To love a heroin addict

I have been meeting with a person who is homeless and a heroin addict for the past 3 months, twice a week, every week.  The man is my cousin.  He is 28 years old and either sleeps on the streets or in a shelter when he can afford it.  My purpose in meeting with him is to write his story to try to find some real solutions to this problem our beautiful city is facing.

This is a real problem.  We only have about 34 people injecting heroin in Central Durban, but a large percentage of our homeless community are smoking it – either as heroin or woonga.  It is a problem.  The problem affects us deeply.  Even if we choose to ignore it, it will continue to be there.  Ignoring these people is so much of the problem.  They need love, and lots of it.  I asked my cousin to describe what it feels like to be high.  His answer shocked me.  I was expecting that it made him forget his problems, that it probably gave him some visions, took away the pain.  I never expected his true answer.  He said; “it feels like someone has placed a warm coal inside of you and you feel loved and accepted”. You see my cousin comes from a broken home, parents divorced when he was 5, mom battled cancer and died when he was 11, dad was not a factor and he was dumped from one family to the next.  I am not excusing his choices, but if this is a way he can feel loved, can we as society really blame him? Haven’t we all done crazy things just to feel loved?

Sadly, that sensation does not last.  Sadly, as you build a tolerance to the drug you reach a point where you no longer get that sensation and all you are doing is self-medicating to prevent withdrawal. Oh, and withdrawal is bad! Imagine the worst possible stomach bug but lasting three weeks with intense muscular pain.  Literally bile pouring out of you. And you feel abandoned and lonely and unloved.  And the drug is whispering to you, “all you need is a little shot and you will feel so much better, nobody will know.” I spoke to a guy yesterday who has been clean for 18 years and he said he still hears that voice every now and then.  Then you get the other side where they push the envelope a bit far and overdose.  We lost a 23 year old mom this last week, on Mahatma Gandhi Rd. Apparently they know when it has happened the minute they inject.  There is no high, just intense pain, heat and blackness.  If there is too much they don’t wake up.  A real waste of a life.

Many of these addicts are really functional.  You have probably been served by one at a restaurant and never even realised it. Inevitably they get greedy.  They need more drug and they will do anything to get it. So they end up stealing, and they lose their jobs.  This is where life becomes dangerous for them and society, this is where we need to engage and not disengage.

On the streets they have three choices to earn money to pay for their drugs.  The first is the hustle.  This usually goes on the line of “I am not a drug addict. I have landed on the streets due to some misfortune and need shelter money or money for food.” “Or I am selling this object to raise shelter money or support my baby”.  We have all heard the story. Sometimes we give to get rid of the person, sometimes out of guilt, sometimes out of religious obligation, and sometimes because we believe their story and genuinely want to help them. But the hustle works.  They earn between R100 and R1500 a day doing this, depending on the day and the season.  The second is the route many of the girl’s land up taking, prostitution.  Either online sales, manning a street corner or working a strip.  Almost all of them land up being used by the drug lords.  Handing over every cent made so that they can get their next fix or keep a roof over their head. The third option is crime. Muggings, shoplifting, and theft out of motor vehicles are the most common, but it lands them up in a cycle of going in and out of prison and mixing with worse and worse people.

What is the solution?  To be honest, I do not know.  What I do know is that these people are hugely vulnerable.  They need love and to be shown that people care. Not by giving them stuff, those things are likely to be sold to buy more drugs, but by engaging the individuals. Until they choose to make the decision for themselves that they no longer want that lifestyle there is no point in offering them a way out. If the choice is not theirs, they will return to the lifestyle the first opportunity they have.  If the choice is not truly theirs they will resent you for “helping”.  Only they can answer the question if they are ready to change.  They may have told you they are, but it really was another hustle, and they will return the minute the pain strikes.  On the streets they need just enough money to self-medicate.  They are okay to not sleep in a shelter, to go without food as long as they do not go into withdrawal.  But that is the base. If no one ever gives we are going to land up with a crime situation. It is such a precarious space.  You do not want to give because you are fuelling an addiction, but if you do not give where will they find the money for the heroin?  They will make sure they have it.  The beauty of the don’t give campaigns is that it has been effective.  The addicts have been forced to take less, but the minute they “hit a luck” they are at risk of overdosing.

Once the addict decides that he wants to give up he has a major problem.  If he doesn’t have a wealthy family that can pay for a fancy rehabilitation facility that offers detoxing there are not many options. Most addicts have burnt that bridge long ago. The government hospitals will not take them.  These people need constant support and attention in this space – they cannot do it on the street.  This situation is creating another barrier to them being healed.  I applaud the efforts of the Denis Hurley Centre and Hope 4 All in investigating and initiating efforts to start free facilities.  Please people, get behind them.  Our City needs these services.

I am busy writing my cousin’s full story and we hope that it will help pre-teens, teens, young adults and families make wise choices around drugs.  We hope that it could prevent even one person landing up in the same situation.  These are people who are filling a need to be loved with something that ends up destroying their potential to be loved.