Been there, done that

2008-10-27 00:00

“Drug use and drug addiction are dramatically underestimated,” says Conrad Cooper, founder and director of the South Coast Recovery Centre (SCRC) in Margate, who will be speaking at ToughLove’s public meeting at The Wykeham Collegiate on Thursday. “It’s a huge problem in schools and with the youth, and it’s not taken as seriously as it should be. There’s tolerance for drug use and alcohol at parties. It’s become socially acceptable.

“In KwaZulu-Natal 40% of children in Grade 10 and upwards have tried dope,” says Cooper. “And 60% know where to score.”

In South Africa today it is estimated that 800 000 people are in need of treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. “Their lives have become unmanageable and they are powerless.”

The SCRC is regarded as one of the country’s leading drug treatment centres and it was born out of experience. “I’m in recovery myself,” says the Hilton College educated Cooper.

Cooper’s addictive behaviour began as a teenager. “I was getting drunk at every opportunity from 15 onwards,” he says. “Then I tried dope. In the military I was exposed to a lot of drugs.” After military service, Cooper had a successful career in the motor industry becoming national sales director for a well-known marque. “But my drug use damaged my relationships and later I got involved with cocaine and crack. Eventually I lost everything and I was desperate for recovery.”

At what point did Cooper realise he had to try to turn his life around? “There were a couple of defining moments. Firstly, when I was no longer in a position to say ‘no’, irrespective of the circumstances or the consequences.

“And, secondly, there were issues of self-esteem. I realised I had become shifty eyed, that I was unable to look people in the eye. I was no longer trustworthy, my integrity had gone and I was turning to alternative methods for financing drugs. Drug taking is often a step into crime to get money to buy drugs, to score.

“Then one day I just said ‘please, I need help’. I checked into treatment the same day.”

Cooper says it’s important to move quickly when an addict asks for help. “You must seize the moment when that cry for help comes. Two days later the person might be feeling stronger and say no. Relatives must check all the treatment options and be ready to move when the call comes.”

Cooper had bad experiences at two different treatment facilities. “I relapsed an hour-and-a-half after getting out,” he recalls. Determined to beat addiction, he researched various treatment approaches and decided his rehabilitation had not been handled correctly. Around this time he met his wife Jean — “we were both desperate for recovery” — and they both went to a small rehab unit at Hogsback in the Eastern Cape. “We were there for eight months and found that it worked for us.”

While undergoing treatment they had the idea of starting their own recovery centre, motivated by their own experiences and the prevailing poor recovery rate from addiction. “The World Health Organisation statistics for recovery are dismally low,” says Cooper. “There is a two percent recovery rate for heroin, six percent for crack and eight percent for cocaine. We wanted to turn that recovery rate around.”

The South Coast Recovery Centre (SCRC) began operation in February 2001. “A year and two months into our recovery, we rented a house in Margate,” says Cooper. “I got a loan for R20 000 which paid for our first month’s rent and food. Now we are on a nine-hectare property.”

From an initial staff of three the SCRC now employs a staff of 36 care-givers who include 12 counselling staff, all professionals registered in their respective fields such as social work, psychology, psychiatric nursing and addiction counselling.

A number of the counselling staff are also in recovery. “This mix helps break the ice with people entering the centre,” says Cooper. “The in-recovery counsellors have been there, done that. They talk from experience and can be mentors to others. The shared experience enables them to gain the trust of those who come here for help.”

The SCRC consists of a primary care unit currently housing 65 people and a halfway house catering for 20. “We don’t take anyone under 18 and the oldest we’ve had was 72,” says Cooper. “There’s a spread of ages and the average age is 23. Gender breaks down to 40% female and 60% male.”

The centre uses the international Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) 12-step programmes which incorporate a spiritual approach and SCRC describes itself as a Christian organisation. “I became a Christian during the recovery process,” says Cooper. “It’s an inseparable part of the recovery process.”

The main treatment programme at SCRC lasts five months. “Short-term treatments don’t work,” says Cooper. “You can’t be here for fewer than five months, if you are it’s a waste of time and money. The average length of stay is six to seven months.”

Cooper and his wife continue to study and research various treatments and recovery programmes. “As a result we are pretty well cutting edge with programmes designed specifically for heroin, cocaine, alcohol and sex addiction.”

Heroin addiction is dramatically on the increase, says Cooper. “At the centre, 15% are seeking treatment for heroin addiction, 15% for crack, 15% cocaine, Cat and amphetamines, 20% alcohol ... and generally there’s a mixture.”

Asked about the centre’s success rate Cooper says it is difficult to pin down. “Success for us is someone who has been integrated back into society and our feedback suggests it’s approximately 78%.”

Cooper says the availability of drugs in South Africa is a tidal wave compared with 25 years ago. “Post-apartheid, the gates opened and the drugs flooded in.

“The increase in addiction is really, really scary,” says Cooper. “Community and schools really need to take a definite stand. Schools are now allowed to do random drug tests. That’s a safety precaution for children. You have the right to a drug-free school and the right to a drug-free home. Just as you have the right to be protected from polio or HIV. There should be zero tolerance.”

• Check the website for South Coast Recovery Centre:

• Conrad Cooper, founder and director of the South Coast Recovery Centre in Margate, will be speaking at ToughLove’s public meeting at The Wykeham Collegiate on October 30 at 6 pm. If you wish to attend contact Cedric Parker at 083 278 8889 or Vera Gradinksi at 083 228 7217.

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