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Former addict lights the way for people in recovery

At 11 years of age, James Donovan started drinking. At 13, he was smoking weed and when he was barely out of his teens, he exchanged a sexual favour for a meagre R50 hit.

The boy who just wanted to fit in became the adult who lived on the streets, who was unemployable and virtually unlovable. After the first failed rehab attempt, his family made the tough decision to cut ties with him.

Then the kindness of a stranger changed his life. “I was living on the streets of Windsor in Randburg, Johannesburg, having lost everything and everyone in my life. Everyone was tired of me and I was completely alone with nothing but the consequences of what my addiction had become. Then one day I was hustling for money when this stranger I had tried to hustle extended a helping hand,” recalls James.

The man was determined to give James another chance. He contacted Sanca Wedge Gardens treatment centre and helped James apply for a government-subsidised bed in the Rand Aid Association-run facility.

Put on a waiting list, James remained on the streets, with his benefactor bringing food and blankets.

Six weeks later, on July 29, 2014, space for James became available. The 29-year-old arrived at Wedge with nothing but a plastic bag of clothes he had dug out of dustbins. “I was fearful and didn’t know where I would go after treatment but all that mattered in that moment was getting the pain to stop. In retrospect, the pain outweighed the fear of letting the drugs go,” he says.

James has been clean since that life-changing day, six years ago. Today, he works as an addiction counsellor for a Pretoria-based treatment centre, is in a stable relationship and has made amends to his family.

Of his partner, James says: “I am extremely grateful as she is also my accountability partner.”

Remembering his early days at Wedge Gardens, James says that ‘by doing the next right thing in that moment, allowed tomorrow to take care of itself and my life started falling into place’.

A journey to hell

Raised in Craighall Park, Johannesburg, and currently a Pretoria East resident, James says his childhood substance abuse allowed him to feel part of something.

Soon, however, the very thing that he thought was enabling him to fit in with his peers, alienated him from society.

“The impact substance abuse had on me was catastrophic. I lost numerous jobs due to lack of attendance, theft, abusing substances during work, lack of performance and even being caught buying drugs while driving a company-branded vehicle. I have also lost two job prospects because of my criminal record for theft and fraud.

“My education was greatly affected too. I was abusing substances in school and selling illicit substances – mainly cocaine and ecstasy – on the premises to other students. My juice bottle was often filled with vodka.

“I would steal from my family and was not an active member of my family structure. I would isolate and withdraw, leave home for days or come in and out of the house at all hours of the day and night. I would be high at family functions and events or just not pitch up at all. The police raided my family home looking for drugs and my mother would see me begging at robots, which broke her heart.”

Eventually, his mother gave him an ultimatum – go to rehab or leave home. James went but the day his treatment ended, he relapsed. Eventually, they turned their backs on him. “I had stolen the smiles off their very faces and caused them to live like prisoners in their own homes, with locked doors and hiding valuables for fear of me stealing or pawning their personal belongings.

“Drugs helped me escape, to alter my perception of reality and to temporarily fix how I felt inside.”

The family moved to the UK when James was 16 but after being bust for burglary, he was put back on a plane to South Africa. “Drugs were so much more expensive there, so I turned to criminal activity to support my habit.”

Back on home soil, James started to experiment with party drugs such as magic mushrooms, cocaine and khat. “I was mixing drugs and found that combinations of drugs could give me different highs and effects. All of this while trying to balance school and this secret life I had been living. Narcotics created an illusion that my life was manageable.

“I then progressed into experimenting with crack cocaine and heroin, which became my drug of choice.”

James’s life spiralled out of control. “Addiction was a bottomless pit of emptiness inside me that could never be filled.”

After being told to leave the family home by his mom, James lived on the streets and soon found himself in Sun City prison in Diepkloof, Johannesburg, for shoplifting.

“I remember telling myself in prison that I was done with drugs but when I was released, I went straight back to them. I was powerless in the face of my addiction and could not give up the very thing that was taking everything away from me, including my sanity.

“I became just another junkie on a street corner, living to use and using to live.”

Over the next few years, James spent a cumulative two years in prison and went in and out of rehab. In 2011, he was sectioned to a government treatment centre and ordered to complete a three-month programme or go back to jail for theft.

For the first time, James was introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous’s (AA’s) 12-step programme. He found a sponsor and attended Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings but 16 months into his recovery journey, he started to obsess about drinking. “In my mind, I never had a problem with alcohol. I was drug tested often so alcohol would be the one thing I could get away with.

“They say that this disease of addiction is cunning, baffling and powerful. My own mind convinced me that I was just going to have one drink, that no one would know.”

The consequences of that decision saw James back on the streets as an active addict. He also stayed and worked for a while at a Nigerian-run brothel where, he says, the girls were kept virtually captive.

“My pattern became clear to me. I would get into a rehab, rack up some clean time, relapse, lose everything, end up back on the street and then go back to prison.

“That last time, I was convinced that I was going to do things differently. I was going to try not steal and turned to begging instead. My career became dishonesty, lying to people about some elaborate story of needing petrol for a car that did not exist, or needing nappies and formula for a baby that was not real. There were days when begging was just not enough and I would need to steal, risking my freedom in exchange for sucking my soul through a crack pipe.”

It was at this rock-bottom point that James, hustling for money, met the person who cared enough to help a stranger get into Wedge Gardens rehab centre.  

A new beginning

“One of the most profound things I learnt at Wedge Gardens is that ‘addiction doesn’t come in bottles and pills; it comes in people’. The drugs were but a symptom of the actual problem and the problem was me.

“I learnt through AA’s Big Book that my addiction centres in my mind rather than my body. Neither drugs nor relationships, money, validation, affirmation or status could fill the void in me. No amount of any of these things could keep me clean. A quote to this effect is, ‘My outward circumstances do not change my inward reality’.

“I heard this saying once that made complete sense and reinforced the above. It states: ‘I live in a body that wants to live with a mind that wants to die’. I have a mind that tells me that I don’t have a disease, I’m not good enough, this isn’t going to work, that I don’t deserve recovery and I have a body that ensures that I do not stop once I start.

“Carl Jung, a leading psychiatrist and contributor to the AA Big Book, believed that spiritual development could cure mental illness. When we work on our spiritual aspects, we straighten out mentally and physically as well.”  

James says his time at Wedge Gardens was incredibly informative. “I think the desperation I had when I walked in there is the very thing that allowed me to go into recovery with an open mind. Completely defeated by my addiction, I had become willing to do whatever it took and follow whatever suggestions were made.”

James attributes the fact that he has not relapsed to his willingness to work the 12-step programme. “It’s not been so much the intensity of the programme, but rather the consistency of the programme I work. To this day, I have a sponsor, work the steps, have service position at NA meetings, attend the fellowship meetings and maintain my relationship with a higher power… and I’m still standing as a result of it.

“The process of rebuilding my relationships continues and I have learnt that the best apology is changed behaviour.

James says his work as an addiction counsellor enables him to ‘turn the mess of my past into a message of hope for others’.

“I know I am always one bad decision away from the worst day of my life. That knowledge is what keeps me committed to the 12-step programme.”

* Sanca Wedge Gardens offer holistic rehabilitation for the body, mind and soul. Find out more at www.wedgegardens.co.za

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Illegal cigarettes and substance abuse

South Africa has banned the sale of cigarettes during lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19 but the big illegal cigarette brands are now the best sellers around the country.

“As most of us know, smoking is one of the leading causes of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases worldwide. Unlike legally produced cigarettes, illicitly produced cigarettes do not comply with manufacturing and safety standards,” warns Estelle Raath, the deputy manager of Johannesburg-based Sanca Wedge Gardens rehab centre.

Cigarettes contain the addictive drug nicotine, as well as other toxic chemicals which are carcinogenic (cancer forming).

“There is no safe method of smoking. Nicotine in tobacco is a very powerful addictive substance. Nicotine produces pleasing effects in your brain, but these effects are temporary, and that is why you reach for another cigarette.

“The addictive nature of nicotine and withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit are what makes nicotine dependence a chronic relapsing disease.

“With the current cigarette ban, my question is ‘If the smoking of legally produced cigarettes can cause so many diseases, what are the illegal brands doing to smokers?’

“What other effects will smokers be sitting with post COVID-19 and will we see a rise in substance abuse figures if these illegal cigarettes contain chemicals that will leave smokers with more severe symptoms and withdrawals?”

To contact Wedge Gardens, call 010 534 6596 or visit www.wedgegardens.co.za

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COVID-19, mental health and substance abuse

People who abuse drugs or alcohol often do so to cope with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. A global pandemic like COVID-19 can trigger a wide range of emotional reactions, causing high levels of anxiety and stress for all of us.

“Substance use and abuse during this time should be avoided but ironically, people turn to substances to cope with the stress and trauma,” says Estelle Raath, the deputy manager of Johannesburg-based Sanca Wedge Gardens rehab centre.

People often cope by using substances, primarily things that are easily available like alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and non-prescription medications, she explains. “That’s why substance abuse may rise during COVID-19. Substance abusers might look for a way to feel better and escape from the traumatic and stressful circumstances. When they use drugs or alcohol, the reward pathways in their brain are triggered.

“Many substance abusers have underlying medical conditions, which often place them at great risk of contracting COVID-19. The fear that they might get the virus by leaving their homes or going back to work can cause extreme anxiety for many and anxiety and stress are huge triggers for relapse,” says Estelle.

She explains that when a person’s stress overwhelms their coping skills, they are more likely to abuse substances, to relapse or to increase the substances they already use.

“We are social beings and in need of human contact. COVID-19 has exposed people to isolation, relationship challenges and financial insecurity. During isolation, no contact can have a negative impact on mental health and again there is a correlation between mental health and addiction.”

For those at risk of relapse during this time, it is important to reach out for help before it happens.

Other measures to promote wellbeing during the pandemic:

  • Reduce or stop taking any non-prescribed substances if you can do it safely.
  • Take prescription medication as prescribed.
  • Reduce the intake of caffeine and alcohol.
  • Connect with loved ones while maintaining physical distances.
  • Join addiction support groups; there are many groups available online.
  • Practice self-care.
  • Seek professional help if you cannot do it alone.

Wedge Gardens offers a professional substance abuse treatment programme based on various psychological theories which were pioneered nationally. It is run in conjunction with the 12-step professional programme.To contact Wedge Gardens, call 010 534 6596 or visit www.wedgegardens.co.za

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Ten years sober!

My life revolved around alcohol, says 51-year-old James Algera who recently celebrated 10 years of sobriety.

After growing up in Rustenburg in the North West, James – like all abled bodied South African boys at the time – was conscripted into the South African army for his national service. It was while in the army that 19-year-old James first started drinking.

It was to be a long 20 years before he got clean and in that time, alcohol nearly cost him his family and livelihood. Today, his life is on track and James says he is in a good place, working as a structural aircraft technician (sheet metal) in Saudi Arabia.

On July 19, 2020, he had been clean for exactly one decade and to commemorate the milestone, he sent an email of thanks to Wedge Garden’s Adél Grobbelaar, who has headed up the Sanca rehab centre since 1998.

“Today, 10 years ago, I asked my work to allow me to be booked in at Wedge Gardens for alcohol abuse. I can proudly tell Wedge Gardens today that it has been 10 years and I have never touched a drink again. It has been a long and difficult road but with all Wedge Gardens’ teaching and care, I made a difference in my life and society. Thank you, guys, so much for my time there and all the care you took of me,” he wrote.

Looking back on his early days of drinking, James says that the impact of his addiction was initially ‘not too bad’.

“As I got older, alcohol became a priority in my life – everything revolved around it,” he says.

James was working in the aviation industry and he and his family were living in Kempton Park. “Those years, using alcohol was the in thing with the ‘boys’.

Eventually, he hit rock bottom – unable to function properly at work or as a husband and father.

“My finances were in a bad way and I would drink to make my problems disappear. I would make up with a hangover each day and my problems just got bigger and bigger. Eventually, my wife said that I had to choose between the bottle and her and our children.”

James had previously been told about Wedge Gardens by his employer and made the life-changing decision to ask for help, thus starting a new chapter in his life.

“The Wedge Gardens programme taught me to face life without using alcohol to cope,” he says.

After leaving Wedge Gardens, James still faced a number of challenges in reclaiming his life. “It was difficult. I had to leave my old ways behind and get used to a new way of life – like fishing and camping without a beer in my hand. I avoided so-called ‘friends’ who, it turned out, only wanted to know me when I bought them drinks or drunk with them.

“I had to change my lifestyle and make new, sober friends. Basically, at the age of 40, I had to start over again. This time, my wife and two children were my priority.”

James says that four years after leaving Wedge Gardens, his finances were still very shaky and he decided to apply for an aviation job in Saudi Arabia.

“By the grace of God, my application was successful and I have built a good career over the past six years.”

James’s wife lives in Saudi with him and their son spent three years there with his parents but now lives in Kempton Park with his sister, who is married and has given the Algeras two beautiful grandchildren.

James says he no longer thinks of drinking and describes his emotional state as strong and positive.

“My advice to people battling alcohol is to focus on God because He will help you through your struggles. Have faith and believe you will get through the recovery process. Forget the world and focus on yourself.

“Do not be afraid to ask your family or, if you are employed, your work for help. You will succeed; stay strong.”

To contact Wedge Gardens, call 010 534 6596 or visit www.wedgegardens.co.za

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Faith versus fear

KAREN GRIESSEL, A SOCIAL WORKER AT JOHANNESBURG’S SANCA WEDGE GARDENS TREATMENT CENTRE, TALKS ABOUT FAITH VERSUS FEAR AND HOW HAVING FAITH CAN HELP THE ADDICTION RECOVERY PROCESS:

During these trying times, a common experience many are having is the uncertainty of what tomorrow holds.

There have been many job losses and few opportunities exist. Then there is the pressure to maintain livelihoods within the challenges of families and relationships. If substance abuse is added to the mix, it paints a dim and unsettling picture.

Fear of the future not only keeps people trapped in addiction, it also prevent them from making progress in recovery. The most common fears that people experience include financial insecurity, worry about how they will cope without alcohol or drugs, death, disease and illness, relationship worries or that recovery is bland and boring with no happiness, good feelings or the temporary comfort substances offer.

Another trap so many of us fall into so often is worrying about things that have not happened – or may even never happen. It is hard for people to let go of their concerns over what may happen and instead focus on that which is in their control, which is preparing for the future.

The opposite of fear is faith, which is defined as believing in that which is unseen in the hope that all will work out for the good if we do the right thing.

Others forms of faith include having faith in one’s own ability or in trusting others like a therapist or a support group or a trusted friend or loved one. Even better is having faith in a higher power for strength beyond understanding. A faith community also gives a person support and structure, which may increase feelings of hope and the chance of recovery.

There is no amount of evidence that will convince someone during active addiction that they can do without the substances because the individual must be willing to take a leap of faith to get the recovery ball rolling.

To contact Wedge Gardens, call 010 534 6596 or visit www.wedgegardens.co.za
 

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The cornerstones of recovery

Self-determination and motivation are two crucial elements in the recovery process of addicts.

Karen Griessel, a social worker at Sanca-accredited Wedge Gardens rehab centre in Johannesburg, says the desire to get clean and sober must be internally driven.

“Self-determination and motivation rest on the person’s core values, interests and morality. The decision to stop drugs and alcohol has to be made by the addict. They must independently and freely make their own informed decisions about their recovery.

“I often meet families or loved ones who motivated and driving their loved one to get treatment but, unfortunately, if a person doesn’t have their own internal drive, motivation and self-determination, it makes the process more challenging,” says Karen.

The person suffering from the substance abuse disorder must want to change their lives and sometimes, says Karen, this process takes time.

“Unfortunately, addicts have often lost their self-belief and therefore don’t feel like they are competent in dealing with life and the challenges that come their way.

“People with self-determination have self-belief and control over their lives; they take accountability and responsibility for their actions. It is these core qualities that are needed in the addiction recovery process.

“In fact, with the nation facing great levels of stress and anxiety as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, we should all focus more on self-determination and motivation so that we do not get sucked into the negativity of helplessness, which leaves people feeling like they do not have the power to improve their situation.

“This leads to hopelessness – the feeling that nothing can be done by anyone to make a situation better – which is highly debilitating.”

www.wedgegardens.co.za

010 534 6596

011 430 0320

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Drink responsibly during the coronavirus

Wedge Gardens rehab centre social worker Karen Griessel has issued a word of caution to South Africans, following the lifting of the ban on the sale of alcohol.

“For many, being able to enjoy a drink now and again is good news but for others, alcohol use creates problems,” she says.

She explains that alcohol abuse is generally defined as drinking too much alcohol too often – to the extent that it interferes with everyday life, functioning and relationships, even though it appears as if the individual’s life is still manageable.

Symptoms of alcohol abuse include the need to drink to relax, driving under the influence, problems in the family or friendships, neglecting responsibilities, legal problems and hangovers or vomiting.

Karen says some people might be tempted to hoard alcohol in case a ban is re-implemented. “This could put the social drinker at risk of drinking more than normal – especially because they are unable to resume their normal social activities and might feel bored and frustrated. Others with a limited budget may choose to buy alcohol rather than food.”

An increase in the abuse of alcohol will have a snowball effect, leading to more gender-based violence, crime and irresponsibility, she warns.

“Furthermore, those addicted to drugs who cannot find their fix will turn to alcohol to fill the gap.”

Alcohol causes people to lose their inhibitions and sense of responsibility and this type of risky action could be extremely dangerous at a time when South Africa’s coronavirus cases are expected to spike.

“At the end of the day, we all have to take responsibility for our own lives and that means making healthy choices when it comes to our alcohol consumption.”

You can do an alcohol and drug self-assessment test online at https://adsyes.org/alcohol-and-drug-online-assessment/

Based in Johannesburg, Wedge Gardens offer holistic rehabilitation for the body, mind and soul. Find out more at www.wedgegardens.co.za

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Resilience – being psychologically and emotionally tough

No person goes without adversity, trials and tribulations and even more so those who dabble in addiction.

“Often, their challenges are self-inflicted,” says Karen Griessel, a social worker at Sanca-affiliated Wedge Gardens rehab centre in Johannesburg.

“Being able to bounce back sooner than later is what matters. It must also be said that it takes conscious effort to be resilient and take your power back but, in the end, it is so worth it,” she says.

“If we look at the world pandemic at present, all of humanity is showing resilience in one way or another so it is part of most people’s nature to want to fight back or fight for what is right.

“The good news is that resilience can be practised, just like working on your muscles in the gym. If you are not born assertive or you lack confidence, it does not mean that you cannot nurture these characteristics. Learn to be solution-focused and not to obsess about problems – this, at the core, is all about self-belief.

“Research on resilience theory shows the importance of managing one’s immediate environment by addressing demands and stressors head-on,” she says.

Resilience ties into the strength-based perspective which means using one’s resources, skills, positive attributes and strengths to fight difficulties.

“Positive thinking doesn’t mean ignoring a problem; it means understanding that troubles and setbacks happen but that with confidence and self-esteem, they can be overcome,” says Karen.

The 7 Cs of resilience

  • Competence in knowing how to handle a situation effectively.
  • Confidence rooted in competence.
  • Connection and networking.
  • Character in knowing what is right or wrong.
  • Contribution.
  • Coping, which leads to handling stressors better.
  • Control as a problem-solver and not a victim.

Wedge Gardens offers holistic rehabilitation for the body, mind and soul. Find out more at www.wedgegardens.co.za

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Self-care, an essential service to yourself

Making time for yourself in today’s busy world is often a challenge – and this is even worse for active addicts whose entire focus is on finding their next drink or hit.

Karen Griessel, a social worker at Johannesburg’s Wedge Gardens Treatment Centre, says an addict’s life is consumed with not only finding and using their alcohol, drug or pill of choice, but with thoughts of getting clean. “It is a continuous sick cycle that is their constant priority,” she says.

Taking care of themselves falls by the wayside, she adds.

“Once the recovery process has started, self-care becomes critical. Physical care – such as personal hygiene – is easy to achieve but emotional self-care is more complex.

“Let us be honest – all of us struggle to find the balance between looking after ourselves and getting through work, family and community obligations.

Karen says the intrinsic characteristics of kindness, compassion, patience and forgiveness are vital when it comes looking after yourself holistically.

“During active addiction, individuals used drugs or alcohol to deal with stress, cope with life or to handle emotions so it is important for them to find new and healthy life and coping skills.

“Recovered addicts will have less chance of relapsing if they have a balanced lifestyle and a holistic sense of overall wellbeing: emotionally, physically and psychologically. This will empower them to fight off depression and anxiety, maintain positivity and reduce triggers and cravings,” she says.

Self-care tips:

  • Practise mindfulness, which is the conscious awareness of experiences by staying present.
  • Stay connected and have a healthy support structure.
  • Look for interests, opportunities and ideas and follow your goals and dreams.
  • Keep active by exercising because this naturally increases happy hormones.
  • If you need medical or psychological care, do not procrastinate – just do it.
  • Get enough sleep and follow a healthy diet to reduce stress.
  • Be aware of your negative states, like being hungry, angry, lonely or tired.
  • Make sure to maintain healthy boundaries if you feel irritated or uneasy.
  • Have fun and laugh a little and make sure you stop and smell the roses.
  • Reach out and ask for help if you need to.

Based in Johannesburg, Wedge Gardens offer holistic rehabilitation for the body, mind and soul. Find out more at www.wedgegardens.co.za

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