Six months ago I was given six months to live,” said Cape Town resident Vaughan Pankhurst.
Mr Pankhurst is an alcoholic in recovery who now facilitates drug and alcohol addiction support online for Relapse Prevention. The website exclusively offers support services online for drug and alcohol addicts, their families, former addicts, and those recovering, free-of-charge.
Relapse Prevention offers assistance through online meetings, forums, and by suggesting possible routes of addiction recovery for site visitors.
Mr Pankhurst and his colleagues with backgrounds in Alcohol Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) facilitate a 12-step meeting programme at Relapse Prevention for those interested in a peer support group.
Through counselling and peer support, Relapse Prevention looks to recommend viable long-term treatment solutions to those suffering from addiction-related problems.
However, before Mr Pankhurst was able to offer such counselling to others, he struggled with his own alcohol addiction, to the point of drinking a litre of whiskey a day.
Mr Pankhurst’s alcohol addiction began as a child living in Johannesburg.
Opening up about coming from a dysfunctional family, Mr Pankhurst said he started drinking at the age of 13. “That was a way for me to soothe the pain,” Mr Pankhurst said.
The director of the Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre (CTDCC), Ashley Potts, said one in five young people are exposed to drugs and that about 45 percent of all abusers are between the ages of 12 and 25.
As a child, Mr Pankhurst endured what he said was “endless bullying” and being beaten-up every day on the way home from school. Through this pain and the dysfunctions of living with an alcoholic family, he drank.
In the beginning, he did not drink alcohol every day, but Mr Pankhurst said, “I drink to get drunk” and that had always been the case.
“I lost my company, my house, my relationship, my car,” said Mr Pankhurst, explaining the low point in his struggle with his own addiction.
And in an ultimate scare, he was given six months to live after receiving blood test results stating that his liver was in a terminal state.
“I was terrified of going back to where I was,” said Mr Pankhurst.
It was at this point in his life that Mr Pankhurst was determined to get better and recover from his alcohol addiction. However, it is his family, especially his step-father whom he attributes his recovery to.
Mr Pankhurst said his addiction is not a struggle anymore.
“I know how much better my life is,” he said.
Mr Pankhurst has been a counsellor since his early 20s. He began as a crisis counsellor for a radio station that would take calls through a help line. He later would go on to provide suicide counselling.
“I’ve always had an interest in counselling… I’ve realised how many people need help,” he said, adding that he has the opportunity to make a difference.
Mr Potts said that, “A lot of people get into drugs because of unemployment, joblessness, lack of recreation activity, and pure pleasure.”
He added that there was a lack of education around drug and alcohol use and a lack of knowledge of the impact of abuse. “This is a growing concern,” he said.
About two years ago, a man by the name of Doug- whose surname Mr Pankhurst is required to keep confidential – founded Relapse Prevention. And in March of this year, Mr Pankhurst, with the support of Doug, started taking over the website.
Asked whether he felt it was effective, he said: “Definitely it is working. Absolutely.”
With 13 success stories that he knows of, Mr Pankhurst said the website gets about 600 hits a week.
However, he said, this is not enough and they would like to see many more people coming onboard, because the website services the whole of South Africa.
In addition to Cape Town, Relapse Prevention looks to service places such as Durban and Johannesburg and all areas in between.
Since all of the services are online and can be reached through smartphone, tablet, or computer, the location of the visitor is not important. Mr Pankhurst said people do not have to worry about making it to a meeting location, because they are all online. Guests only need a good internet connection and a device that allows them to access the website.
Mr Pankhurst said addiction recovery service can be expensive and that many of the government rehabilitation facilities are not functioning well because they are underfunded.
“If they can afford to go to a private rehab, then it is recommended,” because of its better service, he said.
Mr Pankhurst said: “Medical aid is the exclusive reserve for the employed,” and that formal rehabilitation service is “way out of the reach for most people.”
Therefore, Mr Pankhurst explained, the Relapse Prevention website was created in a way to give back to the community.
The website has 1 000 pages of content altogether, with articles on how relapse occurs, and a questionnaire of 20 questions which help site visitors determine if they have an alcoholic-related problem.
In the event that someone takes the questionnaire and the results suggest they are an alcoholic, a form will pop up to inform them. Then the form with results will also be sent to Mr Pankhurst and he is able to look it over for recommendation.
The goal for Relapse Prevention is just that, to find the best plan for participants so that they do not relapse into their addictions.
Mr Pankhurst said he refers people to rehabs all over the country but advocates that not every recovery programme is best for everyone. They are all different.
In Mr Potts’ opinion, “outpatient (rehabilitation service) is the best option… For a user to survive they need to know how to cope with their environment.”
He explained that in-patient services, where the person struggling with addiction receives full-time and supervised rehabilitation, should only be recommended if the outpatient service is not successful. And it’s important that the addict take the first step.
“Ideally I would like the addict to call themselves,” said Mr Pankhurst. He said many of the calls he receives are from daughters, boyfriends, and sisters calling about another person who is struggling with addiction.
“Part of this disease is the shame that you are an addict or alcoholic… Nobody wants to be a drug addict or alcoholic when they are young.”
Mr Pankhurst assures that every call received regarding Relapse Prevention is confidential and that they do not share information with anyone else.
In reference to those going through substance abuse and addiction, Mr Potts said: “Life is not over, there is hope. They need to remove the shame… They are not bad people. They have an illness, a problem. “Don’t give up on yourself,” said Mr Potts.
For more information on Relapse Prevention, visit www.relapseprevention.co.za
Relapse Prevention deals with all areas of addiction including, but not limited to, sex, gambling, shopping, overeating and anorexia.
Mr Pankhurst said those wishing to participate in the online group meetings, will need to register on the website, for free. However, for those not wanting to register, there is an online forum that they may post on.
* Elliot James is a student at Mercer University in the USA, who completed a two-month internship at Cape Community Newspapers, which publishes the Southern Mail.