Updated 13 March 2015

How addiction triggered my schizophrenia

South African, James, has endured a long battle with schizophrenia and even spent time in prison as a result of his 15 year addiction to heroin. This is his story.


My name is James and I am a recovering drug addict. I am also a paranoid schizophrenic. I am writing this as it is therapeutic for me to do so – and my experience with schizophrenia may help other people who suffer from the same disease.

When I was younger, my mother always wanted the best for me. She supported me in all my hobbies before the drugs crept in. I was a heroin addict for fifteen years and I lived with a drug dealer for months at a time. My mother often used to take a trip to the mortuary to see if I was in one of the fridges because she never knew where I was. This now hurts me, having finally realised what pain I caused her.

My drug years were pure hell, especially being addicted to opiates. One needs them every day to escape the "cold turkey" of withdrawal. The drugs destroyed my body, and especially my teeth. I first went into rehab at the age of fifteen. Unfortunately there I learnt about pharmaceutical drugs, which became a second drug addiction, and was also pure hell. I started to mix them together, and ended up being "on another planet" most of the time.

Drugs put you in the "gutter" faster than any other destructive force. Do not touch drugs – you will lose everything. I lost fifteen years of my life that I will never get back. On the positive side, I gave up drugs completely and have now been clean and sober for a number of years. To help me and keep me on the straight and narrow, I attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings and follow their twelve step programme. I would rather go back to jail than take drugs again.

Read: Mentally ill more sensitive to narcotics

I don't want to make excuses, but the drugs stopped my mood swings. I think I started out as bipolar. My moods would fluctuate up and down. When I was up, I would feel on top of the world. I felt confident and driven to achieve, but when I was down I felt lost and depressed. I also started having hallucinations. I had a full blown psychotic episode in Matric. The principal recognised this and sent me to a psychologist, and she sent me straight to a psychiatrist. The doctor diagnosed me as paranoid schizophrenic and put me on medication which took away the nastiness. I was depressed, but that was better than wanting to lash out at the world.

I finished my matric and enrolled at university to study for a degree in Education. When I started, my medication was preventing the psychosis. I then unfortunately did the worst thing a schizophrenic can do, which is smoke dagga. I did this for a few months and my marks dropped. I realised how stupid I was and told my mother who organised for me to go to SANCA. I finished the 28 day programme. I carried on with my studies, and during that time my mother and I moved to Elsburg.

Unfortunately we moved into a flat a couple of houses away from a drug dealer. He approached me, probably because he could "read" me, and gave me some heroin. I was not strong enough to say no and started smoking heroin again.

Read: Mental illness in South Africa

From drugs to prison

This interfered with my meds and unfortunately I again became psychotic. Not to make an excuse, but the heroin took away my psychosis until I needed the next fix. The situation spiralled out of control. I had a full blown psychotic episode over one weekend and landed up sending terrible SMSs to a fellow student.

I also abused my mother emotionally and financially. She then obtained a restraining order against me, which I broke. I was picked up by the police and put into jail, awaiting trial, a period of four months. I was really in a bad way – psychotic, paranoid and hallucinating. Even with my eyes closed I could see snakes, spiders and demons. Jail was awful. Those four months were my turning point.

My mother collected my meds from the Germiston Clinic. She went to see the nurse in charge and instructed her to give me my meds every morning. The nurse did this religiously with the result that I came out of prison in a stable condition. Prison was good for me as the drugs stopped and I was stabilised. It was a blessing in disguise. In jail there are no drugs without money. My mother never gave me any money so I was forced to go "cold turkey".

Read: Depression behind SA bars

The journey of recovery

I had to face the mess I made at University. Luckily for me, I had assistance from SABDA and the SA Federation for Mental Health when I applied to re-register. I had people form both organisations accompany me, which was a very good thing when had to face the University's lawyers, which, believe me, was scary.

I was excluded from university for 3 years and also sentenced to 3 years house arrest. I did community service for 2 years at a quadriplegic home. Staying at home was boring and soul destroying. At least I could go and work at the home helping the quads". I washed windows, lit cigarettes, applied sun cream and a lot of other things. I learned a lot from them and enjoyed it.

I had some wonderful people helping me from both SABDA and SAFMH, as I mentioned. My mother also stood by me, which also helped a lot. Society needs to help people with mental illnesses to get on their feet. I am very proud of where I am today – I went back to school at the age of 25 and finished my degree at the age of 34.

I would like to say that on the correct medication and with the right support, a person can lead a normal life. So, be proud of the person you have become and achieve your goals. Go for it and don't let anyone put you down!

I hope my story will inspire you to live a good, clean and sober life.

Sharing stories of those with schizophrenia

Throughout the month of March the South African Federation for Mental Health will be sharing the life stories of people living with schizophrenia on our Facebook page.

Each of these stories has been submitted to us by people living with schizophrenia, written in their own words.

We hope that sharing these stories will raise awareness of what life with a serious mental illness is like, and help to fight the stigmas surrounding mental illness in South Africa.

Note: James is a fictitious name to protect the real identity of the writer.

Read more:

Dagga linked to schizophrenia

OCD sufferers at greater risk of schizophrenia

Alternative to antipsychotics for schizophrenics

Image: Young ill man with schizophrenia from Shutterstock


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Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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