If only I knew then what I know now

Herman Charles

A former cokehead writes about the challenges of maintaining an identity as a recovering addict.

Drug addiction. (AFP)

Between 2006 and 2008 I contributed to the 20% rise in cocaine addicts in South Africa. From 2008, I joined the 11% of South Africans who actively battle their substance abuse problems.

My seeking help contributed to the 17.5% increase in addicts entering rehab. Can you see it? Those seeking help didn’t increase as much as those who used — we have a problem.

There’s a saying in “the rooms” (rehab slang for Narcotics Anonymous meetings) that the worst days in recovery are still far better than the best days in active addiction. I have found this to be true and since I started my journey of recovery about six years ago, I have derived some pleasure in seeing the person I have become. 

One of these changes is the sense of accomplishment I feel when I have to face my “consequences” (slang for the effects of addiction), deal with my shit and then grow from it. 

If there is one benefit to the 12-step programme then it must be that it puts you in a headspace that’s primed for personal growth. For that I am forever grateful to the 12-step programme of Narcotics Anonymous.

There are things that I know now that I couldn’t have imagined at the beginning of my journey. First, some of my ideas regarding drugs and how to deal with it have changed.

Second, I didn’t know then that there were things I didn’t count on, maybe naively so, that added significant challenges to my recovery. And third, I did give in to that oh-fuck-it moment when I relapsed,  seven months to the day of getting clean. 

These contributed, on some occasion, to my default pattern of escape, or in other words they made me want to use again and wreck myself into oblivion.

Making up for pain caused

I didn’t realise the emotional devastation and hurt I caused to those around me, especially those I love and who love me back. Hearing my mother share her experience of my addiction at my first clean birthday share, a time when you retell your story of recovery on the anniversary of becoming sober, almost made me lose it — completely. 

It shattered me to know that I had caused that much chaos and pain to a person I love dearly. My mother was often moments away from doing an Ellen Pakkies on me (Ellen Pakkies was a mother who strangled her addict son in 2007). It took me a while to deal with that guilt and to move past it. 

I had to, in the end, not because I’m a heartless bastard, but because guilt keeps me sick. I realised that, just like a husband who had an affair, I would have to do whatever was needed to restore my relationship and do it until the trust has been restored, until the peace has been restored, until whatever has been broken has been put back together again. 

The difficult part was realising that I couldn’t dictate how long it would take. That it wasn’t about me feeling better and less uncomfortable; it was about her and what she needed. 

And today there are still certain behaviours of mine, things that I do, that trigger those memories for her. Things that make her question my sobriety. Or solicit an involuntary emotional reaction because my behaviour reminds her of that time when I was unreachable. Consequences, in general, have become my friends. 

Not all consequences feel fair, but they do serve a purpose (even if it is just as a reminder that I should never do this ever again). Some consequences are stupid things, such as the constant suspicion of colleagues. I just have to have a cold and sneeze once and the office rumour mill has me back on drugs before I can reach for a tissue. Ah, consequence, my friend.

The most important thing I learnt in recovery is that I’m not special or different from any other addict. No matter the substance(s) other addicts are addicted to. Even within the recovery community — although we are urged to look at the similarities and not the differences — there are alcoholics who take offense at drug addicts attending “their” Alcoholic Anonymous meetings.  It’s the “we-didn’t-do-street-drugs-so-we-are-not-like-them” thing. It’s seldom expressed out loud, but it happens. Similarly, there are recovering drug addicts who think they are more hardcore than alcoholics — “junkie pride” is what it is called. 

The point is that addiction holds the same power over every addict. The substance is not the problem, the addict is.

Understanding that I’m not special and different has allowed me to embrace my identity as an addict, that I’ll always be one, albeit (just for today) a clean and sober one. 

This identity has served me, not by way of being an apologist for my actions, but by way of maintaining awareness that it could go horribly wrong in a matter of moments if I don’t put in the work and don’t remain “plugged in” to my support network and those who help me to stay accountable. 

As a result of this, when I see friends and people who know me spew their nonsense in reaction to a celebrity’s drug death, it makes me angry. Recently, when Philip Seymour Hoffman died, I saw close friends going off on social media about how he was just another example of a “rich ungrateful selfish celebrity who pissed away his life”, in a “characteristically self-indulgent manner” as is “typical of those addicts”, without any regard for his wife and kids. 

I challenged my friends on those beliefs. Their response was “but you are not like that, you try to do something about your addiction”. It did little to relieve my turmoil. The thing is that I am exactly “like that”. I had to explain that Hoffman fought a valiant fight for 22 years before he lost that fight, hardly the actions of a man who “pisses away every good thing in his life”. 

I had to explain that in spite of years of clean time, the addiction disease doesn’t dissipate. That, in fact, relapsing after a long sustained clean time is often a downward spiral that happens at a much faster rate than the original addiction. As a result, overdose and death are more likely than ever before. 

I had to explain that even if I do everything right, the odds that I won’t succumb to this disease —directly or indirectly — are still not in my favour. 

The deaths of high profile addicts upset me because they remind me that it could very well happen to me, that in spite of my clean time, I am an arm’s length away from a relapse and possibly death. I had to explain that when it happens to “the rich celebrities” it affects all of “us”. And then I had to stay off social media for a while.

War on drugs ineffectual

As a recovering addict, it is important to me that awareness is brought home that addiction is a disease, a mental health issue, and that the so-called “war on drugs” should shift to a “war on addiction”. 

Drugs and their availability are not the problem. The problem is the addict and his disease of addiction. The war on drugs was started during the Nixon-era in the United States without any basis in fact or research. 

Billions of dollars have been thrown at it over the past four decades without any significant wins in this war. It has become a political issue instead of the social health issue it really is. 

Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity comes to mind — that it is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It is time for a new approach, especially when you consider that addiction leads to wider issues, such as increased HIV-infection rates, a heavier burden on the penal system and so on. In South Africa alone substance abuse issues cost the country R20-billion every year. The war on drugs has proven to be ineffectual, as most recently pointed out by a group of Nobel Economic Laureates.

I am in favour of the approach Portugal adopted about a decade ago. Their approach of decriminalising certain drug offences made huge strides in the areas of addiction and related issues such as HIV and Aids. They have changed their stance and moved from seeing drugs and drug use as criminal problem, to that of a health issue. 

State resources have been allocated accordingly. Their success speaks for itself: in 10 years they have managed to reduce the number of addicts by 50% from 100 000 to 50 000.

I have come to understand that recovery has shaped and informed who I am as well as my view of and approach to life. There’s my stuff and there’s stuff that’s not my issues. I have also come to understand that not everybody sees these things the way I do and that that’s not my shit. But sometimes it is. But… just for today, I can deal with it.

Herman Charles* is a writer, researcher, communications consultant and a recovering addict. Rumour has it that he may have substituted his coke addiction for frequent and copious servings of lamb curry. In the spirit of anonymity in the recovery movement, he has chosen to write under a pseudonym*.

This lifestyle health supplement is made possible by advertising support from Metropolitan Health, with agreed monthly themes. Contents and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G’s supplements editorial team. 

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