Unraveling the Tangled Web of Trauma and Addiction

Hi, my name is Jonty, and I am an addict and an alcoholic.

I have found that addiction and recovery are very personal. However, hearing other people’s stories can be helpful as we can relate to the lunacy and stories of recovery. It is useless to compare, though, as even though someone else’s account may seem hardcore or tame, they are as real to them as yours are to you. This is my story. I hope it gives you some hope or insight if you are seeking recovery for yourself.

Photo by Nik

On my father’s side, his father was an extremely abusive alcoholic. His brother became an addict and blew his head off with a shotgun. His sister is an alcoholic. On my mother’s side, her father was an alcoholic; she told me a story she remembered of him coming home from the pub with his pinky broken at a right angle after being in a fight, biting the gristle and then bending it back into place, taping it back up to the next finger and going back to the bar. Her brother died of Cirrhosis, and her sister was an alcoholic and addict who eventually found recovery. My parents were functioning alcoholics and drank at least three drinks every night. Epigenetically speaking, I think I was pretty much predestined for addiction.

One of the main themes I have found that runs through stories of addiction is trauma. One of my earliest memories, I think I must have been around five years old, is of my father telling my brother and me to fetch the belt and wait for him. I had no idea what was happening; we had done something he felt deserved punishment or discipline.
For this purpose, my father kept a white leather belt in one of his drawers. I remember my brother sitting there with the belt in his hand, crying and shaking in fear.
After some time, which felt like an eternity, my father came into the room, and I watched as my brother stood up, handed him the belt and held up his left arm so my father could hold on to him while he strapped him from his lower back to just above the backs of his knees with thick red welts. I watched this in horror and then realised that this was about to happen to me.

The strangest thing about it, which is why it sticks out in my memory, is he said to me as he took my arm,
“I am only doing this because I love you”, and then proceeded to beat the shit out of me. This is a highly confusing message about what love is. He also would not let my mother come to soothe me afterwards. This continued until I was about ten years old when my brother and I both had done something.

Anyway, one day, I decided that no matter what, I would not make a sound, I would not move, and I would not cry; it was the most severe beating I ever took, but I won, and my father knew it. The beatings stopped that day, but the psychological abuse carried on. It was pretty old school: do as I say, your opinion doesn’t matter, speak when spoken to, etc.

In some ways, this made me a hard, stubborn bastard who could take large amounts of pain, and in other ways, it made me extremely angry, insecure and untrusting. I made peace with my father before he passed away. He was suffering his traumas and honestly believed he was doing the right thing at the time, but later realised it was wrong. It took me until I began this recovery process to accept that this was abuse. It had never occurred to me that what happened was anything out of the ordinary. Only when a friend pointed out that I would not do that to my kids did the full impact hit me.

Cape Town by Waldo Piater

We moved from Zimbabwe to Cape Town when I was seven. On the road that we stayed on the corner was a house where some young girls lived. My memory of this is very hazy as I blocked it out for decades, but basically, these teenage girls lured me to their house and raped me and used to make fun of me. This wasn’t the innocent doctor-doctor games that kids play. This was full-on multiple orgy stuff. What was so confusing to me was that it felt good so that I would go back, but then I knew it was wrong because I always felt shame and guilt afterwards, on top of which I was busy being raised a Catholic, so this was an actual sin. At that age, there was nobody I could share this with, certainly not my parents, as I was terrified of my father, not my friends at school, as how could they possibly understand, so I just kept it to myself. Looking back, I guess I now find it obvious they were being sexually abused themselves.

These two things, plus my genetics, made a recipe for disaster.

The first time I got a little tipsy was about eleven. There used to be night cricket at Newlands, and people could bring their cooler boxes and skottel braais. I decided I wanted to steal some beer and try it out. So that’s what I did, and I very much liked the feeling. So every time we went to night cricket, I would do that. Around this time, my brother was in high school, and we had some neighbours whose parents always had crates of beer in their garage. So we would visit them, and I learned to play quarters.

When I was about 13, I spent as much time with friends and as little at home as possible. It would be fair to say that at this point, I was drinking to black out on most weekends, downing half bottles of vodka or rum. One weekend, at a friend’s place, we visited his neighbour, who we used to huff petrol with, and he asked if I would like to try smoking some ganja. I was in. No questions asked. We went to a local field and smoked a bottleneck. I had found heaven.
The pit of pain and insecurity I carried with me constantly disappeared. I only noticed this because I always felt anxious in my stomach that I didn’t see it was there until it wasn’t.
My anger disappeared, and I felt at peace. My use escalated to the point that when I was in matric, I smoked before, during break, and after school. I would sometimes smoke two or three bottlenecks in one sitting.

I am sure you can see a pattern emerging here! I had the addiction of more. I ran away from home for a few days when I was about 14 and thought about killing myself. When I was about 16, one of my friend’s parents had cancer, so he had a stash of Pethadine, basically medical-grade heroin. He asked me if I wanted to try. Silly question. Thank God I realised that was too good and vowed never to try that again as there would be no way I could resist.

Photo by Kari Shea

Just before my matric year started, I discovered LSD and, shortly afterwards, ecstasy. We were at the beginning of the rave scene, and on most weekends, I was taking three or four pills and a tab or microdot of LSD plus loads of cannabis. I had stopped drinking, thinking that this was much better.
It was around this time was the first time I got arrested for possession.

Towards the end of my matric year, my father told me I wasn’t getting a gap year and I could either apply for a student loan and go to university or get a job if I wanted to go overseas. I ensured I had a job lined up before the day I wrote my final exam, and I left home to work in a hotel in Kleinmond within a few hours of finishing. I couldn’t wait to leave home as my father and I couldn’t communicate without screaming at each other. Also, I went to a very elite school, and because my parents were regular working class, I had a severe insecurity complex. For instance, one year for Christmas, I got a space case and stationary while some of my friends got the latest and best toys and gadgets. All my clothes were hand-me-downs or second-hand.

At the hotel, I discovered cocaine and mandrax. I started as a dishwasher and hung out with the staff after working 16-hour shifts, so cocaine to keep working and mandrax to go to sleep. After six months, I quit, returned to Cape Town and got a job at a popular student bar. One night, the owner had a heart attack in the kitchen, so I went in and did CPR on him, trying to keep him alive till an ambulance arrived, but unfortunately, he died in my arms. That night, I got black-out drunk, smoked some mandrax and passed out at a friend’s place. While I was sleeping, he dropped two tabs of LSD in my mouth, woke me up a few hours later, and told me what he had done, and now I was tripping HARD. That really messed me up, and I lost it for a long time and went back to drinking—a lot.

I then applied to Rhodes University for a journalism degree; it was one of the most challenging courses to get accepted into and globally recognised. I got accepted and asked my folks if they would help me co-sign for a student loan. They refused, saying that I would just mess it up, and they didn’t believe in me and weren’t prepared to take the chance. Feeling despondent, I left home again and went to work in Langebaan to save money to go overseas on a two-year working visa. I worked seven days a week, saving every cent I could. Once I had enough saved, I returned to Cape Town and hired a movie at a video store. That was still a thing! That’s where I met my wife. I remember walking out of the video store saying to my friend, I am going to marry that girl.

Photo by Josh Chiodo

Up until this point, I was a very confused, angry and suicidal maniac with no self-esteem and a penchant for hard drugs and hard drinking. For some reason, she saw something in me I couldn’t, and suddenly, the world was all sunshine and bunny rabbits. I fell in love deeply. We spent the money I had saved on partying and being twenty-year-olds in love. One night, someone gave us a line of what was meant to be cocaine, but turned out to be heroin. This was around when people overdosed on Thai white, and we got a heavy scare. Didn’t stop me, though.

In 2003, we had our first child. A month later, I was arrested for drunk driving. I wasn’t very responsible (as you can imagine) and was bouncing around from job to job. My mother decided I needed to establish some kind of security and future, so she convinced my father to invest in a restaurant for us. I was too young and said no, but they said they would buy it anyway and get someone else to run it. A surefire way to lose everything…

…so there I was with an unlimited supply of alcohol and a till with money going through it. Pretty soon, I was going through 2 grams of coke a day and as much booze as I could drink. After about a year, I told my folks it wasn’t working, obviously, and they needed to get out while they could. Things went sideways, and they lost most of their savings because of me.

I then started selling advertising in magazines, trying to work a stable 9 to 5 job, but I didn’t stop using and drinking, so I bounced around from job to job. I was ridden with guilt, depression, anxiety and self-hatred. I was definitely on the Ferris wheel. Anxiety and depression – Drink and use to numb the pain – Shame and guilt vowing to stop. Anxiety and depression building up – Drink and use to numb the pain – Shame and guilt vowing to stop. Eventually, I had a breakdown and admitted myself to a private psych ward for three weeks. I was diagnosed with depression and put on meds.

Photo by Drew Beamer

In 2007, we had our second child. I would love to say, “At this point, I acknowledged I had a problem.”
I didn’t. I was in full-blown denial and was just starting to deal with my traumas, both from my childhood and self-inflicted. By the time I entered my thirties, I was unemployable, moving in and out of home, trying to find stability but still carrying on like a maniac. To put things in perspective, one Christmas, just after opening presents around midmorning, I left my family and went to a party where I ended up on LSD and hurt my foot so bad I couldn’t walk. My mother came through to town on Boxing Day to find me lying on the side of the road with no shirt on, still drunk and high. That’s how selfish I was.

Round this time, my father-in-law had a heart attack, and I tried to perform CPR on him, but he also died in my arms.

I was arrested twice, once for vandalism. I was tripping in town, and cops were harassing me, so I punched a window and broke it. They tried arresting me, and I fought back. Ultimately, I was charged with resisting arrest, vandalism, possession, damage to state property, and other charges. While in the holding cells, a lawyer who was friends with my father-in-law saw me and got all the charges dropped.

A few months later, I fought with the cops again and was arrested again, and by a miracle, the same thing happened again. All charges dropped. You would think (at this point) I would be re-evaluating my life decisions, but no. I had developed a high tolerance for pain and suffering and extreme acts of stupidity.

I started dealing cannabis as a way to make money. Now I was back to making lots of money daily, so I went back to doing one or two grams of coke a day, a bottle of hard liquor and mushrooms whenever I felt like it, becoming more and more unstable. I got fired by the people I was working for as I was a security liability. We were evicted from where we were staying after having our water turned off and the doors removed. My youngest had an asthma attack and landed in hospital. Dark times.

We then moved into town with a friend; all four of us lived in one room. And I got a job working at Amazon. I booked myself into a psych ward again for three weeks as I was suicidal and was diagnosed as bipolar with extreme anxiety. After some time, my friend decided he was moving out, and we tried to take over the lease, but it didn’t work out. My wife went to live with friends, my kids went to stay with my folks, and I went to live on the streets. By this time, I was using crystal meth. I was at my lowest point; mixing anti-psychotics, antidepressants, alcohol, and crystal meth is not a good cocktail for one’s brain.

I eventually found myself in a sort of “boarding house” where I finally had a full-on psychotic break and sliced my arm open with a broken bottle. I still didn’t want to admit I had a problem. However, I knew I could book myself into rehab as I still had medical aid and would get a clean bed and three meals a day, so that’s what I did.

Photo by Dan Meyers

I had an incredible counsellor who helped me see that I had trauma to deal with and got me to admit I am an addict. I took this lifeline seriously and started addressing all the stuff I had stuffed down and ignored, trying to be a “man” and ignoring my feelings. I spent about three months in different treatment facilities and learned much about addiction, trauma, accepting responsibility, forgiveness, goal setting, journaling and the 12 steps. I was also humbled at this time as some people I had been at school with whom I had had no contact reached out and helped me and gave me new clothes and a few other things so I could come out with some self-respect.

I went back to living with my parents and was determined to stay sober and had what I felt were the right tools and a programme. I found a job prospecting for commercial real estate and was mending my relationships with my wife and kids. My mother was then diagnosed with cancer, and I wasn’t making money and didn’t want to be a drain on my folks, so I went back to what I knew: selling cannabis.

This time, I started doing it for myself and took some clients from my previous employers. It was then that I found out that they had put a contract on my life while I was in rehab as they were worried I would be too honest and my counsellor would report everything to the police; they then threatened my life again as I was impacting their business. Fortunately, I knew the guy they wanted to send, and he liked me and said no. I then told them I had all the information I needed to get them in deep trouble, and if they wanted war, then war would be. We came to an amicable arrangement, and everything settled down.

Soon after that, I was set up, and my wife and I had three guys in my car who told me we were in their territory and that they had set up the meeting to kill us. I knew they were serious, as when you see the eyes of a killer, they are dead and hold zero emotion – one of the guys had those eyes and a gun. We talked to them and explained that it was a misunderstanding, and they let us leave; we weren’t in their territory at all. Again you would think I would re-evaluate my life decisions, but still, no.

I relapsed hard, going back to one or two grams of coke a day and a bottle of hard liquor, and now I had added gambling to the mix and tranquilisers plus my meds. My Mom passed away, and my Father was diagnosed with cancer. He left to live in Joburg, and I was back to full maniac mode.

Photo by Drew Beamer

Then COVID hit. I was back on the Ferris wheel of using-shame and guilt-anxiety and depression-using-shame and guilt-anxiety-depression. I decided I had to stop, or I would die, and I realised that even though I thought I had been there for my kids, I had traumatised them, even though I never once hit them.

My father passed away during all the restrictions in Johannesburg, and I couldn’t attend the funeral.

I started to write and began realising I was stuck in memory loops of trauma and shame, and my brain couldn’t distinguish between the past and the present, so every time a painful memory came up, my brain reacted as if it were happening at that moment, not in the past. What I learned was my lizard brain was able to hijack my prefrontal cortex to get drugs or alcohol to get the dopamine to escape the pain without being able to think it through logically and the consequences. I needed to discharge the emotion attached to my memories, or I would be haunted by them forever.

First, I had to acknowledge that what happened to me wasn’t my fault, but how I deal with it is my responsibility.
Second, I had to forgive myself and let go of the past, as carrying all that baggage weighed me down, making any future impossible.
Third, I had to forgive those who hurt me, as I couldn’t carry resentments.
Lastly, I had to create a life I wouldn’t want to escape from.

It seems easy when put down on paper, but it is a daily challenge, and I find it has become more manageable and easier to let go. I have been working towards a goal for three years, with many ups and downs and challenges. I have a life that I am content with, as I prefer peace and tranquillity. I no longer operate in chaos and drama. In the beginning, that felt the worst as chaos and drama were the default; if things were going well and peacefully, I was just waiting for it to go wrong because that’s what my life had been from childhood. I had become a master at self-sabotage without realising it.

Photo by Angelina Litvin

This is what my daily morning journaling looked like –

  1. How am I physically
  2. How am I emotionally
  3. How am I spiritually
  4. What am I grateful for
  5. Did I have cravings yesterday? What was the trigger?
  6. What will I do today to help me achieve my goal of creating a life worth living that I don’t want to escape from?
  7. Then, I journal about whatever is bouncing around my brain, like a flushing mechanism. If I don’t journal, the thoughts and emotions back up, and I get caught back up in negative thought loops.

After a while, I noticed that I could pick up on the things that might need some attention as I had never learned self-care, so if I had a persistent cough and it didn’t get better on its own, I would seek treatment. It’s the same if I started having bad days in a row. Did I need to spend some time in quiet contemplation, or what was I doing or thinking repeatedly that made me feel that way? After a while, I started to understand myself better and what effort I needed to put in to stay sober.

After all, if I put in effort to get drunk or high, why wouldn’t I put in effort to stay sober? I also realised it had taken me thirty-plus years to get myself into such a dark place, so it would take some time to pull myself out of that place, and I needed to be patient and forgive myself. That was the hardest thing for me. Forgiving myself and learning to continue forgiving myself, and then taking responsibility for the pain I was suffering as well as the pain I caused.

As I said initially, addiction and recovery are very personal; I don’t have a solution for anybody else. I can say rehab and NA or AA meetings and the 12 steps did help teach me some tools and gave me an understanding, but they aren’t for me. I am lucky, though, that I have a very kind, loving and supportive wife. I am close with my kids; they all continue to show me unconditional love. I am unsure what I would do without them, so having a support system is essential.

What I can say for sure is this – Shame and secrets die when exposed.

If you are struggling, find someone to talk to and tell them the stuff that terrifies you; every time you do it, it gets more manageable, and the overwhelming feelings attached to them no longer have control.

People who judge addicts have no experience and, therefore, no basis or understanding, so their judgment is irrelevant.

Life can be unique, beautiful, and wondrous, but to see and appreciate the light, you must first understand the darkness.

Some days are more complex, and some days are more straightforward. That is true for everyone, though; the difference is I would immediately look for relief in drugs and alcohol, but I no longer do that. I can sit with uncomfortable feelings and know they will pass.

Above all, the most significant tool I know of and use is gratitude. I don’t mean comparing and being ‘at least my life isn’t like that’ or ‘things could be worse’. I mean sincere gratitude for being present for my family and talking with my kids, for the beauty of simple things, for a clean bed and a plate of food.

If you read this, got this far, and are struggling, I hope you got something out of my story. I hope you find peace and some love.

Above all, treat yourself like someone you give a fuck about, you deserve at least that.

(Apologies, I had to throw in at least one “fuck”, ok now two, but it is intentional for emphasis. I am trying to be a better person, not a saint).

Thanks to u/NoahBraun7

One Response

  1. Thanks, Jonty for this deep share. You have a talent for writing and describe your experiences and learnings with utmost clarity. You have clearly processed a lot and gone through a lot. Thank you, you are an inspiration. We all have our own wounds and our own stories, but there are always the same fundamental truths.

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