Recovery Matters

Zoleka Mandela’s Recovery Success Story

zmandelaAlcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Success Story

Zoleka Mandela has written an acclaimed memoir, When Hope Whispers, which tells her story of triumph in spite of overwhelming challenges, including a drug addiction, the death of a child and cancer. In her book she writes…

To Houghton House Addiction Recovery Centre, my home away from home that treated me for my alcohol and drug addiction, thank you for providing me with a safe and supportive home in my time of complete desperation and self-loathing. I also want to thank you for saving my life; affording me that chance to at least give myself the best gift I could in staying clean and sober. Thank you once again for introducing me to all the friends in recovery I have met at Houghton House, and the Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous Fellowships.

These pieces have been taken from her story of recovery…

By the time I was born, on 9 April 1980, my mother knew how to strip and assemble and AK-47 in exactly 38 seconds. She was twenty years old, trained in guerilla warfare and already a fully-fledged member of Umkhonto we Sizwe.

I was born to Zindziswa Nobutho Mandela and Oupa Johannes Mafanyana Seakamela at Marymount Maternity Home in Kensington, Johannesburg. My mother, Zindzi, is the second daughter of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and Nomzamo Windred Madikizela-Mandela.

On 9 June 1997, at the tender age of seventeen, I gave birth to the only best friend I will ever know, Zenani Zanethemba Nomasonto Mandela. Even that early, my firstborn and only daughter’s birth altered my entire existence. I know then what I have known ever since: my life began the moment she chose me as her mother. Nothing in the world mattered as much as my baby did.

From the moment I left the hospital I would spend the next few years dedicating myself to her. For too short a time, I didn’t know how to do anything else but to love and care for her.

I saw myself marrying my Capricorn (my partner at that time). I really believed in the promise that one day we would marry. But after four years together we broke up and I needed to function like a single parent for the first time. I didn’t make my life any easier with the reckless decisions I made as I desperately tried to numb my pain…

I began my affair with cocaine at the same time as I began one with my Libra. All it took was one drug-infested “romantic” moment to get me hooked not only on cocaine, but also on a man who would get me higher than the drug he’d introduced me to. After that night I was addicted to them both.

But it was a tumultuous relationship. Things were off with Libra, so when Bryan, a Zimbabwean Rastafarian from Rocky Street asked for my number, I gave it to him. Soon I was head over heels in love again. But two months in we were beginning to fight about everything. In the meantime I had discovered I was pregnant. As my pregnancy progressed my relationship with Bryan went from bad to worse.

On 21 November 2002, I gave birth to my second born and my strength, Zwelami Zendji Mfanyana Mandela. At 22 years old I was a single parent of two.

Zenani and Zwelami became inseparable and even from the age of five, Zenani became like a second mother to her brother. She did an exceptional job looking after him – a better one than I did, at the time…

I used cocaine on and off for the first ten years of the millennium. While I was carrying and during the two years that I breast fed Zwelami I managed to refrain from drugs, alcohol or cigarettes, but as much as I didn’t miss them at the time, like a jilted lover they always seemed to find their way back.

I craved my drugs as much as I craved whatever man I was dating. Being in a relationship made me feel that I mattered to someone; that I was special. Sex made me feel better about myself, just as cocaine did, and it continued in a cycle: the relationships doomed to failure by the drugs and alcohol which we thought kept us together, but which actually tore us apart. For as long as I can remember I had been walking around with an emptiness inside me so big that no man, drink or drug could fill it…

On 1 June 2010 I was hospitalized for depression and attempted suicide after a drug-induced psychotic episode. I was admitted to the Brenthurst Clinic after my mother and grandmother called the family doctor when I set my bedroom alight.

In the early hours of 11 June 2010, I woke up to my father, my Aunt Zenani and my brother Zodwa walking into my hospital room. They told me they had come to take me home. There had been a car accident. My only daughter, Zenani, had been killed. The last time I ever saw her was during that dreadful night when she had come to say goodbye after I had tried to burn myself alive. The biggest part of me died with her that June morning. I kept thinking: God should have taken me instead…

On 11 August 2010, I checked myself in Houghton House Addiction Recovery Centre. I’d had enough and I knew I needed help.

I spent six weeks in primary care.

Of course, I had no idea what to expect. If I’d imagined that I’d take some ‘time out’ sitting by the pool reading magazines, I was sorely mistaken. Sure it was me who had called asking for help. I just hadn’t realised the step work that would be involved in undoing years of addiction, or that the process would drive me to escalating levels of emotional hell.

From the beginning, the people at Houghton House saw right through me, but still they showed me acceptance, despite my flaws and demons. When I was asked what help I needed, I responded by saying, “Alcohol and cocaine addiction.” I may have tried to brush it off, but at Houghton House I was forced to acknowledge that my addictions didn’t stop at substances: I’d had a sexual addiction too, a ghost of the abuse I’d been subjected to as a child. I realized that both sex and cocaine made me feel better about myself.

In primary care we had daily in-house group meetings and attended Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholic Anonymous meetings throughout the week. In total, I wrote about sixty stories of my experience of addiction, a requirement that following writing my life story in which I detailed my life before and after drug addiction. We also spent many sessions watching compulsory ‘’consequence” movies, forcing us to see how our own actions and behaviours had played a role in our addiction. In addition to weekly sessions with my counsellor; there were group meetings and gender meetings…

Until it all began to get too real.

I started to isolate myself from the group by cleaning. By cleaning windows or tidying the meeting room I could remove myself, which meant that I didn’t have to deal with the group’s dynamics – and I didn’t have to deal with me. When I was banned from cleaning, I was forced to speak about myself, and it was something I hated because it came with the responsibility of owing up to the damage that I had caused my family. Most importantly, I had robbed my two children of a mother they deserved.

I kept telling my addiction counsellor that I was in fact there for my children. “You may have been there physically, but you were not there emotionally for your kids,” he said.

I had chosen my addiction over my children, and this reality will haunt me for the rest of my life.

After my six weeks in primary care my guidance counsellor felt it was necessary to proceed with secondary treatment – a programme based on adapting to a new, drug-free lifestyle. That meant having to deal with my daughter’s passing, but I felt it was unfair to ask that of me so soon – I already knew that I was not ready. That is how my forty-two days of treatment came to an expected end, and although I was all smiles when my half-brother collected me from the parking area, I had cried all through the night before. I didn’t want to leave any more. I was scared. But I was also determined to stay clean. I decided to do my 90/90: attending ninety meetings in ninety days. And assisting Houghton House patients with transport to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I also attended what is called ‘aftercare’ on Saturday mornings, where we received continued support at various group meetings after completing our residential treatment.

Although I was adamant to do everything required of me by my addiction counsellor, there were two steps I was just not ready to take The first was facing my daughter’s passing. The second was putting my relationship on the backburner. The idea was that relationships were not ideal while and addict was in recovery – and especially not when the addict used to use drugs and alcohol with his or her lover.

Nevertheless the relationship with my Aries didn’t last much longer and true to form, after I’d said my goodbye I moved on to the next. I wholly welcomed rekindling my relationship with an earlier partner, Sekoati, primarily out of convenience. Between October and November of 2010, I spent the majority of my free time with Sekoati. I was falling love with the man all over again…

By the time Mamma Graca, my grandfather’s second wife, had purchased me my first BMW, a white 320d, I was not only out of my mother’s house but was reaping the benefits of sobriety. Anyone who cared to listen knew what milestones I’d reached – it was out there on Twitter, Facebook and BBM. I felt that I had something that I needed to share…

On 23 June 2011, at 4.36 in the afternoon, I gave birth to my last born and second son. But tiny Zenawe was born three months early, weighing just 836 grams. He wasn’t strong enough to fight and passed away two days after his birth, almost a year to the day after his big sister was killed…

Zoleka was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after Zenawe’s death. She underwent a double mastectomy and 16 rounds of chemotherapy. Today she is a living example of success: In August she celebrates the anniversary of her fourth year of sobriety, she is cancer free and recently gave birth to a little girl, Zanyiwe Bashala.

Zoleka is also a motivational speaker. Please visit her website for more information: www.zolekamandelafoundation.org

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