When he arrived on the doorstep of the Johannesburg-based, Sanca-affiliated substance abuse treatment centre in October 2016, he was ‘a mess’ – a long-term druggie, untreated for HIV, living on the streets and alienated from loved ones.
Today, Tony – as he is fondly called – has been clean for over a year and is determined to stop as many people as he can from starting down the road to addiction hell.
He started doing drugs as a young teen and by 17, was using heroin and crack. Over the next decade, he tried nine rehab centres before finally finding Wedge after a near-death experience.
The difference between Wedge Gardens and the other rehab centres he had been to, says Tony, is Wedge Gardens’ professional programme run in conjunction with the 12-step programme pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous.
The 12-step programme is a set of guiding principles outlining a course of action for recovery from addiction, compulsion, or other behavioural problems and ties in well with Wedge Gardens’ philosophy of holistic treatment that allows people to reclaim their lives.
“Wedge Gardens helped my get onto antiretroviral treatment and to come out to my family and friends about my HIV status. Because of them, I am today an HIV and drug abuse activist,” he says.
After leaving Wedge Gardens, Tony found refuge at The New Army Apostolic Church of Christ in Midrand. His mother Evelyn is also part of the congregation and Tony says he has a spiritual mother in the form of the head of the church, Sinah Mabusela.
Evelyn and Tony helped the church properly register an existing outreach programme as a non-profit organisation and today Tony spends his time helping out with the church’s brass band initiative, which sees local youngsters being offered a constructive activity as a diversion from the many dangers faced on township streets.
The church also runs a feeding scheme when it has the resources and Tony and other church members mentor the youngsters and do drug and alcohol awareness.
Tony also started a Facebook page to reach people caught in the grip of addiction.
“I lost everything and nearly died but by God’s grace I lived to tell the tale,” says Tony.
“For two years, I slept on a corner in central Pretoria with nothing but a cardboard box and some plastic to shield me from the cold. That is something no-one should ever experience but the sad reality is that as I lie in my warm bed at night, there are people out there in the cold, going through the same pain I went through.
“I was only 15 when I had my first taste of drugs. Little did I know that it would be the biggest mistake I would ever make. Years went by and everything started falling apart. I mean, I changed; I started lying, cheating and stealing.
“It got so bad that when I was 17, I was in my first rehab and at 19, I had a criminal record. My friends and family gave up on me. It took five rehabilitation centres, being in and out jail, and months on the streets, for me to wake up enough to complete my N4 in engineering.
“I thought I had overcome my addiction. I stayed sober for three years and in that time, got a good job, car and met someone. She was smart, beautiful and the reason why I wanted to stay sober. She believed in me.”
They got married but shortly after, Tony learnt he was HIV positive. He made yet another terrible decision and did not tell his wife for fear of losing her.
“Days turned to weeks and weeks to months and my secret snowballed and grew harder and bigger. I didn’t know what to do and did not see that I was slowly changing because of my terrible secret.”
Angry at the hand he had been dealt, Tony says he started cheating on his wife. “I cheated more than once; mostly with young girls because they were easy to lie to.”
Then during a routine check-up, his wife was diagnosed as HIV positive too.
Their marriage soon ended and within a short space of time, Tony was again using drugs. The cycle started again – abuse, rehab, relapse and eventually Tony ended up on the streets for two years.
One day, he woke up in ICU. He had overdosed and had been in a coma for three days.
It was his turning point, the crossroads that led him to Wedge Gardens and allowed him to reclaim his life.
Today, Tony finds value in giving and strength from faith.
He speaks passionately about his church’s outreach programme and brass band, which is a safe refuge for 40 youngsters. Tony openly chats to them about his past mistakes. “Drug education is one thing, but hearing about the dangers of abuse from someone who they can relate to, and who has lived through the horror, has a bigger chance of being effective.
Tony also does talks as schools, prisons and other community organisations.
To get in contact with Tony, visit his Facebook page: Addiction Untold. If you would like to assist the church members with their outreach programme – which is funded out of their own pockets, call 083 370 4444 or 063 959 3264.
* Wedge Gardens can be reached at 011 430 0320. You can also ‘like’ Wedge Gardens on Facebook (www.facebook.com/WedgeGardensTreatmentCentre) or follow them on Twitter (@WedgeGardens)