Recovery Matters

Joel R – Drug Addiction Recovery Success Story

Drug Addiction Recovery Success Story

I enjoyed a pretty normal childhood, growing up in Johannesburg with my parents and two brothers. We were like any three boys. We fought and played and did what kids do. My parents loved us and I was a popular kid. Basically there was nothing to suggest that I was an up-and-coming drug addict who would spend over 14 years of my life inside treatment centres.

At the age of 13 I started suffering from severe migraine headaches. Oral medication gave me no relief so my parents called out the family doctor, who would inject me with morphine or Pethidine. It all started very innocently.
I was forced to leave school at the age of 16, because I had been off sick so often that I wasn’t able to keep up with the syllabus. In time I became so tired of getting injections that I begged my doctor to try and find an effective oral form of treatment.
He prescribed a strong codeine based painkiller for severe migraine headaches. That’s where it all started, and where it ended, I guess.
The directions on the bottle said take two tablets every six hours. I would take three four hourly – I really didn’t want those injections!
I managed to go back to school nine months later and miraculously I passed matric. By then the migraines had started fading and I stopped experiencing such severe pain. That’s when I knew there was something wrong. I began to realise that I liked the feeling of oblivion that the tablets would give me. When I took tablets I didn’t care as much about the difficulties in my life. I started to use the tablets to alleviate my emotional rather than my physical problems.
I started needing to take more and more tablets to get the same effect. Of course, I couldn’t tell my parents so I had to start faking migraines. This meant I could still get the prescriptions from my family doctor but this was no longer enough. I had to start visiting different pharmacies. I still didn’t realize that I had a problem. We were ignorant in those days about addiction, and especially pharmaceutical drug addiction.
I was drafted into the medical corps when I turned 18 and my job was to look after the pharmacy at One Military Hospital. That is where my addiction really escalated. I had as much Stopayne and Rohypnol as I wanted, whenever I wanted. I was taking 30 to 40 Stopayne tablets a day. I overdosed twice in the army. My commanding officer put me into the psychiatric hospital for a week and then sent me back to the medical corps.
When I left the army I went into my dad’s clothing business. I was using codeine but still functioning – I had friends and a girlfriend. But my using progressed and at age 25 I went into treatment for the first time. It was the late 1980s and there were no real twelve-step programmes or proper rehabilitation centres in South Africa, but I did well in treatment. I came out, stayed clean and got engaged to my girlfriend.
At that time Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and the South African National Council on Alcoholism (SANCA) were the only support structures available for people in recovery. A couple of us decided to start South Africa’s first Narcotics Anonymous (NA) fellowship. We established a little group in Hillbrow on Thursday nights, which rapidly grew and expanded. But I still didn’t really understand the concept of recovery. Rehabs didn’t really teach addicts how to stay clean back then, so I thought I was cured, back on track.
Three months before my wedding date I started using again and my fiancé left me.
I was to spend the next 20 years of my life going into treatment, getting a bit of clean time and then relapsing. I spent 14,5 years in inpatient treatment over a period of 22 years. I’ve been admitted into treatment 54 times.
Houghton House opened in 1995 and I heard that – based on Twelve Steps and the Minnesota model – it was the first treatment centre of its kind in the country. I decided to give it a bash. That was the first time I met Houghton House founder, Alex Hamlyn. Alex and I got on very well. He became my sponsor, mentor and close friend.
At Houghton House I got the first glimpse of what some kind of recovery could be like. I began to understand and experience the difference between abstinence and recovery. I learnt what the twelve steps are really about. Before that I thought if I could just stop taking the tablets I would be fine. I didn’t realize that I actually had to change my life. I got some clean time behind me but nine months later I was back in the pharmacy.

Before long I was taking 120 Stopayne and 14 sleeping tablets every single day. I sometimes experimented with Wellconal or other opiates, but I always came back to Stopayne and Rohypnol. I was very loyal.

Alex and I remained friends over the years. He would visit me regularly when I was clean but he stayed away when I was using. I was still single. Who would marry me? I would fall asleep the whole time – at work, at meals or mid conversation… I was an embarrassment.

When Houghton House started a halfway house in Sommerville Road in Melrose I stayed there for a year and learnt for the first time how to function in the world without using drugs. In the past I had always done well in treatment. I could go in for three months and stay clean. But who wants to live in treatment? At Sommerville I learnt how to go out into society, to go out for a meal with friends and then come back to the safety of the halfway house. I was finally learning how to put the theory into practice.

I had been clean for over a year when I suffered a burst appendix. The anaesthetist gave me the wrong medication in the recovery room and by the time I realized my opiate receptors had already been awakened. Ten days later I was back in the pharmacy and it took me another 4 years to get back into treatment.

In 2006, my father dropped me at a treatment centre for the last time. He had retired to Plett by then. When he dropped me off he said, “Do what you like.” He got on a plane and went back to Plett. It felt like my family had finally given up on me. On previous occasions my dad would visit me on weekends bringing snacks and cooldrinks. This time he visited me only once, arriving empty handed. I finally woke up:
“What are you doing? You are sitting in a treatment centre at the age of 43, waiting for your dad to bring you cigarettes and coca cola.”

That is when I finally began to take financial and emotional responsibility. I stayed in treatment more than a year – six weeks in Houghton House’s primary care programme; nine months in their secondary programme, the GAP and finally back to the half way house for six months.

My journey has been long and hard, but I never stopped trying. After 29 years of addiction, I now understand this disease and it has scared me. I have fought so hard for my recovery that I’m not taking a chance with something that could take me out. I don’t drink or go to casinos because I know that my disease is still there. It has been arrested, but I’ve learnt not to get clever. I live in a place of “be careful”. There is nothing that will come before my recovery, because without my recovery I have nothing.

Over the last eight years I have gained my independence. I have my own business, my own home and good friends. I go to meetings; sponsor people in recovery and am involved in the running of Houghton House’s halfway house. I’m not in a relationship yet and have decided to take this slowly because I’ve seen how relationship problems have caused some of my friends in recovery to relapse.

I have learnt that recovery is a process. When I see people relapse today I feel completely baffled. I cannot understand it at all. Yet that is what I did for 22 years. I hope this feeling stays with me.

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