To hell and back

2013-06-26 00:00

WHEN I meet James Siddall to talk about his new book, he has his small dog with him. In some stories that detail could be cute, even slightly corny, but not this one. Siddall, one-time golden boy of SA journalism, winner of over half a dozen writing awards and two Comrades bronzes, was once voted one of the country’s most eligible bachelors by Cosmopolitan. Just over a decade later, cooked from alcohol and drug abuse, he was sent by court order to rehab. His book Dystopia, being launched tonight in Durban, is a puke-and-all account of that fall. Since his dogs were a big part of his recovery, it seems only fitting that rescue dog Milo, who has been through some of his darkest moments, should be at the interview.

Is Siddall apprehensive about how his book will be received?

“I long ago stopped worrying about people’s opinions of me,” he replies. “What you read in the book is much less embarrassing than what actually happened — people seeing me bundled into the back of a police van or lying in vomit.”

He describes his book as “just another addict’s story, not especially shocking or unique”, adding that “civilians”, as he calls non-addicts, are fascinated by addiction, although when faced by its active form they tend to be horrified — which is one reason why his book should sell.

Apart from providing safe access to his gruesome story, it’s made all the more readable by the rock-and-roll life he led as a magazine journalist, a life of expensive cars, travel, women and lots of free booze. It was a life that represented the socially acceptable side of alcohol abuse, and outrageous behaviour went with the job.

“The more outrageous my writing, the more alcohol-fuelled and irresponsible my behaviour, the more I was lauded,” he writes in Dystopia of what he describes as the highest point of his trajectory. It was 1995 and he was working at Scope. But things were changing, both in the magazine industry and the progress of his alcoholism.

Within two years, he’d left Scope for Playboy, where he enjoyed a short heady time as deputy editor. Both publications subsequently folded and Siddall moved back to Durban. He’d started having blackouts and was staying at home to drink alone. The drinking was still “light-hearted”, he writes, but it was “rapidly gaining impetus, and the consequences were mounting”.

“It’s astonishing how quickly life can dissolve around you,” he wrote in an article about his alcoholism in the Sunday Independent in 2011. The years between 1997 and 2009 were a long struggle for sobriety. Apart from alcohol, he also began abusing benzodiazepines — Valium and its relatives. While he tried many routes including AA, voluntary rehab, hospitalisation, religion and an Antabuse implant, his own capacity for denial and rationalisation, common to all addicts, sabotaged most of these attempts. He was hospitalised over 20 times, mostly in psychiatric wards.

One striking aspect of Siddall’s story is the number of times people helped him along the way, from friends and neighbours to prostitutes and taxi drivers, who didn’t even know him. One such rescuer was Joey du Plessis, a woman who had started Careline Crisis Centre in Hillcrest. Siddall, who describes her as ruling “with an iron rod, tempered with great and forgiving love”, was eventually admitted into her care after being thrown into a lockdown psychiatric ward in a government hospital, following an aborted suicide attempt. It was December 23, 2009, the day he stopped drinking. He was sentenced by court order to spend two years at Careline.

He had hit his rock bottom, but even then he needed help freeing himself. Asked if it has to be that way — that to break the cycle of addiction one needs to “taste the gutter”, to use recovery lingo, he says it’s all relative.

“Some people might be drinking a dozen beers at home — that’s their rock bottom.”

He points out that there’s a difference between substance abuse and substance dependence.

“With substance abuse you can pull yourself out, but once you cross over into substance dependence, the consequences are seldom a deterrent. Then it’s not possible to pull yourself out of the cycle by yourself.

“Denial is a massive part of addiction. It’s hard for relatives. They need to try to get the person to acknowledge that he or she has a problem.”

What’s important is to recognise that alcoholism is a disease, and it’s not a matter of making a choice or just pulling yourself together.

Siddall says new studies point to genetics having a 60% weighting in determining whether you will succumb to the bottle. Childhood trauma accounts for 20%. His story checks both these boxes.

“I hate to play the dog-eared, product-of-my-past, get-out-of-jail-free pity card,” he writes in his book. “Yet like one of Jay Gatsby’s boats, I’m often ‘borne ceaselessly into the past’.”

In Dystopia, his writing mostly flows at a furious pace so that sometimes it feels like a tsunami of self-harm. Wry humour makes it bearable, but there is also an undertow of sadness. Alcoholism, he notes at one stage, is called The Lonely Disease. He writes about the darkness descending and is matter of fact about his inability to sustain a romantic relationship. His great affinity for dogs and their unconditional love then is not surprising.

His hounds — he also has another rescue dog called Daisy — go everywhere with him and his daily walks with them are very therapeutic.

Religion is another source of comfort. Siddall goes once a week to a charismatic church called City Hill in Hillcrest and belongs to a home group. He says he tries to follow Christianity, although he is a bad Christian because he questions.

“I don’t accept that Christianity is infallible,” he says.

Another step towards normality is the conscious pursuit of health. While he still smokes and says he won’t go back to running because of his bad knees, he swims threes times a week.

“My health is fully recovered, but whether I’ll pay the price for what I did in the medium to long term, I don’t know.”

Writing this book has been cathartic. “I hope it will matter to some people,” he says, adding that he plans to share his story as a motivational speaker, talking about addiction to corporates, schools and other organisations.

And acknowledgement came with the news last week that he’s a finalist in two categories for another writing competition promoting responsible drinking.

Awakening, he wrote two years ago, doesn’t come in one big epiphany, but in small incremental moments. So too, it seems, does peace.

• See

• Siddall will be appearing tonight in conversation with his publisher, Melinda Ferguson, at Exclusive Books, The Pavilion, Durban. Time: 5.30 pm for 6 pm.

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