International Overdose Day: Survivor shares harrowing tale

A patient of Wedge Gardens rehabilitation centre will never forget the day his girlfriend died of an overdose and he woke up to discover her cold body next to his.

August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day. This global initiative raises awareness of overdose and reduces the stigma of a drug-related death. It also acknowledges the grief felt by families and friends in remembering those who have died or had a permanent injury as a result of drug overdose.

International Overdose Awareness Day spreads the message that the tragedy of overdose death is preventable.

The 39-year-old man, who has been a patient of Wedge Gardens in Johannesburg for the past few weeks, shared his story on condition of anonymity.

He started smoking and drinking at around 15.

“Having predominantly older siblings, I was exposed to going out and the whole nightlife scene. Trying to fit in with the older crowd, I started smoking marijuana and taking ecstasy and LSD at 16.

“When I was 19, I was introduced to heroin and rock cocaine, which I have battled to give up for the past 20 years. I have been to many rehabilitation centres, both as an in- and outpatient. I have had individual psychotherapy and spoken with many doctors about my addiction and how to stop.”

The first meeting

This addiction cycle was repeated for 10 years. While he wanted to get clean, he did not know how until learning about the 12-step programme and how the Narcotics Anonymous and Alcohol Anonymous programmes work.

“I went to a 12-step-based rehab and once again I tried to do this thing called recovery by listening to people like me who have managed to stay clean and sober for a number of years.

“I believed so much in the programme and how it could change a person’s life that I started training to become a drug counsellor and found a new purpose in life. Then, at a meeting I attended, I met a girl who had amazing green eyes. The kind of eyes that pierce straight into your soul.

“She had used the same drug of choice as me, which set off warning bells. One thing I had learned is that two addicts in recovery shouldn’t get involved. There is too much baggage attached on both sides. So we became friends and nothing more. I would talk to her at meetings or whenever we bumped into each other.”

He started working at a rehabilitation centre and says he was in a really good place.

“I was clean and sober for over a year, doing something that gave me an intense feeling of purpose.”

The beginning of the end

However, while at work one day, the woman with the green eyes walked in to start her new job as a counsellor there.

“We grew close and even though I knew the outcome of countless relationships between addicts, I honestly thought that with both of us being clean for over a year, we would be able to make the relationship work.

“Unfortunately for those of us in recovery, if you aren’t working on your own issues and dealing with them, they will resurface time and time again. We became a couple after about three months of her starting to work at the rehab. We were open about our relationship and I was told by my boss and sponsor at the time that it was a bad idea.

“But once my mind is made up, nothing will stop me from getting what I want. So we didn’t listen to the advice and continued on our path. We decided that alcohol wasn’t our problem and that drinking on the weekend would be okay. We became complete hypocrites. Teaching one way of life but living another. Our path was sealed in our destructive behaviour.

“The girl with the green eyes had lived life with many psychological issues. Self-harm, an eating disorder diagnosed bipolar and drug addiction. From her earliest memories, she felt ugly, unworthy and undesirable. I felt I could make her feel differently about herself if I showed her how much I loved and cared about her.

“She was an incredibly talented artist and very beautiful, but she couldn’t see these qualities in herself.

“We both relapsed and our relationship changed instantly. All our past issues resurfaced and consumed us. Our daily struggle to fight the withdrawal of the drugs and perform at work was incredibly taxing. We both lost our jobs and had to be sent to separate rehabilitation centres.

“Something had changed; our relationship had become toxic. It had changed from love, trust and friendship to jealousy, distrust and confusion. We tried for almost two years to change back into what we once were but after numerous attempts, and having been in and out of rehabilitation centres, life seemed hopeless and horrible.

“No matter how hard we tried, we always started using again. Eventually, the hole we were in was so consuming and powerful that all we wanted was for the pain to be over.”

That night

The man and his green-eyed girl decided to take an overdose of drugs. “We thought a quick end for the both of us would be the easiest way out. The pain of being in addiction and being in love was too much. It pulls at the very fibre of your soul – two completely contradictory forces.

“We planned to take our lethal doses around midnight. I organised the drugs – what I thought would be enough. It was way over our normal quantity, like 10 times the amount we were used to. Due to her body’s deterioration from intravenous drug use, she had to inject into her neck, while I could inject into my arm.

“The initial rush of the drug felt like fire erupting throughout my body, to the point of pain. We both passed out, lying next to each other like we always did when we fall asleep.

“I remember waking up very confused, not knowing what to think. Was I dead, was this the afterlife?

“I then felt her body next to mine; she was cold. I tried to wake her, felt for a pulse, nothing. I carried her to the shower and tried to revive her. I did CPR but it was too late.

“Four years later, the scene still replays clearly in my mind. Such a waste of somebody with so much talent. I would trade places with her if I could.

“I now can see that our relationship wasn’t what I thought it was and the people who tried to help me were right. It’s so hard to see something is real when you are living in a reality that feels like a dream. You are trying to control the outcome but no matter how hard you try, nothing works. It just gets worse and worse until something breaks.”

Show your support

This International Overdose Day, wear a silver badge, a purple wristband or a purple lanyard as a symbol of awareness of overdose and its effects. Wearing these can signify the loss of someone cherished; or demonstrate support to those undergoing grief. It sends out a message that every person’s life is valuable and that stigmatising people who use drugs needs to stop.

More information on International Overdose Day – including where to obtain badges, wristbands and lanyards – can be found at www.overdoseday.com

For more information about Wedge Gardens Treatment Centre, visit www.wedgegardens.co.za, email wedgegardens@randaid.co.za or call 011 430 0320 or 071 690 4942.

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