The struggle to survive addiction

International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking was marked on Sunday June 26. The day aims to get all members of society to "do their part to ride communities of drugs".

“I felt like I was merely existing and not living. I didn’t want to live like that anymore.”

So says Kate*, a recovering drug addict, on what led her to pry herself out of a life of active addiction.

“For me the drugs stopped working,” she says, adding: “I couldn’t escape anymore and I truly believe that it was the God of my understanding that guided me and set me free.”

International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking is commemorated annually on June 26.

The day was designated as such by the General Assembly at the United Nations (UN) in December 1987.

In his 2011 message around the day, UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon said: “Unless we reduce demand for illicit drugs, we can never fully tackle cultivation, production or trafficking. Governments have a responsibility to counteract both drug trafficking and drug abuse, but communities can also make a major contribution. Families, schools, civil society and religious organisations can do their part to rid their communities of drugs.”

An organisation which works steadily at combating the effects of drugs on particularly the youth is the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO).

The organisation has, as part of its programmes and services, the Adolescent Substance Abuse Prevention Treatment programme.

Expanding on the programme, Arina Smit, manager of the organisation’s clinical unit, says: “Through this programme, we try to help these young people to understand that you do not control drugs and that you cannot control drugs, but that they will control you, because they change your brain chemistry – and that, because of this, you have no control over (drugs). We also try and help them figure out why they need drugs in their lives.

“Also, to try and value themselves as people who do not need to use drugs to be a cooler or different than who they are. We also try and help them develop cognitive skills to moderate compulsive thinking and behaviour – like dealing with cravings or slip-ups – and instead find different coping mechanisms that work for them.”

As to whether the organisation has an increased number of youth needing to participate in this programme, Ms Smit says: “Most of the young people we see are using dagga, tik, alcohol and cocaine. It is difficult to say if there is a general increase. However, what is very clear is that at least 90 percent of the young people who Nicro works with will have used drugs at some point in their short lives – whether once or twice.”

Kate, who was one such young person when she started using drugs, says: “I started smoking cigarettes at the age of 11. It is not considered a drug in Narcotics Anonymous, whose meetings I attend regularly, but for me that is where it all began. I drank from the age of 12 and picked up other drugs from the age of 16. I used everything eventually except needles.”

Says Ms Smit: “At least 70 percent of those we see at Nicro in this programme would be young people who are actually habitually using drugs – or who can be said to have an addiction – that has contributed to them coming into contact with the criminal justice system.”

Kate’s concession that “I never landed up on the streets or sold myself; I always had money in the bank, a good job and property, but the inner turmoil was painful” therefore makes her one of the luckier ones.

Still, despite now being clean for a little over 10 years, her relatively fortunate financial position could not protect her from the inevitable struggles that came with giving up a life of addiction.

“Some of the things that were really hard at first were, for example, simply allowing myself to feel – to really feel – again. Also, I had this feeling of having lost my best friend, drugs, and trusting people again and allowing them into my life. That was hard. In early recovery, I also had this big fear of boredom and no longer having fun.”

For Kate, the years of doggedly sticking to her going-to-stay-clean guns have paid off handsomely.

“I am healthy, content, serene and happy,” she says, adding: “I don’t need to lie nor remember what I lied about – I remember what I did. I don’t make a fool out of myself anymore and I have real friends – people who will be there for me no matter what.”

Commenting on the importance of support from family, friends and community in assisting those addicted to drugs, Ms Smit says: “People have a misperception that kicking the habit is a issue of willpower and that being an addict makes you a weak person or a loser. If we really want to help, we should instead help them to realise that it is not a weakness to ask for help if you do not know how to go about dealing with a problem. We should also not make excuses for these behaviours – like a parent justifying it by saying, ‘yes, but it is another child that introduced my child’, or ‘well, I don’t think my child has a problem’. If you have a child addicted to, or using drugs, help your child take responsibility. Ensure that they know they will not be rejected if they have a problem, but will be supported. Get in contact with a professional and be willing to invest time in dealing with the problem. This is a thing that will not just go away; it will be demanding and will take time from you.

“Also, recognise your anger, and your disappointment. These are normal things to be feeling, but deal with it in a constructive way – preferably with the help of a professional.”

Says Kate: “Family and friends of addicts need to know that they cannot save the person in active addiction. Those who are addicted can only stop when they are ready. No one can force you to get clean and you have to do it for yourself, otherwise it won’t work. I would suggest they come to an NA meeting and see what it’s about and then, if willing, go into a rehab for a period of time.”

Years down the line, her years of active addiction behind her, Kate says: “I have found my higher power; I have humility and gratitude. I have my own successful business and I have balance. I am grateful to be a recovering addict as I always thought there was something wrong with me.

“But now, one day at a time, I am becoming the person I was meant to be.”

* For a list of Narcotics Anonymous meeting times and venues, visit www.na.org.za or call the helpline at 083 900 69 62.