Being institutionalised versus active addiction

For the first time in months, I accidentally used up all my mobile data, which means I’m writing this offline. Then I’ll save it on my USB drive, physically take it to work and publish it in the morning. It won’t make any difference to anyone reading this, but it still annoys me.

I haven’t written anything controversial for ages, and I think it’s about time… The topic of this short post is: To be institutionalised or to return to active addiction – which is better?

This is something I’d forgotten all about. Back when I first cleaned up, I went to a rehab in Hillcrest Natal, called Careline. I hated most of my time there, at least at first. I hated being in an institution, insulated from the real world, protected from myself by rules and boundaries, but treated like a child. At night I’d be a bored insomniac, pacing restlessly around the grounds, feeling like a caged tiger in a zoo.

The program there ran for about three months, but they also believed in long term rehabilitation for some people whose addiction had taken them to darker places than my own. Some people stayed there for two years. It was something I never agreed with. Residents, as they were called there, would move up through the “ranks”, and gain privileges and responsibilities, and get to enforce the rules and oversee the “duties” of other residents. And they enjoyed it. It made them happy; it fulfilled them and gave them a false sense of achievement, of belonging, of purpose and of power

I observed people who became a little too comfortable there, sealed off as it were from reality. Some of them became as dependant on that place as they used to be on their drugs. And therein lies the danger of staying in such a place too long: Institutionalisation.

There was one old man, whose name I forget, who always oversaw my nocturnal romps around the grounds. At night he was the unnecessary night watchman. He was my zookeeper in a way. In the day he pottered around in the garden. He was employed but unnecessary there, so at the end of the day he was simply tolerated. Looking at him filled me with a sense of dread, watching this pathetic old simpleton who could never go back to the real world, never have a life or family or any meaning at all. My greatest fear coming out of addiction was that my mind would be permanently affected by the drugs, that I’d be like him, forever a prisoner of my own past and my attachment to an institution, unable to leave or ever be a normal, functional member of society again.

I forgot all about him until earlier, when reading a Facebook post of a girl I met there, I learned that she is still living there, six years later. This girl, my friend, is not a simpleton like the old man. She’s young and she could make something of her life. She has problems, but she could get out of there and face those problems. Maybe screw up at first as I did… But even in my initial failure, I learned something about myself, about life. I grew, and continue growing intellectually, emotionally, (physically along the X axis – but that’s another story) and much has happened to me in the last few years. I have achieved so much in the last five years since I left that place. Staying there, one achieves nothing of significance, one does not move forward at all. One stagnates. To think of wasting away there rather than actually living life – what a dreadful prospect. So I believe that she could make something of her life, but she probably won’t, and that makes me sad.

And that is where my opinion is perhaps controversial… If I had only those two choices, either be trapped forever institutionalised in rehab, or return to active addiction until death, I’d choose the drugs without hesitation. If I had to live out a meaningless and wasted life, that is honestly the choice I’d make. This is also partially why I do not “work the 12 steps”. People who do so spend their lives focused on their addiction, even years after they stopped using drugs. It’s not the same as institutionalisation, but it’s close. I write about it, because I love writing and this is one topic of a few that I write about, but my life does not revolve around recovery. My life revolves around my son, my relationships, my work and my interests. Recovery happens by accident because I choose to be clean and sober.

Fortunately, I was never faced with such a grim fate, but I do pity those poor lost souls. And remember, if you choose to use drugs, one day you may end up like them.

6 thoughts on “Being institutionalised versus active addiction

    1. Blog not found. But I do see this one:

      Interesting latest post on bisexuality… Something I’ve never understood myself. One of my favourite musicians, Brian Molko, is bisexual. Yet I’ve always wondered how much of the bisexual nature is natural and how much of it comes from people who use a lot of drugs. Yet I feel I’m probably wrong. You sexual preferences are deeply wired into your brain, right? So they probably predate any effects or influence of drugs…

      Oh, now I see that is quite an old post, from 2013.


  1. I’m glad I found your blog. This one is particularly interesting to me because I work as a teacher of personal development in a correctional setting. Institutionalization is something that my students have a battle, along with their addiction and I think those that haven’t figured out how to live sober in the real world usually end up using again and perhaps ironically back to the cage of the institution that they so wish to be free of. I’m not sure that makes any sense…but thanks again for writing. It has given me a window into what my students (many of them are meth addicts) must be feeling without experiencing it first hand.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is something I haven’t really thought about much lately, to be honest. I wrote this post after realizing that someone I met in rehab back in 2010 was still living there in 2015. I think she is still there.

      But she is unusual. She’s lesbian so she has her battles fitting in this often homophobic world anyway, and looks odd… I mean, she has this large square face, and I think she might have some sort of mental disorder, I don’t know what exactly but she isn’t quite normal. She believes that it is healthy to eat sand, and they even had a section in the garden set aside for her. Plus she was an alcoholic who worked as a bartender and when I knew her she wasn’t qualified to do anything…

      But there were others too who became institutionalized. I think people hate rehab at first, then get comfortable there, being secure from the real world. But then some of them lose touch.

      Meth addiction is especially difficult to get over, I think, because most who are addicted have no idea just how much they come to depend on the drug. What they think is energy, is not energy at all but a state of mind that’s part and parcel of the meth high… that involves obsessive and compulsive behaviour. But it becomes your normal state of mind on meth, to such a degree that you want to be in that state of mind all the time. Then users conflate tweaking with having energy. They expect after cleaning up to return to that state of mind, which they think is normal, without the drug. Also, after quitting meth, users often find that they are emotionally dead. This is because the hedonic centre of the brain can no longer register anything as pleasurable, and this persists for some time. (Celled anhedonia. I had this the first time I tried to quit.) Anything other than meth that is. So you find yourself emotionally flatlined, bored and frustrated, and missing the only thing that can allow you to feel normal again, which is meth of course. So inevitably most will use again because using meth is the only way to be in that state of mind… Hope this makes sense.


      1. Thanks! I think I get it from my limited experience with my own addiction. All drugs are mind altering, some perhaps to a greater extent than others.

        So far, in general, I really like what you have to say on 12 step programs as well- I share your thoughts that it is largely B.S. and I wish there were more secular, evidence based programs to refer my students to. The thing I hate most about the 12-steps is step number 1 gives addicts an excuse to keep using, and takes away their own personal power of choice. That is off the topic of this post, but I look forward to reading more of your blog as I appreciate your thoughts and perspectives on the topics of addiction and atheism.

        Liked by 1 person

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