Fiona, you were born in Ireland. What brought you to South Africa?
Wow, a long story, let me tell you the short story. I have been drinking since the word go and then drugs came into my life in my early twenties, this is a progressive disease, and I ended up at rock bottom. Rehab in England is very expensive, I was given the opportunity to come to South Africa for rehab. I packed my little bag for 28 days, that’s all I expected to be here for, but I never left.
What kept you here?
What is not to love? I can’t remember when exactly I decided I wanted to make it home. After rehab, I went into a sober living house and then just took it day-by-day, month-by-month. It was a clean slate for me, I started to get some sober friends. There were no triggers here. I then settled into living here and five and a half years later I am still here.
The movie Calendar Girls was the motivation behind the Naked Calendar.
Yes, I can’t even remember how I came up with the idea. I was getting into boudoir photography, taking some nice pictures of my friends for their husbands, making them look all nice and sexy. There was a group of us talking and I wanted to do an exhibition of some sort and someone suggested the calendar. It snowballed from there, it just clicked. I was really surprised how many people were keen to model. Not only were they breaking their anonymity coming forward, because there has been a bit of press, but getting naked and baring all, I think it is incredibly brave. So people jumped at the chance to be involved, there is a lot of stigma and shame around addiction and recovery. Most people understood that what I wanted to do, which was to push through that, break down those walls. People understand that and want to get on that bandwagon, feeling they have nothing to hide and so much to be proud of.
Myths surrounding addiction?
Before coming into recovery, apart from the fact that I was in denial that I was an alcoholic, I knew that I had a bit of a drug problem, so I didn’t think I had to put it down for life which is what I have had to do.
Probably that we are a miserable lot, sitting around darkened rooms, moaning, craving and relapsing. When the opposite is true, the majority of my friends are in recovery, when we meet we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Yes, of course, there is a very dark and life-threatening side to this but one day at a time. I work a program, I am living a life I never thought possible. I thought I was doomed, I thought I was going to die that way. What this has taught me is that people can and do change.
Your addiction and your process of getting clean?
I first got drunk when I was 16, I gave myself alcohol poisoning – I have never had an off switch. One drink is too many and a thousand is never enough for me.
There are many theories about addiction, whether it is genetic, I think it is a bit of nature and nature. There is a very interesting Ted talk by an English professor, who said that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety it is connectivity.
I felt lonely my entire life, I was homeschooled. I found it very difficult to adjust to going to a normal school. I didn’t feel a connection with other kids. When I discovered alcohol I suddenly came out of my shell. I felt “connected” even though it wasn’t a natural connection. I am also a love addict, what’s called a process addiction, which is obsessive-compulsive patterns. It doesn’t have to be a substance to be an addiction. So I have been craving love and attention all my life, had back-to-back of disastrous boyfriends, abusive and toxic relationships – all of them were addicts.
Being sober wasn’t an option, being single wasn’t an option. It is a progressive disease it got worse and worse and worse. Where it started with partying it slowly progressed to not leaving the house, paranoia and depression… deep depression. I couldn’t hold down a job. Towards the end I didn’t leave the house, the curtains were closed, I was on the verge of bankruptcy. It was a miserable existence and I didn’t and couldn’t see a way out of it. My mother rescued me from my then boyfriend about 6 years ago, I was on my way out. After an assessment, my mother was told that I wouldn’t survive 6 months. I don’t doubt that I was overdosing all the time – I was mixing a cocktail of prescription, street drugs and alcohol.
Your process of getting clean?
It wasn’t easy, as I said I arrived here thinking I was going to be here for 28 days. After the first 28 days of treatment, I was still an absolute wreck, I needed more time. So I ended up doing 5 months in treatment here in total and I relapsed.
I was planning my relapse, I was not prepared to put down the red wine. If someone had told me before treatment that I was going to have to put down everything for the rest of my life, there was no way I would have come. I would have been dead by now, so just as well that ignorance was bliss.
I relapsed on red wine and then spent 4 miserable months realizing I had to put it down because it led to drugs, blackouts, waking up in stranger’s houses. I knew where this was going. I had a really rude awaking after 4 months of this, getting slowly more and more out of control. I got home, I don’t remember how I got home, I bolted right up in bed and I knew I was fucked and that I needed help, I couldn’t do it on my own. I then booked myself back into rehab. This time around I surrendered, I said I would do anything they wanted me to do. This was working around a 12-step program, which meant meeting with sponsors and working the step. Since I surrendered to that it took a couple of months of being in treatment for the cravings to lift. There are all sorts of research to where the cravings come from. “Pleasure Unwoven” is really worth watching if you want a deeper understanding.
When I talk about craving I mean that if I didn’t have a drink or a drug at that moment, I was going to die, I mean that is how it feels. After a couple of months of working the program, the obsession to drink and use was lifted. Four and a half years later and I haven’t craved, and that it is just a miracle. I mean towards the end I had to take a hit every two hours because I was going through withdrawal, the thought of getting through a day just wasn’t an option. I am going to be 5 years sober in September.
Congratulations! Let’s talk about identifying a problem, where is the line between having a drink or three and having a problem?
I don’t know, I mean I have always drunk really, really heavily. I have always surrounded myself with other people who drink very heavily. Therefore for me, it didn’t seem to be a problem. I also went to art school, there was a lot of experimentation with drugs there. My group of friends all used and drank as I did.
I don’t know the answer to that because I do not understand people who can have one drink.
That is an answer, perhaps there lies a problem when someone is unable to say that they have had enough.
Yes, I would drink until it was all gone or until I would be passed out. Or I would find more or until physically I could not carry on after a 48-hour binge.
What would you suggest is the best course of action for friends or family of addicts to help them?
You would probably need to ask someone more qualified than myself?
From your own experience?
Yes of course, do you mean what would I tell families of addicts?
First port of call I would go to Al-Anon which is for friends and family of addicts. So you can meet with other people who have experience with their own family members. A lot of friends and family members are enablers, they will try and protect their loved one from reaching rock bottom and picking them up when they are down, sometimes it is more kind, in the long run, to let them hit rock bottom. That can carry on for years and years and years. It is only when addicts have experienced desperation that they then begin to find the help that they need. Al-Anon will help friends and family take a step back and draw boundaries and not enable them to carry on.
There are so many people who don’t understand addiction and wouldn’t know what that first step to help would be. Please explain addiction to someone who has never craved so much as a chocolate?
Is there such a person? For me, it was a few things. I always felt incredibly lonely from a young age, so I was craving connectedness. Also, I was looking to escape reality, I couldn’t deal with life on life’s terms. It is an incredibly complex question. Please repeat it.
Explain addiction to someone who has never experienced addiction in any shape or form. I was a smoker for ten years; I understand addiction in some shape or form from my own experience. When I was trying to quit there were many people who talk me to just stop, put it down and never pick it up again. They could never understand that there is nothing rational about addiction.
It is interesting what you said because it is not just… if you drink for years on end, alcohol you will get physically addicted. Heroin is highly addictive, even morphine, so you go for an operation and you are on a morphine drip for a while. Now not everyone will go looking for a high after that, they will go through withdrawal but they are not addicts and will not be looking for that high. Ten percent of the population have got these addictive tendencies, the minute they do a line or the minute they have a drink, they are not physically hooked…
Addiction is a disease; it is still a topic that sits behind a locked door and that is a problem.
When I first heard the disease model I was very sceptical I thought that that was a cop out which no longer makes us responsible for our actions. Again if you want to know more about addiction watch “Disease Unwoven” it goes into the disease model and how it came to be classed as a disease. It took a while to be classed as a disease. Alcoholics Anonymous has transformed the lives of millions of people. There are other methods of getting sober, I haven’t experience.
Why is there so much shame surrounding addiction, if someone breaks their leg they are not ashamed that their leg is broken, they look to fix it?
Going back to the disease model, I work a daily problem, I wake up in the morning and acknowledge that I am an addict and I go to meetings. It is a day at a time. If someone is diabetic or has a heart disease they will take daily medication. I take a daily dose of a 12-step program. It is lifelong, I am always going to be an addict and alcoholic in recovery, hopefully. People wonder why we don’t have the self-will to just stop. But it is not as simple as that. Sustained abuse of drink and drugs literally rewires your brain, to the point where you have no control over it. The great thing about the 12-step program which has been proven with brain mapping and scanning is that the brain can actually be rewired back to a healthy state where you are not going to get the constant craving and obsession. Which gives me goosebumps, in the past alcoholics and addicts, were locked up in looney bins. So the 12-step program, we have to be careful of the wording of this, it is not a cure it is a daily program.
Let’s talk about what you are trying to accomplish with Sober and Sexy?
Well, I am hoping based on the success of last year, to take it to the next level this year, to see it become an annual thing. Possibly joining forces and for it to go international at some stage. To make it a brand. I want to reach people who are not necessarily directly in recovery.
Is your focus on recovery as opposed to addiction?
Too much attention in the media is given to addictions and the horrors of addiction. Overseas you have celebs coming out and saying they are sober and you have sober bars popping up all over the place, the stigma isn’t quite as chronic as it is here. I want to shift the perspective of who these people are. We are all running or a part of successful businesses. Let us paint a positive picture of people in recovery. Employees who are thinking of employing someone who is in recovery and working a program, give them a go. I want to change peoples perspectives. Another motivation for me is that if people see the pictures and see the people that are in recovery you would never think that they are in recovery. There is help for addicts, you can walk off the streets, it’s free and there is hope.