When her husband got seriously ill and was diagnosed with cancer, things were literally falling apart for Maria and her young family, this wasn’t how life was supposed to be. The incessant and most times not subtle hostility from the in laws did not help an iota, the cultural pressure to be the perfect wife who never broke down was overwhelming. And as with all caregivers who in addition to taking care of their patients have to deal with a variety of external pressures, Maria found a coping mechanism. Only this particular coping mechanism was a harmful one and she did not realise it except in hindsight that she had taken a dark path, this is Maria’s story and how she started abusing drugs due to the pressures of caregiving.

“I didn’t think I was popping pills like they say, I don’t even know exactly what was going through my mind when I started to slowly use the pain pills prescribed for my husband. At first it started with breaking off a quarter, consuming it and then being able to sleep and take my mind off of my situation.

Each and every bag of mine had a cracked betapine tablet ready for consumption. The quarter dose was enough for me, a full one would knock me out completely so I stuck to the quarter size. When anyone would ask me what they were for I would lie and say that they were for my cramps, no one ever investigated further.”

Maria started using the drugs with increasing regularity as her caregiving job got harder, her in laws became more impossible to deal with and her husband’s condition also deteriorated. A quarter of a tablet soon became a half and she had to take it more regularly for the feeling of well-being that would flood over her afterwards. She still experienced every ounce of her circumstance, but the drug would make her zone out and she didn’t care too much about hostile in laws, only taking care of her husband was foremost on her mind.

One time, Maria was away from home at a conference and a friend had cramps (genuine ones) and Maria offered her painkillers only to find out she had none in her bag and started panicking, she had never been without her drugs and she felt vulnerable. She asked herself repeatedly what would happen if she needed them and she didn’t have them, they were the kind of drugs that needed a written prescription from a medical practitioner to obtain and that was a problem for Maria. As long as she could see the drugs, she felt safe and this also increased her temptation to use them, it was a vicious cycle.

Caregiving is not simple and most caregivers will attest to the fact that the work itself coupled with stress and self-denial can push anyone to the very brink and it was no different with Maria. She attests that the drugs made her feel peaceful and completely drained her energy to fight back against the stressors she faced, in a way they focussed her on her sole duty while removing the distractions. The only problem was that when the Zen induced by the drugs wore off, carried forward fatigue rushed in to fill the void. Maria had frequent black outs from fatigue and she stopped eating almost completely and would be surprised when she had to throw copious amounts of food untouched.

I asked Maria what her husband’s reaction would have been if he found out that she had been abusing drugs and Maria has to compose herself as she thinks through that difficult question. “It would have broken him knowing that I had to resort to drug abuse to cope. I wasn’t the kind of person who took alcohol or smoked and he knew this so knowing him, he would have been very empathetic. I was very protective of him at the time, I shielded him from a lot of what was going on and I therefore bore the brunt of it and had to find a way to cope with it all.”

After Maria’s husband passed on and people were helping her clear out his things, boxes of the drug were found and Maria quickly intervened to stop anyone throwing them away, they were her crutch. For proper context, Maria’s husband got sick in December of 2016 and passed on in 2018, she stopped abusing the drugs in 2019.

She eventually did go to a therapist who called her behaviour what it really was, drug abuse. This helped Maria realise that her behaviour was destructive and she reduced her intake but did not stop completely. After her husband passed on, she had to deal with the loss and mourned the loss while still adjusting to her new circumstances.

Maria is reflective when speaking about that period and shudders when she thinks how she chose to cope when her support systems all broke down and there was no one to hold her hand and she soldiered on as best as she could, picking up a drug habit on the way just to avoid getting overwhelmed. These days, Maria is much more positive and after undergoing deliberate healing, she has erected new support systems not tied to people but activities. She has new coping mechanisms including; cooking, planning outings for her and her son, writing, running a support group for caregivers and working. She has replaced a destructive coping mechanism (drug abuse) with positive mechanisms and it’s working out great for her.

Maria has a few nuggets of wisdom for fellow caretakers who find themselves in the eye of the storm; “It’s okay to vent your frustrations, talk about your struggles and be bold since during my drug abusing days I was the one suffering the brunt of the effects anyway.

As families, get a culture of asking how to help caregivers and practice role distribution since the caregiver and the patient know best what they need help in and how they need to be helped better than well-wishers assigning themselves roles. Also, families should learn how to shift strategies as the situation changes, it is massively helpful in the long run.

Caregivers also need quite a bit of support from their support systems because at times we go into caregiving mode and forget how to be a spouse/parent or sibling but with additional help we can balance our roles as well.”

Maria entered the eye of the storm, was battered and bruised but she has emerged on the other side, sobered and wiser. Not many people make it through and Maria only hopes caregivers and families alike can handle situations of caregiving much better.


  1. Sandrah Joan says:

    Wow Maria the caregiver. It really encourages caregivers not to hide behind’ I’m ok’…..good article

  2. Shiru says:

    That’s bold for her to eventually speak it out.This will be very helpful to many

  3. Anne Njeri says:

    Yes its possible to embrace new coping mechanisms

  4. Esther Muhati says:

    Everyone is vulnerable and needs love and attention, including the caregivers. Very informative!

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