A Recovering Addict’s Guide to Sobriety

Thousands of Kiwis are locked out of rehab. One recovering addict tells us what it takes to quit.

by Zoe Madden-Smith
27 June 2018, 10:13pm

"Addiction is a disease, it’s got to be continuously maintained," says Steve Davis. Image supplied

Living in a men’s shelter, wrapped in an old ski jacket, clinging to a shitty cell phone and a quickly draining credit card. That’s how Steve Davis recalls his rock bottom.

Nearly a decade ago, Davis’ destructive relationship with cocaine and alcohol had left him homeless and alone. Searching for a way out, he admitted himself into Higher Ground, a therapeutic community for addiction rehabilitation in Auckland. Now sober nine years, Davis works as a supervisor at the rehab centre that gave him his life back: a role he says helps keep him clean.

Davis says his story is one of thousands - And with 45,000 New Zealanders receiving drug and alcohol rehabilitation each year, he’s not wrong. But there are countless more locked out of support services. It’s estimated only a third of Kiwis with substance abuse problems get the help they want.

The Government announced this month that it will invest $16.7 million into increasing the number of drug and alcohol detox beds from 20 to 30 at Auckland's City Mission. But rehabilitation centres say it still isn’t enough. People wanting to detox currently have to wait up to two months for placement in Auckland. The grueling waiting lists have forced some New Zealanders to receive care overseas instead.

Davis believes addiction is a disease he and others are born with. It’s something that lingers all your life and can never be cured, only maintained. So even when a bed finally frees up, without ongoing support only a handful will maintain their sobriety. VICE asked Davis about his experience in rehabilitation and how he maintains his addiction years on.

VICE: Hey Steve. So at what point did you realise you needed help?
Steve Davis: When I ended up in a men's shelter. That was nine years ago. All I had was a ski jacket, a pair of snowboard pants, a shitty cellphone and a credit card that was running out really quickly. I had lost everything. No family connection. My family had disowned me, everybody had disowned me, I was on the streets.

How did it feel to finally get help?
So for me, I went in there all grandy thinking I knew everything and then I was so full of fear and anger. I never knew I was an angry person until I got in there. But I was so quickly humbled, I was brought to my knees in there, I really was.

I surrendered in there. Surrender means, you just give up the fight. You give up the fight with wanting to use again, with wanting to argue, wanting to do it your way, you give up the fight about it all being about you and you start thinking about other people. When you give that fight up there is so much freedom and when I experienced that in there I thought, I want to keep this in my life.

Why did you decide to work at Higher Ground?
What happened was, I was so grateful for what they did for me. Incredible what they did. So for the first few years working there, I volunteered driving people to all their meetings, and after that, I thought I may as well become a supervisor. I do it because I love it. I love seeing the transition. And it keeps you clean because it stops the emphasis being on you, it's on other people.

Why do you think it’s important for recovering addicts to work in rehabilitation?
All of our supervisors are recovering addicts and some clinicians as well. An addict only understands an addict. It takes one to know one, you know? But also we have that empathy as well. We understand the newcomer. The newcomer walks into the room, we welcome them. We listen to their stories because it reminds us of where we have come from.

What are the most common addictions you are seeing at moment?
Meth. Most of our clients now are meth addicts. Alcohol would be a distant second, and after that, we have cannabis and that horrible synthetic cannabis. Then we have a few opioids, not many, but a few. But back in the 70s and 80s, it was all opioids.

What kind of people have you met while working at Higher Ground?
You’ve got a whole range of people in there with different personalities. I did treatment with two Catholic priests. We have doctors, lawyers. We have ages ranging from 18 to 72, I think 72 is the eldest one we have ever had. So we have a whole row of people, of gender, we have transgender in there, we even have ones that are transitioning. There's no set criteria for an addict.

What is the success rate for drug and alcohol rehabilitation courses?
AA courses have a success rate of about seven percent. Seven percent is the people that go out and maintain their recovery after two years, so it’s really low. At Higher Ground, over 50 percent of people have stayed clean after two years.

Why is it so low?
What happens with addicts is they have the tendency to think they are actually normal after a period of time, that they don’t have a disease. And so they stop going to meetings or identifying with anybody and that feeling of normality creeps in. But the minute they pick it up, they can’t stop. They are just overwhelmed by the feeling of euphoria and all their problems evaporate in seconds, it's like visiting an old friend. And so what happens is they want to maintain that feeling. So they have another glass and another glass and before they know it, two weeks later they are in detox and they can’t figure out how the fuck that started.

How have you kept clean for nine years?
When you stop using you feel restless, irritable and discontent. So to stop those feelings, I go to meetings three times a week, I phone my sponsor when I am feeling overcast and cloudy. I go and do the steps to put some sense and order into my life. When you do all of those things you feel really good about yourself, you feel really well.

Addiction is a disease, it’s got to be continuously maintained. The minute I get negligent or complacent with it that’s the minute I become unstuck. It’s like someone with diabetes, you have to treat that on a daily basis. You need to be aware of it every day.

More about addiction recovery on VICE:
Recovering Drug Addicts Tell Us What It Took to Quit
Running Can Help People Recovering from Addiction Stay Sober
News of Zealand: Drug Rehab Desperate for Funding

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained inaccurate statistics on Higher Ground success rates. This has been updated.