Is addiction bad for your family?
Howard Diesel
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The immediate answer is definitely, but the final answer is that it may be beneficial for your spiritual life!

You just need to spend five minutes with a recovering addict or one hour in a family support group for addicts to realise that you have entered a hornet’s nest. As a parent, by the time you spend time with a recovering addict or a support group, you probably realise that you face something rather terrifying.

This story is about our journey to a point, one year later, where we can label our son as a recovering addict. To say that we are grateful to use the term “recovering addict” is an understatement and a testimony to Mark’s commitment to arrest the control that active addiction has over his life.

In recent and happier times!

Mark’s background

Mark’s addiction started many years back, basically a lifelong journey of making bad decisions, that kept him a shameful prisoner of his addictions. The wheels fell off for the entire family on the 23rd of December 2019. Until that point, we were all naively ignorant. Some of us were even enabling his life of destruction. Some of us were vehemently opposed to the external behaviours and thought that we could correct it through verbal confrontation and prayer. Others felt that their siblings’ relationships could be used to bring some correction.

On the morning of the 23rd, we realised at 6am that he hadn’t returned from work, and we hadn’t received a message or call to alert us to an issue of not been able to return home. We called his phone, and a stranger answered who told us he had been “stabbed with a knife, Mammie, and the police want R2000”. This was all apparently in Braamfontein, an area in Johannesburg, right next to Hillbrow. We called the police to trace the call, but the phone had been turned off by that time. After this phone call, the panic that we experienced, for the next three hours was intense, as either his phone had been stolen, or he was indeed lying somewhere in Braamfontein, stabbed and bleeding. Fortunately, it was the former, but the latter was actually quite possible. We searched and called any possible place to provide us with information about his whereabouts; hospitals, police stations, friends, and employer. The expression of a “headless chicken” was a good description of the state that we were in.

This panic got us to realise that we had no idea of what was going on in Mark’s life. In our previous church community we had met a fantastic couple, Graham and Judy Moore. They had shared their testimony of addiction on a previous occasion, and that they had subsequently started an organisation called HEAL. We called Graham and Judy, who told us to take him to a HEAL group in Randburg led by a man called Brian. This was the only group still holding meetings through December.

One is too many, and 1000 is not enough

Sheepishly, we called Brian and attended the very next meeting (Proverbs 4:5; we had a lot to learn). The meetings were for both recovering addicts and supporting family members. Unfortunately, this particular meeting didn’t have anything for the family members. Veronica (my wife) and I went to the closest shopping mall to find some coffee and wait for the end of the meeting and hopefully find a fix and clarity to the challenge we were facing. On entering, we didn’t expect to meet friends from the other side of town and we explained what we were doing there. On our return to the meeting, Brian informed us that the challenge was real. He recommended that we immediately find a rehabilitation centre to help Mark start the recovery process. To help us understand the challenges that the addict faces, he used this phrase “One is too much, and 1000 is not enough.” Basically, once an addict starts using, he or she cannot get enough until one of three outcomes: institution, jail or death.

Fortunately, Mark agreed with the recommendation, and within a few days, we dropped Mark off at the rehabilitation centre. The two-day drive to Jahara, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre in Hoedspruit (right next to the Kruger National Park Orpen Gate) took 32 hours all-in-all. It was excruciating, and I still sit with the memory of the drive. It reminded me a lot of when I entered the army, and the train ride from the Rand Showgrounds in Johannesburg to the army base in Middleburg. I was filled with dread and uncertainty about what the future held. The only thing we were sure of on that train ride was that we were not going on a holiday, and our escorts took great pleasure in mocking us.

It was one of my most forlorn journeys until the trip to Jahara with Mark. The 6-hour trip home wasn’t any better. We had no idea whether the rehabilitation would be successful and what we would do if it wasn’t.

Part of Jahara rehab centre

Our Secrets keep us sick

We decided that we were not going to keep quiet about the challenge we were facing. Psalm 32:3-4 warns us about keeping our secrets inside. I have been shocked at the number of people who say they are also facing the same challenge (colleagues at work, our HR service provider, and family friends). We started to experience and learn about how our secrets keep us sick and how important it was to openly share our family’s state before it was discovered.

Phoning my four brothers, who live in different parts of the world, to explain what had happened wasn’t easy. Once again, we discovered that even my own brothers were dealing with or had dealt with similar challenges which we were vaguely aware of, but the families withheld the details.

If you didn’t CAUSE it, you can’t FIX it!

The HEAL family support was valuable for our recovery. In the beginning, it seemed like a possible outcome was many years of praying and hoping for our child to recover. Even the word “recover” is tricky. Addicts should never consider that they have recovered and need to recognise their weakness daily and ask for help to stay on the path of recovery.

We learnt several critical lessons:

  • We did not create or cause it, could not control it, nor could we fix it.
  • Being family did not exclude us from the manipulation the addict would resort to, to get the next high.
  • There was nothing that the addict would not do when facing the need.

These lessons were difficult. The more we listened, the more we recognised how successful addicts are at getting resources to fulfil their needs. It seemed like over the years we had fallen for every trick in the book. The understanding that helped me the most was that the need that addicts face is intense and gets stronger every day until the next binge.

We experienced many different emotions during this period. Of course, I tried to find a solution with each learning and emotion. On several occasions, the person leading the family support group advised us to focus on our own recovery. The rehabilitation centre would care of Mark.

Our family has a lot to recover from, and we are still on the journey. Our three other kids (Andy, Monica and Debbie) are all at different stages. We started recognising incidents in the past that had not been fully dealt with, affecting how we react to the current and future situations.

Several incidents that happened in our lives, not all bad but certainly demanding:

  • a traumatic brain injury,
  • prostate cancer,
  • addiction,
  • extreme verbal abuse,
  • pandemic lock-down, and
  • a cross-cultural wedding.

These incidents required us to focus on one child and leave the others to fend for themselves during those incidents. This fending for yourself approach has introduced several misunderstandings and traumatic responses later on.

One of the girls is still battling to manage the collateral damage and at the same time, manage the start of a new and demanding career. She took on the role of protector from an early age and feels comfortable when all the ducks are in a row. This was very helpful when we travelled to the UK and the USA, especially when navigating the tube, train stations and airports. Unfortunately, keeping all the ducks in a row when kids transform into adults is an impossible task. It is now time for us to depend on God as our sphere of influence diminishes.

The One-year Rehabilitation journey interrupted by COVID-19

During our recovery journey, Mark was indeed getting on with his own.

The first six months was the radio-silence period required by the rehabilitation centre, and not hearing from Mark at all was concerning. Trying to get an understanding of how the recovery was going was not possible. After the initial period, we could talk on the phone once a week, and we started to get an understanding of the transformation. The most significant relief for me was when he informed us, after a hike in the Drakensburg mountains, that he believed in Jesus after many years of walking alone. He tried to find every avenue to deny his existence and influence on his life, but Mark found him again after all this time. This recognition gave me peace and hope of a long-lasting recovery.

Typically, parents would be able to visit after addicts had reached a particular stage of recovery. The rehabilitation centre only allowed the visit after they had determined the root cause of the addiction and that the visit wouldn’t be dangerous for Mark. This visit was interrupted by the lockdown, and we had to wait for the lockdown to be lifted. During this time, we could only communicate with Mark over the phone. I must admit that I battled with these as it wasn’t the appropriate time or interaction medium to understand the real situation and state his life was in, and I was desperate to find out.

In September, we could finally visit nine months later! Getting the fresh start and insight that God gives us when we are (locked) down is very refreshing (Psalm 145:18)

The long drive to Hoedspruit certainly gives one time to think. Probably too much time as I started to worry about the other possibilities that we had discovered from our support group.

Letter writing helps me to listen to the complete message

We spent time with the Jahara councillor before being allowed to take Mark back to the B&B. The session was very enlightening, and we started to get more in-depth feedback. I learnt about the breakdown of my relationship with Mark, which started several years back when I had to institute some boundaries as the wheels were falling off. The damage caused back then was a lot more than I realised, and the recommendation was that we start writing letters once a week. The letter writing was an excellent idea as it allows communication without interruption. This was probably the best method of communication for our relationship at this time. It forced me to read the entire letter before responding. Only now, after understanding the concept of the right to speak I can see how harmful interrupted communication can be. I explain this a bit later.

Too much to lose

On our walk to the car, before leaving the rehabilitation centre, I told Mark about the new set of non-alcoholic drinks (Savanna and Bavaria) that we started drinking during the lockdown. His response shocked and encouraged me at the same time, “I have too much to lose” and would not entertain something that may lead back to times of active addiction. Veronica and I started to realise how important the initial period after primary care was. The idea of going to a half-way house after the rehabilitation centre made a lot more sense. The 12-step recovery process has so many protection mechanisms built-in, and you only start to understand them as you progress through the steps. Having faith in the process and transformation is essential. Challenging it or wanting to complete it before the appropriate time is dangerous. One of Mark’s comments was that going through the 12 steps the second time round for those who have failed is even more challenging and not something he would like to entertain.

As a sponsor, I quickly realised the fight that addicts will face for the rest of their lives and certainly in the next five years. To win the fight, everything becomes black and white, there are no shades of grey. The slightest possibility of losing what they have won must be rejected, including proximity. During the first visit, we realised that all triggers had to be avoided entirely with no half-measures. Even non-alcoholic beers are out of the question.

Triggers: People, Places, and Things

Post-physical addiction starts with mental warfare; the battle to not be reminded of the situations that led to substance abuse. We were shocked at the smallest of things which would trigger the thoughts. After listening to recovering addicts, we started to understand the magnitude of the battle: the sounds of lighters, the sight of teaspoons, the genre of music, the list is endless. It sounds impossible to avoid and prevent relapse. Therefore, the 21-day rehabilitation period can only deal with the physical addiction. Addicts have to learn how to recognise flawed thinking, emotions, and decision-making that has plagued them for most of their lives.

The AA 12-step process is straightforward. It needs to be that way for complicated people that have not dealt with complications in their lives correctly. These complications have to be tackled, and the addicts need to discover the flaws in their thinking. The issues can no longer be avoided and need to be resolved.

In talking to Mark about all the issues and teachings he was dealing with, I started to see the value we have derived from addiction. The primary value will always be the restoration of his relationship with Jesus. Still, the secondary values are compelling and beneficial to all of us. It is the shades of grey that confuse us and introduce complications.

One year later

One year later, Mark has completed his primary care and can progress to secondary care. At the end of our week holiday with him, he will enter a half-way centre and begin the next phase of his recovery. He can now refer to himself as a “recovering addict.”

Beautiful view near Jahara Rehab centre

The journey back to Hoedspruit brought back lots of memories and questions. Fortunately for my family and me, we have spent much time talking to Mark about the challenges he faced and the corresponding behaviours he exhibited.

There were several surprises for me. The first surprise was what Mark refers to as the “loss of the right to speak.”

Losing the Right to Speak

Part of the reason for the forlorn journey to Hoedspruit the first time was the shame Mark felt, but the most significant reason was that he felt that he lost the right to speak. When the communication stops, the real problem gets harder and harder to understand and resolve.

After episodes of his drug abuse, I would confront him, but I was unwilling to discuss the pros and cons of his world view and behaviour. Basically, from my perspective, he was out of control and had to correct the flawed thinking. The challenge I didn’t realise at the time was how could it be corrected if he didn’t believe he had the right to speak about it?

I must admit that it didn’t take me a long time (Veronica even less) to realise that this issue was something that I was not equipped to deal with. I remember having a discussion with Mark before he entered rehabilitation. Shortly after an episode, he said that the only solution to this addiction was a higher power that cared for him and wanted to set him free. As a family, we had no clue how to solve this challenge.

In Conclusion

I personally have learnt a lot from this addiction disease and would not wish it on my worst enemy. All the lessons about addiction forced me to face areas in my life that were clouded by “complicated thinking”.

Keep your faith and thinking as simple as possible. (1 Timothy 4:7 — by simple faith and truth). I am grateful to Mark that we have recognised the ambiguities in our lives and the necessity to immediately deal with them. Firstly, for Mark and then for our family. The shame has been transformed to pride, respect and gratitude to God.

I would like to express how proud I am of what Mark has achieved and his willingness to take on the battle that faces him for the rest of his life.

Mark, we love you and respect the commitment you have to your life journey.

To my family, our adversities have brought us closer together. Thank you for not running away but always been there to be part of the solution.

We have experienced several challenges in the last few years, showing us how important family is and what we can achieve together (James 2:18).

Written by Howard Diesel

I am a friend of Paul & Ronel. I am married to Veronica (32 years) and have already had a fantastic life with her. We work together, believe in Jesus together and have the most amazing family together. I have four brothers (spread across the world and miss them very much) and four (my lucky number) wonderful kids, Andrew married to Mbali, Monica married to ABInBev, Debbie married to Cape Town, and Mark, a recovering addict. Our life has always been overflowing, from the time we met, spending every weekend attending the local South African Music scene and loving every band we could find. Up until today, where our kids stretch us, a lot further than we ever imagined. I have spent 25 years in the Data Management field, where I met Paul, and will hopefully work with data until I go home. Veronica is a best teacher that I know, I needed her during my not so stellar school career. I often relate how bad my school marks where when I got G for German, E for English and D for Dutch. Maths, Science and Accounting got me through. Every year, except during lockdown, we run away from our amazing kids and spend 10 days riding motorbikes in the USA, Canada and/or Europe. The only time I stop thinking about Data is when I get on the bike and I can enjoy a non-data holiday with my brother Stuart, another special person in our lives.

This article has 9 comments

  1. Avatar
    Marietjie Reply

    Dankie Paul. Dis ‘n wêreld wat ek nie ken nie, baie insiggewend. Ek gaan dit stuur aan mense in dieselfde posisie. Hiermee vra ek dan ook asb gebed vir hierdie gesin. Dankie xx

    • Howard Diesel
      Howard Diesel Reply

      Thank you Marietjie, appreciate our prayers.
      Yes, we knew nothing about this world until the beginning of 2020 – what a year of learning!

  2. Avatar
    JG Reply

    Howard thank you for sharing so frankly so that we my be able to learn from your experience and attempt to recognise the signs you have described early. Paul thank you for providing the channel where real stories of God’s restorative power can be shared and reflected on. It is a privilege to be able to call you both brothers in Christ.

    • Howard Diesel
      Howard Diesel Reply

      Thanks, JG!
      This is certainly an aspect of parenting that wasn’t common in our day and dealing with the challenges our kids face is next level to what we had.

  3. Avatar
    Antoinette Reply

    Fascinating read! Thank you for sharing Howard. May God continue to protect your family and use you for His glory

    • Avatar
      Dee Stewart Reply

      Prayers for continued restoration of Mark’s healing and sobriety. 🙏 The whole family is affected – may each member grow stronger in their journey.

  4. Avatar
    Tanya Kratz Reply

    Howard and Veronica,
    Thanks for sharing your story. People will be comforted to know they are not alone in their struggle.
    Erwin and I wish Mark continued strength. May he walk his walk with Jesus and stay healthy, happy and whole. Love to you both.

    • Howard Diesel
      Howard Diesel Reply

      Thanks Tanya and Erwin! We appreciate your support and the wonderful times on the bikes

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