls that at one point her mother was sitting on the sofa with “hardly any clothes on, sitting in her own urine with cups of vomit around her”.
“She was showing signs of dementia, she was confused, lost.”
Tara says she went to see the doctor as her mother was disorientated.
“I would ask her [mother] questions and she would repeat herself three or four times. “
Consultant psychiatrist, Dr Joy Watson, says she thinks that while people are aware of the damage alcohol can cause to the liver, the significant impact it has on our brains is not well understood by the public.
“Alcohol itself is actually a toxin, and can directly damage our brain cells,” she says.
“Secondly, it also depletes our body, if we drink in high quantities, of a vitamin called Thiamene. This is essential for brain function, so in a double way alcohol can have a significantly bad effect on our brains.”
Dr Watson says it may not just be those who are alcohol dependent who should be concerned.
“You do have to be drinking for five years or more at 35 units a week, so while that seems like a lot, really when people count up what they drink, it probably isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that many people are putting themselves at risk.”
Fiona McCabe, Leonard Cheshire director, says that while ARBD is an emerging concern, the fact that patients can make a full or partial recovery is a “positive message”.
“In terms of recovery, it’s about improved quality of outcomes, improved daily living skills, ability to manage their memory, to plan,” she says.
“A lot of these issues can be managed and people can return to living a much more fruitful and positive life.”
For Heather, the road to recovery was difficult, but she says she realised the importance of getting the right care, and not being put into a ward with dementia patients.
“I get medication which helps repair the brain, but a lot of the damage that’s been done will be permanently with me. I’ve just got to cope in my own way.
“There is recovery with ARBD. Your brain has to start learning a lot of things all over again.”