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Years of cocaine abuse led his life to ruin, but Dean Francis finally managed to get clean, and now he runs a halfway house for recovering addicts in Johannesburg. (Photos: Oupa Nkosi)

Life's precipice puts addiction into perspective

Amy Green
Three drug addicts tell their stories of devastation, desperation and, finally, the long road to recovery.

One in 10 South Africans will suffer from addiction in their lives, according to the Medical Research Council. Amy Green spoke to three addicts with different stories to find out what impact drugs had on their lives – and their recovery process.

Dean Francis (49), cocaine addict

The sun was high in the sky as Dean Francis drove along Umgeni Road towards the University of Durban on a Friday afternoon in October 2003. He felt the vibrations on his thigh before he heard his cellphone ring. With one hand on the wheel, he fished the phone out of his pocket. He didn't have to look at the screen – he knew it would be his brother Charles. 

"Dean," the voice said. It was exactly 3.30pm and Charles had just phoned the bank before they closed to see whether his brother had deposited the R200 000 owed to him.

"Charles," Dean responded, knowing he had not deposited the money.

"I'm done with your bullshit. I know there is something going on."

Dean was silent.

"I'm going to call you back in five minutes and if you tell me the truth I will help you. If you don't, you're on your own."

The receiver went dead.

It had been seven months since Dean had opened up a Durban branch of his brother's airtime business and it was time to pay up, but he didn't have the money. 

He pulled into an Engen petrol station at the side of the road, switched his car off and waited. He knew it was time to come clean. 

But instead of feeling apprehensive, nervous or worried, he felt relief. Finally he was going to tell someone. His dark dirty secret, kept from those closest to him, would be out.

Exactly five minutes later Dean's phone rang and he answered it. 

"What the fuck is going on?" asked Charles.

"I think I've got a little cocaine problem," said Dean.

Road to rehab
Just over 10 years later, Dean is now drug-free, successful and has devoted his life to the recovery of other addicts. 

"I smoked marijuana and drank beer almost every day from the age of 18 to the day I walked into rehab," he says, sitting on a couch of the Rosebank home he has made into a halfway house – a place for recovering addicts to live while they integrate back into society.

"But I only really discovered cocaine in my early 30s."

In Durban in his mid-20s, Dean and his partner owned a home, a holiday home as well as a number of cars. They started a highly successful hydroponic farm, where plants were grown in water instead of soil. 

As his cocaine habit spiralled, he lost everything, including his partner. 

Dean and his partner had been together since he was 23. "But in those last few years I became the most horrific human being on the planet – I don't know how he stayed with me."

When the business started to flounder, Dean stole credit cards, emptied the cash safes and sold items in the house to fund his habit. He covered up this behaviour with lies and excuses.

"I couldn't tell anybody"
"I couldn't reach out for help. I couldn't tell anybody. I had been this incredibly successful youngster and had this relationship which had lasted for 17 years. There was an enormous amount of shame I just couldn't face. When you're in that black hole you're so alone and there's no way out."

At that stage he was spending roughly R1 500 a day on cocaine and drinking at least a dozen beers daily.

"I had an amazing upbringing. I never wanted for anything my whole life. I was practically raised in Sunday school. I came from a conservative Afrikaans family in Potchefstroom and to go back and say, actually I'm a drug addict – I couldn't do it," he says. 

A few months before receiving that call from his brother, Dean would spend every night in his car on Durban's beachfront, hoping something would happen to him.

"I used to leave the doors unlocked and drink beer and snort cocaine. I was told this was the most dangerous place in the country. I was hoping somebody would find me and drag me out of the car and drown me in the sea – but no one ever came."

Turning point
Charles's phone call that Friday in 2003 was his "turning point".

"Where's the money then?" asked Charles. "Up my nose," Dean responded. 

"What are you going to do about it?"

"I don't know. I'm in very big trouble," replied Dean.

The following morning Dean woke up to the sound of two of his brothers arriving at his Durban home. They had travelled through the night from Johannesburg to fetch him and book him into Houghton House rehabilitation centre for a six-week programme. 

He will be 11 years clean on October 9 this year. 

Thandeka Dlamini*(29), crack cocaine addict

Looking at Thandeka Dlamini, well dressed and eloquent, one wouldn't think she used to smoke cocaine through a broken glass pipe. Ten years ago she wouldn't have thought so either.

Although she spent the first few years of primary school in a township near Durban, her family moved to a Johannesburg suburb in the mid-1990s and joined the rising middle class. 

A rebellious teenager, she would drink after school, smoke cigarettes and in later years marijuana, but managed to evade suspicion from her parents by passing matric well and being accepted into a Johannesburg university.

"With alcohol, from the beginning it was for the feeling, not the taste," she says.

She drank to "get drunk", which escalated with the freedom of university life.

'In orientation week I went to a party and got completely drunk, missed my planned lift, and ended up in a car with one of my fellow students," she says, looking down at her bright-pink, manicured nails.

"He promised to take me home but he drove the car to a park nearby instead," she says, shifting uncomfortably in her seat, avoiding eye contact. "He raped me." 

She didn't tell anyone about it because she felt partly responsible. "I know what he did was wrong but I kept thinking – had I not been so drunk, this wouldn't have happened to me. I blamed myself for what had happened to me, for years."

Smoking and drinking; her escape
Thandeka started smoking marijuana and drinking every day as her escape.

"I used being raped as an excuse to myself for all the weed I smoked and alcohol I drank."

Later that year she was introduced to cocaine at a university party.

"I felt like this is the drug for me; this is what I had been waiting for," she says. "It gave me confidence. I always felt sort of different to other people but on cocaine I felt the same as everyone else. I had the same confidence levels and felt I could do great things."

She started making friends with people who did drugs; she pushed away her friends from high school.

"I didn't want them to get in the way of my fun."

After she failed her first year, her parents sent her to another Johannesburg university in 2004. 

"That year was all about drinking, smoking weed and doing cocaine. It became a lifestyle – I don't know how I passed."

During her second year at the new university her results dropped. Her parents pulled her out of varsity to take her home to live with them, and finish her studies through correspondence. 

Out of control
"My behaviour had gotten out of control. I would throw regular temper tantrums, disappear for weeks on end in the same clothes and I would always be asking for money," she says.

Then she started stealing money and alcohol from her parents until, in early 2008, she asked for help. It was after a two-week drug binge with friends. 

Thandeka had been raped again a few weeks before this and felt she needed help. "But the help I wanted was to sweep this under the carpet. I thought if I went to rehab then maybe my parents will trust me again. It wasn't because I really wanted to get better – it was for the wrong reasons."

After a six-week programme, Thandeka thought she had her drug problem under control. She became very involved in her church and finished her degree at the end of 2008.

"After a few months of being clean I'd finished my degree, got a job and everything was going so well," she says.

But over the December holidays a close relative died and she decided to have a drink with friends, promising herself she wouldn't touch drugs. After a few drinks one of her old friends suggested they buy cocaine.

"When I picked up cocaine again it was almost like I got back on to that rollercoaster and it just went faster."

From 2009 to 2010 Thandeka was in and out of jobs, which funded a steadily increasing cocaine habit.

Move to crack cocaine
"Because of the amount of cocaine I was snorting I was starting to have trouble with my sinuses and I was worried people at work would start noticing. It also wasn't getting me high enough anymore."

In the middle of 2010 she made the conscious decision to start smoking crack cocaine instead. She lost her job the following year. At her new job she began smoking crack on the rooftop of the office; her employer suspected drug use so she left that job as well. 

Then, when her relationship with an abusive boyfriend ended, she moved in with a relative who was also a drug user.

"I couldn't go back home. I knew I'd failed. I knew I'd made a mess of my life. I started to become really paranoid from the crack – almost psychotic. I would always think people were after me. I lost a tremendous amount of weight. I couldn't believe I was me," she says.

"I did things I'm really ashamed of to get drugs from my drug dealers and I became a person I didn't know. I felt like the damage was too much and there was no turning back."

After running out of money Thandeka moved back into her parents' home in early 2013, where things reached a climax.

"I found myself in a crack house because I couldn't smoke at home. I got completely psychotic and just at that moment my dad called me," she says. "I told him exactly where I was."

Her parents arrived with her bags packed and drove her to a rehabilitation centre. That day her father told her: "I will not watch you destroy your life."

"Even though I was high, I felt his pain at that moment," she says, a sad expression eclipsing her smooth face. "I could literally physically feel the pain in my dad's heart as he looked at me. I didn't want to be there but I felt that pain. And that pain is something I never want to feel again."

Thandeka has been clean for a year and 17 days.

Alvin Jacobs* (26), crystal meth addict

Born in a small, poor and dusty town in the Northern Cape, Alvin Jacobs lived in an RDP house with his mother and his younger brother Jerome. His father had left the family when he was still a baby so his mother supported the family alone, and Alvin had to look after his brother while she was at work.

"If I hadn't finished my chores by the time she got home I would get a beating – I couldn't play like other kids," he says.

On February 22 1995, when Alvin was seven and Jerome was five, they were invited to play at their friend Waleed's house after school. Waleed came from a wealthier family and had lots of toys. 

Alvin figured he got a beating almost every day even when he stayed at home and did what he was told, so he decided he would have some fun. He took his brother and went over to Waleed's. 

After the domestic worker left Waleed's home, the trio stopped playing in the garden and went into the house. Waleed said he had something to show them. 

Alvin and Jerome watched Waleed enter his parents' bedroom. He came out a minute later holding something big and black.

"Bra, it's my dad's gun," said Waleed.

Alvin started to panic. "Put that thing away," he said. 

"Just feel it," urged Waleed. 

As he was handing the gun over to Alvin, it slipped and a loud shot rang out. 

"There was just blood everywhere in the passage – I didn't know what happened," says Alvin.

Jerome was on the floor, his head shattered from the bullet. 

"After that my mom started drinking alcohol and beating me all the time, saying Jerome shouldn't have died – it should have been me," he says.

Alvin's grandmother was forced to take him away from his abusive mother and bring him to live with her. She was surviving on a pension grant from the government and was looking after two of his cousins too. 

Weed was "amazing"
"I started smoking weed [marijuana] when I was 11 and it was amazing – from that first time we started smoking every weekend," he says.

Waleed went to a boarding school and only came back on school holidays and weekends. One weekend he came back with "buttons", or mandrax, and asked Alvin whether he wanted to try it.

"We sprinkled the powder from the buttons on the weed and I pulled it deep into my lungs," he says. "Waleed screamed 'Take it home boy!'. I told him 'Bra, this is the shit'. My head was hanging and I was drooling but I felt amazing and in my own world – nothing mattered."

He says that smoking "buttons" quickly progressed from using on the weekends to every second day, then every day. 

"I started to become violent and fight all the people who used to bully me when I was younger," he says.

A local gang asked him to join them and he agreed. Then, during his matric year in 2006, a small fight about buying weed escalated: Alvin stabbed another boy seven times, piercing his lung and breaking his collar bone.

"Afterwards I threw the knife away and smoked weed."

Blue lights and prison 
A few days later Alvin had his bag packed and was waiting by the door. He was going to take a train to Johannesburg and start a new life. Then he saw blue lights outside. It was the police. 

The boy he had stabbed had laid charges and Alvin was arrested and was sent to Kimberley prison where he spent almost three months, awaiting trial. 

It was there that he was raped by a group of men. "I started sharpening my toothbrush so that it couldn't happen again," he says. The next day, when the men came into Alvin's cell, he stabbed all three of them. "Nobody bothered me after that."

The case was eventually thrown out of court. Alvin slowed down on the drugs, passed matric and enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand to study commerce. But he dropped out after a few months and got an entry-level job as a financial controller through an agency.

"I discovered crack [cocaine] in 2009 and after the first hit I just fell in love with it," he says.

He blew his weekly wage the day after he had received it on marijuana and crack. 

Love and a baby
It was in 2010, on a trip home to the Northern Cape, that Alvin met Leandri and fell in love. "Two months later she told me she was pregnant and I was so happy," he says. "I was still using drugs but not as much as I used to. I wanted to stop completely but I just couldn't."

On November 7 2010, Alvin's son was born. He received a phone call from his mom who he hadn't spoken to in over 15 years. 

"She congratulated me and I cried," he says. "She asked me what I wanted to call him and I said Jerome, after my little brother."

By that time Alvin had started using crystal meth, also known as tik. Over those years, he attempted suicide and had two stints in a rehabilitation centre. His ?life now, he says, is finally "on track". 

"Every day I stay clean I do it for my little boy," he says.

If he had not relapsed on tik a month ago, he would have been clean for a year and a month.

*Names have been changed

                                                               

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