Picture: 123R/GUSTAVO FRAZAO
Picture: 123R/GUSTAVO FRAZAO

The decision to enter rehabilitation wasn’t an easy one, but I had no choice. Could it have gotten this bad? Some people are committed by desperate relatives or employers. Others, like myself, arrive voluntarily.

My alcohol and drug use were making life unmanageable. I’d read up on addiction and knew that my brain wasn’t firing properly. I was doing things that were killing me, lured by the diminishing pleasure they gave.

Recently, I went on a long walk, became confused and suddenly thought I had my dog with me. I looked for her for 40 minutes, pleading with other people to help me. When I got home, the dog was there.

I realised I was ill. Addiction can be understood as compulsive behaviour that negatively affects all spheres of life. Process addictions — such as gambling, sex or shopping — have as much ability to tear a life apart as any substance-related addiction.

In this crucible, we formed strong bonds. I believe that the imperative to be completely honest, with the support provided, is the first thing that sets you free and on the path to recovery.

This much I learnt in the first week of primary inpatient care, on a 28-day programme. I spent this time with a diverse bunch of fellow addicts. Identifying as an addict, powerless over my addiction, was my first step to healing, to recognising, interrogating and arresting my destructive behaviour.

People from all over the country and the world are members of this community. I learnt from them and learned to love as they shared their stories and their pain, and the damage they had done to themselves and others.

We were taught to look for similarities, not differences. The punch-drunk old man from the Eastern Cape; the cocaine addicted trader from Belgium; the unlikely sex addict; the impoverished gambler who almost tore his family apart; the mother of three hooked on benzodiazepines and codeine; the schoolgoer on 25 Ritalin tablets and painkillers every day; and the young woman enslaved to tik — there was no hierarchy.

Addiction doesn’t care about class, race, status or age.  As some completed their programme and others arrived, new associations and possibilities emerged. Those who left for secondary or tertiary care — designed to offer gradual reintegration into society or who went home — left gaps that were soon filled with new people and new stories.

In this crucible, we formed strong bonds. I believe that the imperative to be completely honest, with the support provided, is the first thing that sets you free and on the path to recovery.

Holding each other accountable was key. We were encouraged to challenge ourselves and each other to find our true voices. What do I care about? Who am I? How am I behaving right now? These life-defining questions were asked relentlessly.

I soon realised how privileged I was to have the opportunity to stop, take stock, set a new course for my life, and to restore a healthy relationship with myself and others. Luckily, my dodgy hospital plan paid for my treatment. My own money was long gone.

I wasn’t afraid to enter treatment. I was apprehensive about what my friends and family would think, but found them incredibly supportive. They wanted me to get better.

We were subjected to a rigorous schedule from 6.30am to 10pm every day. This structure provided the routine that we had lost during our active addictions. Mealtimes, group sessions, phone times, outings, shopping, gym, individual counselling, lectures and evening meetings were mandatory. Lateness, sloppiness, incomplete work, untidy rooms and inappropriate behaviour resulted in consequences. This taught me good lessons, seeding habits that I have grown in the “outside” world.

I wasn’t afraid to enter treatment. I was apprehensive about what my friends and family would think, but found them incredibly supportive. They wanted me to get better. I was scared to leave, though. Would the treatment work? The success rates are low, and relapse rates high. My counsellor answered this — the treatment wouldn’t work, she said, but I would.

It was time to  dismantle the denial that fed my addiction and caused so much harm, some that I didn’t even see. My alcohol and drug habits had been engrained over a long time. Addiction is a progressive and fatal disease, one that no addict chooses. But it can be treated.

Addiction had become a way of life, one I hid well, but was becoming more visible. I lost work opportunities, messed up social encounters, resented others, pitied myself and self-medicated into a numb and helpless state to avoid my feelings. Strip the substances away, and I was left with myself — a person I did not like much — and whose behaviour remained the same.

My community and our band of gifted counsellors would tolerate nothing less than honesty, willingness and open-mindedness. These characteristics laid the bedrock for recovery from addiction, and formed the core of the 12-step programme our counsellors advocated.

The most enervating session was called the Powerlessness and Damages Group. A member might receive a “damages letter” from a parent, sibling, child or partner, which would be read out by another group member.

Mine came from my former wife. I wasn’t allowed to see it afterwards, or dwell on it. At my free assessment before treatment, I was asked if my substance use had led to the demise of my marriage. “Not really,” I said.

Her letter laid everything bare. On one level it was humiliating, to hear how pervasive my addiction was; how my wife hated me for it; and how it had affected my children and robbed me of the potential she once saw in me. 

Although her letter was compassionate, my self-defence mechanisms kicked in like everyone else’s does when false beliefs are shredded to expose the level of their denial about their behaviour. 

My reaction was illuminating. The counsellors and the community picked it apart without mercy. I felt angry and exposed. With this, I learnt that my instinct to manipulate what others thought of me was an instinctive effort to save me from pain and the fear of abandonment which have haunted my life.

In “the rooms” of addiction recovery groups, shame dies in the light of exposure. Much wisdom is to be found there, and everyone has their favourite mantra. 

In this fellowship, which we attended three times a week in treatment, I entered a broader community of like-minded souls. Initially, I thought — with shock — are these my people? Now, months later, they are.

I go to meetings five or six times a week. Hugs and genuine support are a part of my new life. I have a lovely sponsor from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) who is always there for me. When I have a year of “clean time” I may become a sponsor. The service element is critical to recovery, one of the five pillars of AA.

Addiction carries a stigma that prevents many who need help from getting it. I felt like a pariah entering recovery, but I now see addiction as an eternal part of myself, and a means to restore my spiritual, social and economic health.

Prior to treatment, my sense of spirituality was dead. Today, I can be humble, and ask for help. This is just one of the gifts of recovery, more of which are becoming apparent every day.

Now I am more equipped to face life on life’s terms, more able to describe my feelings and act in accordance with who I really am. I was lost. My friends and family say it has got me back. More than that, I have gotten myself back. That is too much to throw away again.

• John Smith is not the real name of the writer. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous insist that confidentiality is imperative for successful treatment.