Back to reality

2013-05-20 12:23

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Former model and Miss South Africa semi-finalist Vanessa Goosen spent 16 years in a Thai jail for drug smuggling. Now free and back in South Africa, she opens up about her painful flashbacks and anger.

Vanessa Goosen sits on a make-up chair, a picture of serenity with her bright smile and beautiful curly hair.

It’s hard to imagine this lovely, calm woman was locked up in a foreign prison with other convicted criminals.

‘I struggled when I came back,’ she readily admits. ‘It’s been two-and-a-half years, but there are still things I have to deal with. I was excited to come home, but I don’t think I knew how to fully prepare myself for the drastic changes I would face or how they would affect my family and me.’

The young mother says she’s not the naive 22-year-old who left South Africa all those years ago. ‘That took a while to accept,’ she says. ‘I was never going to be that girl ever again.’

She speaks softly, yet there is strength in her whispery tone and something quite deliberate about it.

‘In prison we spoke loudly and with authority. When I came out, I would often be asked why I was shouting, especially by my daughter.’

Vanessa admits to struggling with life in the modern world.

‘I came back to a world that was nothing like the one I’d left. I’ve had to learn about cellphones, the internet and just adapt to how people live now. There are things I can’t accept, like how materialistic people seem to be now and how kids aren’t respectful. I’m still very old-school like that and I want to keep it that way. I’m a bit of an outsider so  I spend a lot of time observing.’

Even though she survived her harrowing time in jail, Vanessa says she struggles to manage her anger. ‘I still have moments when I’m angry about what happened to me, angry at my ex-boyfriend, angry at the fact I feel my life was taken from me,’ she says. ‘I have coping mechanisms now, though, because I know what anger can do to you. It’s not worth holding onto.’

Vanessa made headlines in 1993 when she was arrested in a Thailand airport for having 2.7kg of heroin on her.

Twenty-two, pregnant and completely unaware that the ‘engineering textbooks’ she was taking to her boyfriend’s friend were filled with heroin, Vanessa’s life changed forever.

During her time in prison she gave birth to her daughter, Felicia, now 18, who was only allowed to live with her for three years.

She says she still doesn’t know why she was made a drug mule.

‘I wasn’t present enough nor aware enough to question things,’ she says.

‘I trusted people I shouldn’t have and that cost me a big part of my life. I was young and open – that’s the only mistake I really made and I paid dearly for it.’

Vanessa had to make many adjustments after leaving prison.

‘I have moments when I will be having a cup of soup on a cold rainy day and will suddenly get anxious and very emotional. I’m sometimes transported to my past by those things. I still vividly remember what it’s like to be outside in the rain and having to let my clothes dry on my body. Those triggers are painful. When I get to enjoy the luxury of a hot bath, I often think about the girls I left behind in prison. It’s those moments that have led to some setbacks since I’ve been home.’

Vanessa says she still hasn’t adapted to local weather; she has bouts of feeling cold. ‘My body gets cold from the inside and the only thing that rectifies it is a hot bath.’

In her recently released book, Drug Muled (R177, Jacana), Vanessa goes into detail about life in Lard Yao prison.

Severe overcrowding, language barriers, sharing one open toilet with numerous cellmates, coping with no hot water and having to work in factories on the property in order to buy food and toiletries, are just a few of the challenges she faced.

‘It took years for me to get used to that environment, but eventually you have to adapt because your survival depends on it. The scars are there long after you leave Lard Yao, though.’

Vanessa says she battled with severe depression for four years while she was locked up.

‘I had no real idea what depression was; I used to think someone having a “blue Monday” was depression. Being arrested obviously had a negative effect on me and I suffered many emotional blows during my time in Lard Yao, like having my child taken away. And when my appeal for clemency was denied for the second time, I lost all hope and stopped eating.’

‘I was on my deathbed when a woman came to pray for me and told me to stop being selfish. In that moment, I started to let go of my anger because it was part of the reason I was so ill,’ she says sadly.

Vanessa is still working on her relationship with her daughter, who is now in university. ‘We are a constant work in progress; I have to keep reminding myself that the three-year-old I once knew isn’t there any more. It’s been a difficult process but we still work at it.’

She adds that she feels a sense of purpose and relief now that her book is out. ‘For a long time I felt I was still stuck in my past because I needed and wanted to share my experience with the world. When

I couldn’t, it made me frustrated because I felt like my life couldn’t move forward.’

Optimistic and keen to start afresh, Vanessa offers talks to corporates and other organisations.

‘This is a big part of my calling because I want to save as many people as possible from having to live through what I experienced. I’m focusing on the future because I’ve already suffered enough in the past.’

‘When I get to enjoy the luxury of a hot bath, I often think about the girls I left behind in prison.’

SA drug mules

Nolubabalo Nobanda made news in 2012 when she was found with 1.4kg of cocaine in her dreadlocks in Thailand. She has been sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Brett Savage was arrested in Bali in 2011 after being caught with 3kg of crystal methamphetamine (tik). He has been given a life sentence.

Janice Linden was arrested in China in 2008 for having 3kg of crystal methamphetamine hydrochloride (‘ice’). She was executed by lethal injection in 2011.

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