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Understanding addiction: Why we can’t vilify SA’s most ‘articulate’ homeless man Bonga Sithole for his relapse

We all remember Bonga Sithole, who went viral on various media platforms for his fluent articulation of English, bagging him the title of Mzansi’s most articulate beggar.

This weekend, he was trending on Twitter streets after a video went viral that he had decided to book himself out of rehab, citing reasons that he wants to follow his spiritual journey.

Mzansi Twitter users claim Sithole misled Mzansi into believing that he would turn things around and the country was deceived by his use of big English words, but he doesn’t say anything meaningful.

IOL Lifestyle spoke to Gareth Carter, Director for Changes Addiction Rehab in Northcliff, to unpack and understand addiction and, in this case, relapse.

Due to improved brain scans, it is now well understood that addiction is a disease that we need to educate everyone about. Family, friends, and the general public must be informed about the disease.

“It’s been proven beyond a doubt that addiction is a brain disease. Once a person becomes addicted, there are structural changes in some parts of the brain: the shape changes and the function changes.

These changes can take anywhere between one to two years to return to normal. This contributes in some way to relapse because the brain has been hijacked and required to get amused or to be dependent on external factors ‘to function.’ So cleaning up is immensely difficult,” Carter told IOL Lifestyle.

It’s widely believed that addiction is a sign of intellectual weakness, a lack of strength of character, and a lack of willpower. However, this is not the case at all. People don’t understand the complexities of addiction. This is science. It’s not an opinion.

“I once had a father of a patient tell me that they went to the army for a year and it taught me discipline! That’s what my son needs discipline for, he’s just lazy”. which that’s not the case.”

He goes on to explain that addiction is a primary illness, meaning it’s the first thing that has to be addressed. Sometimes those that are addicted usually suffer from depression or anxiety and are treated for symptoms instead of the root causes.

Anyone that needs a lifetime healing from addiction will need a multidisciplinary approach from psychiatrists, psychologists, social worker, and addiction counselling to ensure that their devised treatment plan can help them engage with their treatment.

Gareth Carter Director for Changes Addiction Rehab in Northcliff, JHB. picture supplied

“Bonga is not a bad person trying to be good. He is a sick person who needs treatment to get well.”

Also, a point on the detox aspect of treatment:

“I’m not sure what the detox process entailed for Bonga at this treatment centre. If it wasn’t sufficiently medically-managed, the cravings might have been so bad that he left,“ said Carter.

We have normalised the culture of drinking as South Africans. We have phuza Thursday, Tequila Tuesday. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. We can’t vilify Bonga. Because the earlier you start drinking or using drugs, the more likely you are to develop an addiction

Considering that he has been on the streets since primary school and is now 35 years old, expecting him to reverse a lifetime of addiction in a month is unfair. He has faced multitudes of dangers that maybe you and I possibly wouldn’t understand. He became a man who has been fending for himself his whole life.

“Rehab is an incredibly difficult thing to do. There are a lot of short and easy answers to these lifelong problems, and none of them are right. It’s a complex and difficult issue to deal with,” said the addiction expert.

He adds: “It’s important to understand that Bonga’s brain structure has been altered significantly, and treatment cannot reverse a lifetime of scarring within less than a month or so. Treatment lengths for severe cases like less than 90 days have proven they have little effect on treatment.”

If people want a small glimpse of what it’s like to be addicted, try deleting your social media accounts for a week. Don’t open any accounts; just take a clean hiatus.

This is because people only experience a small amount of the dopamine rush that drug addicts experience. For instance, the average heroin addict must attempt to stop using the drug seven times before they are successful, Carter pointed out.

“Over a hundred and three thousand people have died as a result of the pandemic, but the true pandemic in this country is mental health issues and addiction, which are only going to get worse because of what we are exposing children to as they grow up.”

Carter alludes to the fact kids are visual learners. They think what fun is the use of drugs and alcohol.

For example, 80% of weekend hospital admissions are directly related to drugs. The level of brain functioning of these children, from emotional development to mental wellbeing, is being negatively impacted by the fact that there are 55000 child-headed households in Developing Africa, one in three children in Gauteng is malnourished, gender-based violence is five times the norm, and there are 115 rapes per day.

As a result, we are raising young people who are dysfunctional and in dire need.

Read the latest issue of IOL Health digital magazine here.