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#SliceOfLife: ‘Let’s pray you’ll be okay. My escape from a backyard drug rehab

  • The new draft of South Africa’s HIV action plan says opioid substitution therapy (OST) could be available at all government clinics and hospitals by 2028.
  • For OST, drug users are given methadone, a medicine which blocks withdrawal symptoms, but doesn’t get the person high. When people can get this drug, they’re less likely to share needles when they’re rushing to get their fix. That lowers their chances of contracting HIV or hepatitis C.
  • Bhekisisa reporter Zano Kunene spoke to one woman about her recovery from nyaope dependence, thanks to methadone. The piece forms part of our #SliceofLife series. #SliceofLife stories are short, first-person accounts of people’s experiences.

“I started using nyaope unwittingly in 2012. My partner was smoking it, but he wasn’t honest with me. He would roll a joint, but before closing it he would open a plastic bag, and put the powder in the joint.

“After maybe three or four months, I found out from his mother that he was smoking nyaope. 

“But by that time, I was already hooked.

“Each morning I would wake up with flu symptoms, which would disappear after I smoked. 

“I have three kids at home. 

“When I needed a fix, there were weeks where I didn’t see them or even think about them. 

“One day my parents took me to a place in Tembisa. There were places where people were opening rehab [detoxification] centres in their yard. They take recovering addicts like me and put us in a back room. 

“I was so sick. My nose was blocked, I was vomiting yellow stuff and they gave us nothing [to eat]. 

“They only told us: ‘Let’s pray you will be okay.’

“On the third day, at about nine at night, I decided I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t take it anymore. 

“I jumped over the wall and never went back. 

“Later, when I was high again, I thought about the kind of future my children could have with a mother who’s out in the streets, using drugs. Why wasn’t my love for them strong enough to stop?

“I asked my mother to take me to the doctor, and I got a prescription of methadone

“That was 2017. I haven’t smoked in six years.

“Methadone helped with the cravings — so much that it completely blocked them out. I don’t remember anything about smoking, I don’t feel like smoking, I don’t want it, I don’t like it, it does nothing for me.” 

– Violet Maodi is a community health worker with the South African Network of People Who Use Drugs in Tshwane, Gauteng. She spoke to Bhekisisa’s health reporter, Zano Kunene, about her recovery from drug dependence with the help of methadone.The drug mimics the effects of opiates such as nyaope, without getting people high. It’s given to users as part of opioid substitution therapy (OST) to help ease withdrawal symptoms such as vomiting and dehydration, which can be life-threatening if people don’t get help. OST is a proven way to cut HIV and hepatitis C infections among people who inject drugs, in part because they are less likely to share needles to get their fix. This is why it’s part of South Africa’s HIV action plan. A draft of the country’s latest strategy on HIV details plans to roll out methadone to all government health facilities by 2028. At the moment, the health department only buys this medicine for hospitals.

Zano Kunene is a health journalist at Bhekisisa.