Twist in my sobriety

This Christmas will be my fourth without red wine and come New Year I’ll be toasting 2007 with lime soda instead of champagne. This might sound like a deprivation too stringent to contemplate, but for me choosing not to drink is a liberation.

Five years ago I could not have imagined a sober holiday season.
From my corner of the bar sobriety was an appalling and absurdly unnecessary form of self-denial. I knew I drank a bit more than most, but I certainly wasn’t an alcoholic.

Five Christmases ago I drank so much red wine with lunch that I have no memory of the occasion, only a sickly recall of the following morning when I woke with a stomach that felt like it was being excavated with a rake and a mind filled with paranoia, regret and self-hatred.

But I bounced back and within a few days was ready to party again. This time I bought cocaine to pep up the champagne and I saw in the New Year passed out on the garden path of a friend’s house. Next morning I felt not only deeply ashamed, I also felt cheated—I hadn’t even had fun.

Nevertheless I persisted for several months before concluding that drink and drugs were no fun at all any more. In fact, they seemed to take me deeper and deeper into a numbed-out depression.

A friend suggested that I might have a problem and gave me a number for someone called Dan Wolf who ran a treatment centre called First Step. I still didn’t think I had a problem, but I called, thinking I’d do anything to get help to feel better; I’d even pretend to be an alcoholic.

On my way to the centre I had an anxiety attack—what if they turn me away? They’ll see that I’m obviously not in the gutter and they’ll turn me away and then what will I do? But Wolf took one look at me and said he could help—if I was willing to do the work. Like everyone else who wakes up from the party that’s gone on too long I was desperate, so I said, ‘Sure I’m willing!” But I had no idea of the struggle that lay ahead of me.

It’s a long haul back from rock bottom. There are essentially three phases to recovery. First, there’s detox, when you stop using and your body goes through withdrawal as you break the physical dependence. Second, there’s a period of learning to sustain your abstinence—this requires facing your denial and getting honest about who you really are. And finally there’s the challenge of living happily ever after; that is, of soberly and consciously getting on with all too often mundane day-to-day adult life.

By far the biggest obstacle I faced in treatment was my own denial about the seriousness of my problem. I didn’t end up whoring myself in Hillbrow, I didn’t sell any of my worldly possessions for drugs, I didn’t crash any cars and I didn’t steal from my family or friends or anyone at all—therefore I wasn’t really sick.

But I did take up a lot of oxygen when I was high. And generally I got there on a mix of booze and cocaine. I spoiled more than a few dinner parties with loud and obnoxious behaviour. I vomited spectacularly at my cousin Patric’s wedding—his bride’s family had to replace the living room carpet because the stains of my red wine puke wouldn’t come out.

I spent about R50 000 on cocaine in the two years or so that I used it on a weekly basis. Now that might not sound like much to your average provincial minister with a business lunch account, but to me that’s money that could have been spent on a whole number of other worthwhile things.

The day after a days-long binge I would want to die. And I would only recall snatches and flashes of where I’d been and what I’d said and done. The shame was as paralysing as the physical poisoning. I felt as empty as a coffin.

And yet I struggled with getting clean. I could picture life without drugs, but life without a nice Merlot on a cold evening ... I mean, what was the point?

At first I believed that rehab might teach me to drink in a controlled fashion—the kind of sophisticated sipping that they do in Martini ads.

Wolf smiled when I argued this. He used to say to me: ‘Keep it simple, Jann.” He said that over and over again in response to my complex, qualified questions and explanations.

It took me months to understand and accept that recovery was not about controlling myself; it was about surrendering to the truth that I am powerless over drugs and alcohol. I can never have just one chilled Castle on a hot day—I’ll have two and then three and I won’t stop until I pass out. So if I choose to drink then that is what I’m choosing—to be someone I don’t like being doing something I don’t enjoy. It was months before I could to say with conviction ‘I’m Jann. I’m an alcoholic and an addict.”

But why am I an alcoholic? One argument says it’s a physical disease, like cancer. Another view holds that it’s a combination of biological, psychological and social factors. Both my grandfathers died alcoholics. My father’s father from sclerosis of the liver and my mother’s father expired in a corridor of Groote Schuur hospital—he was withdrawing from alcohol while being treated for a cancer of the tongue acquired from his 40-a-day smoking habit.

But my sister isn’t an addict; in fact she’s revoltingly moderate in all her habits, except perhaps chocolate. So it’s not just my genes that have given me this perverse gift. I think what ignited my addiction was too much loss in general and my divorce in particular, which left me with a terrible sense of defeat and sadness and loneliness. But I didn’t want to feel sad and lonely and defeated—who on earth does? So I numbed out the feelings with booze and drugs. And almost obliterated myself in the process.

At the time I believed I was a free spirit, exploring my own limits and those of my world. And Jo’burg is a great place to do that. It’s a city of extremes—rich and poor, sophisticated and crude, compassionate and negligent, skyscrapers and deep tunnels, diamond bright skies and shadow cold streets. And if you look hard enough you will find whatever it is that you need here; establishments where you can drink yourself to your knees and have drugs delivered to you on the spot. Fortunately, if you’re looking for help getting off your knees, then Jo’burg delivers again. This is the city to check in to rehab.

There’s an impressive array of places to clean up and at least two new treatment centres have opened here in the past six months. Carl—a recovering addict with 12 years clean—says this boom in rehabs is a sign of the sheer entrepreneurism of the city. ‘A growing supply of addicts plus big bucks from medical aid equals an excellent commercial opportunity for anyone in the business of treating addiction.”

But while they may be savvy entrepreneurs, the kind of people who are in the business of treating addiction are also profoundly committed and compassionate. Along with partners Allan Sweidan and Charles Perkel, Wolf has developed a group of treatment centres called the Gap, or General Addictions Programme, which supports addicts in all phases of recovery.

The Gap at Crescent is a detox centre with a three-week programme. ‘It’s a psychiatric hospital,” says clinical psychologist Allan Sweidan, ‘so the Crescent is an addiction casualty environment. People go through withdrawal under supervision.”

The Gap at First Step was where I got clean. It was the first of the Gap centres and also the first intensive outpatient centre in South Africa, allowing patients to continue with their lives while in treatment. ‘It wasn’t my idea,” says Wolf, ‘I saw the model offered in the States and brought it to Jo’burg.”

The Gap in Ferndale is the newest of the centres. ‘What we are providing here is a long-term environment that allows people to heal. Sometimes a short programme doesn’t touch all sides of a person,” says Wolf.

Patients stay a minimum of four weeks and a maximum of six months. ‘This is not about punishment—it’s about learning to look after and value yourself and your relationships with others. Longer treatment often helps patients sustain recovery of what it is they lost or maybe never had.

‘In the end,” says Wolf, ‘recovery is a spiritual journey and I believe that spirituality is about doing the things that define us as human—making choices, delaying gratification, actualising potential and going beyond our instincts and impulses.”

In my first year of sobriety it was a long while before I could accept that my problem was identical to that of the people around me in recovery—people who really had whored themselves for heroin, who had squandered their parents’ retirement funds, who had extorted hundreds and thousands from their employers and had even abandoned their young children. What on earth was the connection between me and the pethadine addicted chemist who manufactured drugs for a West African syndicate and the middle-aged men and women addicted to perfectly legal and perfectly lethal prescription medication?

‘I often find myself telling a housewife that the withdrawal she is about go through is no different to your average heroin addict,” says Wolf. ‘It’s a tough thing for a person to accept that although her dealer wears a white coat and has a respectable business, she’s not much different from a Hillbrow junkie.”

Most shocking to encounter in treatment were the teenagers—kids from wealthy backgrounds going to smart schools and addicted to marijuana, coke, kat, ecstasy—you name it, they’ve done it.

Wolf points out: ‘Twenty years ago there was cocaine in South Africa, but one had to be quite an operator to get it. Nowadays, hard drugs are cheap and easy to get hold of. There’s a whole community of dealers invested in making access to cocaine and heroin and whatever else you want, as easy as possible. If you forget to phone them, then they’ll phone you.”

The most frightening part of recovery is realising that there are some people that the dealers and their drugs will never let go of. In fact, the treatment stats are bleak. More than a handful of the people I was in First Step with are dead and yet more are back out there using—far from successfully. They are a reminder to me that I can never get complacent about my sobriety. That if I want to continue enjoying life as much as I have over the past few years and if I want to continue being productive in the world then for the rest of my days I need to choose—every day—not to drink or use drugs.

So with the increase in drug use and abuse and the rise in alcohol-related social issues, are the Gap centres full?

‘We are really busy—but our policy is to never to turn people away if we can possibly help it,” says Sweidan.

I am so relieved Wolf didn’t turn me away. And I am so grateful for the challenges he confronted me with in my treatment. There were days when I could have happily strangled him for his stubborn persistence in pushing me to peel back and back and back the layers of my denial. But nothing recovery has demanded of me has ever been as hard as waking up with a force 10 hangover and a suicidal self-hatred.

Three-and-a-half years after calling Wolf to ask for help, I am quietly and soberly looking forward to a holiday season with my family that I have a good chance of remembering with joy.

Where to go for help

First Step: Outpatients Treatment Centre. Tel: (011) 884 4060

The Gap: Residential Treatment Centre. Tel: (011) 787 9142

South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (Sanca). Tel: (011) 482 1070 Website:

Alcoholics Anonymous. Tel: (011) 452 9907. Email: [email protected] Website: /

Narcotics Anonymous. Tel: 0881 30 0327 (Western Cape) 011 485 5248 (Gauteng) 0881 27 8832 (KwaZulu-Natal)

0881246436 (Meeting inquiries)


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