I have spent the last forty minutes or so researching The Ellen Pakkies Story. It’s a movie about a mother who murdered her own son. At first, that sounds incredulous. It didn’t sound incredulous to me though, because I’d already heard this story.
A few months ago I found myself at a support group meeting for people with family members and friends who have substance misuse problems. A man, who led another support group, came in to speak. He told the story of his ex wife’s alcohol addiction as well as his daughters’ addiction to drugs. When his daughters became addicts, he did everything to help them beat their addiction. He was set on helping them. He gave it his all. When that didn’t work, he decided he was going to kill them. He had been told about a support group for people whose family and friends had problems and he went there on the day he was planning to kill them. That stopped him from killing his family.
Today he works with support groups, as does one of his daughters. The other is living in the streets.
Had someone told me this story ten years ago, I would have found it crazy. Crazy, because I wouldn’t have been able to fathom how you could want to kill your own children.
Then I moved to South Africa. Then I saw addiction first hand. Then everything changed.
Tik, or methamphetamine (MA), is a popular street drug in South Africa, usually diluted with other powders — ranging from starch to quinine. As you don’t know how diluted it is, overdosing is easy. This, in turn, can be fatal, or lead to permanent mental or physical damage.
Tik, or MA, is considered a highly addictive drug. It’s thought one large dose, or a few smaller ones, can be enough to set off the addiction. Coming off the drug is considered very difficult, as cravings can last for months after you stop taking it; longer than the craving for cocaine. Even years later, foods, people and items associated with getting high can trigger a relapse as the memory of the euphoria of the drug is so closely linked to those things. Think about it the way a scent can suddenly bring you back in time to an event.
Tik affects the brain, which can lead to extreme personality changes in the people who use it. It can also cause anger and paranoia. I remember talking to someone at a party once, whose son had been an addict and he said: “tik is not like other drugs — it is the drug that makes children kill their own parents.”
I volunteered at a rehab center when I first arrived in South Africa and the people who had been using explained to me that when you are using, “the drug will always be right.” Meaning if you need a hit, then anything to get that hit is the right thing to do. No matter who you hurt emotionally, damage physically, or steal from in the process. They would tell me heartbreaking stories about everyone who they had hurt in their lives — and the losses they all lived with as a result.
I don’t know how many times I’ve told people who take drug addicts’ actions personally, that it isn’t personal. That it’s not them acting — it’s the drug. You don’t expect someone who is drunk to drive a car properly and expecting an addict to make emotionally sane decisions is a similar thing. They aren’t in control of themselves. Some drug addicts have a big realization that make them face their addiction and take control, but for many that will never happen. The drug’s hold on them is too strong.
That doesn’t mean I’m immune to what addicts do to the people around them. Not until I sat in that support group did I realize how angry I was — how angry I was with the addicts fucking people over. I was angry with people trying to steal from me. I was angry about the lies I constantly have to sift through to get to the truth. And I was angry because trying to save addicts from themselves is sometimes impossible. I’m the godmother of three children who I basically raise because their mother is an addict. And I’m constantly picking up the pieces of whatever their family has done to them. I love the children and feel blessed they were given to me to raise, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get furious with others for causing them pain.
I volunteer with an organization that offers a crèche and other forms of community support in a township, so I’ve also seen many other families broken by drugs and alcohol. And because I work there, I’ve gotten to know former addicts and seen them relapse.
From the experience of seeing people relapse I learnt about denial. People using think they are in control — that they aren’t addicted. You know how you tell yourself you aren’t going to have another cookie, but then eat the cookie? I guess it’s similar to that. If only drug users kept “drug diaries” to see how many times a week, or day, they are truly using.
Due to all this, I’ve seen what havoc drugs are causing. Rape, abuse, crime, violence…where the drugs go, they follow.
Drug addicts often turn to their family for money to support their habit. In the end, many families close their doors to them, as they steal everything in the house. Ellen Pakkies noted that her son would even steal the laundry drying off the line. She built him a room in the courtyard, but he kept breaking into the house. They even installed burglar bars to try to keep him out of the house.
Some drug addicts also end up violent. They don’t just steal from you, they attack you. And Ellen Pakkies’ son did that. For ten years.
Ellen Pakkies went to the police and the government (social services) but she did not get help. Her son would go to jail for something, then be released again. She begged and pleaded saying he needed to be locked up. He stole his father’s entire life savings (the equivalent of about $400), he burnt the house down, he was physically abusive…
I’ve never experienced that, but being the godmother, or extra mother, or simply a woman raising three children, one whom had extreme behavioral difficulties, I know what it feels like being attacked in your own home. I know what it feels like knocking on door after door asking for help and getting nowhere. In the end we got help, but in the meantime, I had to deal with physical violence. And after a while that does a number on your head. I didn’t snap, nor would I have allowed it to go on for ten years, but I’m not Ellen Pakkies. I come from a completely different social environment.
During the process of getting help for the child with behavioral issues, I was told by educators of families who didn’t keep it together. Families where someone snapped and starting beating up the child. And the educators felt sorry for the entire family. If it had been years earlier, I would have had no sympathy for the parents, but after experiencing it first hand, I felt sorry for them too. Not all parents can handle daily assaults, or have the support they need psychologically to learn how to do so. Yet, most parents feel like they can’t give up and hand their child away, so they just keep going until one day they snap.
I used to think that children’s psychological issues stem from their environment, but there are many cases where they don’t. Cases where the kids are born with various conditions. Cases where the kids’ brain chemistry is malfunctioning and that’s why they’re behaving the way they do. With the right assistance it’s often possible to overcome some, or all, of the difficulties, but it can take a lot of professional help.
A similar thing can be said about drugs. It’s easy to think that if you raised your child right, they wouldn’t use drugs. At that support meeting I sat listening to a number of families saying they “weren’t like that.” They didn’t condone drugs. They didn’t raise their children to take drugs. They couldn’t comprehend how it had happened. Yet it did. Because with certain drugs one dose is enough. And you have to remember, in Cape Town 5% of kids in eight grade have taken tik. If you include other drugs, that number will rise. Recently a news story reported an eleven-year-old taking tik “to be like his father.” Kids like him will spread tik to their friends. You don’t have to have a father on tik to discover the drug.
Most families try one tactic after another to get their child off drugs. The problem is, no matter what the parents say, once a drug like tik has a hold on a person, they won’t listen. Not unless they have that one big realization, or are forced into rehab. They often don’t even understand they have a problem. I guess it’s like a drunk person being too drunk to realize they’re drunk. They think they have control over the car until it crashes.
I’ve seen people recover. I know there are amazing programs out there. I’ve also seen people relapse. And I’ve seen people say they’re scared of losing their children if they don’t stop using the drug, yet they don’t stop. They don’t show up to rehab.
What Ellen Pakkies went through with her son is not unusual in South Africa. In fact, it’s frighteningly common. Only two years ago, another man was accused of killing his son, who was using tik. This time it was a case of self-defense, where the son was threatening him with a knife.
If you have a good job and a good education and lots of social support, it might dawn on you that if this is happening you need to a) distance yourself from that person b) if that doesn’t work, move. For many people living in poverty that isn’t an option though. Ellen Pakkies son had stolen their life savings, but before they were stolen they amounted to less than two month’s worth of rent.
Looking at a situation from the outside, I think that Ellen Pakkies should have moved away. Left. Found a way to escape her son. But I’m speaking as someone looking upon the situation from the outside and thinking I could always get a job somewhere else. Ellen Pakkies didn’t have money and she’d been psychologically broken by abuse over many years. Also, she had a psychological snap — it’s not like she sat pondering whether she should leave, or kill her son, she just lost it one day.
Yet, Ellen Pakkies tried over and over again to get help with her son. But as he didn’t want to go to rehab, neither she, nor the police, could force him. I think it’s different these days as I was told at the support group we could get a court order for rehab. But Ellen Pakkies didn’t have that option.
When you look at the trailer for The Ellen Pakkies story you see her son set his family’s house on fire, take an ax to it, threaten, steal… The wonderful child they once were has been replaced by a monster.
I’m a big proponent of rehabilitation, not just for drug addicts, but also criminals, and anyone else undergoing psychological difficulties. I know my background and how much I changed — I was pretty broken as a child, but for me it manifested as a fear of people and being extremely shy — that’s why I believe most people can change if they truly want to. My circumstance led to me becoming depressed and introverted, but had it been slightly different, I might have ended up a drug addict, or criminal. I appreciate that most people don’t set out to become drug addicts and criminals, but just as I didn’t know how to interact with people, they don’t know how to live life another way. Drugs is often a coping mechanism, or a one off fluke that ends up taking over someone's life once the brain chemistry hasl been atered.
Throwing people in jail isn’t going to solve a drug epidemic, or for that matter an epidemic of crime. If you don’t want people to feel a need to commit crimes, or take drugs, you have to change their thinking.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if the police truly got to the bottom of the drug epidemic in South Africa and if all addicts were put in six month mandatory rehab? How would society change? There are about ten murders a day in Cape Town. The amount of rape and violence is incredulous. And good people who have never touched drugs themselves, end up having to pay the price, while the younger generations are lured into drugs and end up paying with their lives.
I don’t know what’s morally right or wrong in the story of Ellen Pakkies, but I’m fairly sure most people who have never been close to abusive addicts wouldn’t have lasted ten years. If they’d gotten through ten months without either killing themselves, or attacking someone else, I’d be impressed. If you are constantly abused, chances are you will eventually snap. Especially if you've asked for hel time and time again and not received it. No one should have to face abuse on a daily basis and be expected to cope. No one.
If you are dealing with someone who is mentally unstable, or using drugs, get help. You need it. Just as the person using drugs, or going through mental difficulties needs help. Drugs and mental illness doesn’t just ruin the person affected, but also everyone around them. You deserve help and support as much as they do.