Stigma remains the biggest barrier faced by many seeking addiction treatment, making it harder for individuals and families to deal with their problems and get the help they need, says photographer Fiona McCosh.
British-born McCosh is trying to address this through a Sober and Sexy project, a series of portraits that is currently on display at the Issi café on Bree Street. The photographs are also part of a 2016 calendar of the same title, featuring individuals who are in long-term recovery from addictions such as alcoholism, gambling, eating and sex.
“I just don’t think enough people are talking about recovery… it’s still very hush-hush. One of my main motivations for this project is to encourage people to talk openly about recovery. It’s to say ‘let’s get vocal and let’s start talking about both addiction and recovery’,” she says.
“With the project I wanted to focus on recovery, look at the joys of recovery and the hope that there is for people to get to recovery. I think almost everyone knows someone who is in recovery or who has an addiction problem, but we just don’t talk about it because of stigma. My aim is not to name and shame, but I want to encourage people to get help and to know there is no shame in getting help… to say ‘let’s get out there and be proud to be sober and sexy’,” McCosh says
I meet McCosh at the trendy eatery where the 12 black and white portraits in her series hang on the walls. She is also a recovering addict, and appears in the calendar for the month of September.
McCosh was 39 years old when she reached “rock bottom”.
“I had a problem with alcohol all my life and I am an addict. I did get physically addicted to several drugs of choice and towards the end I was into a cocktail, moving from one drug to another. When one drug stopped working I would try another one… it’s called crossed addiction,” she says.
“At my rock bottom, I felt ugly and hopeless and was in a state of terror for my body as I was combining street drugs and prescription drugs… I was miserable, but I was just about coping. When I hit rock bottom I was given six months to live. They often say don’t deny someone that rock bottom because that is where you get the gift of desperation.”
“I was a mess and I couldn’t see a way out and that’s when I rang my mother and she took me to rehab in the UK. That didn’t work out and it was suggested that I come to South Africa,” she explains.
McCosh says she came to Cape Town for rehab in 2010. With only a backpack,
she was planning to stay for just a month.
“I never intended to stay this long, I have friends here now… it’s a clean slate. What is there not to love about Cape Town? The weather is great, the mountains, the sea and it’s cheaper than London… it’s my new home,” she says.
But she’s also learnt that recovery is not easy. “Recovery can be a frightening place in the early days. It is hard to trust people, an emotional rawness seems ever-present and often it feels as if life will always be this way. In time, with help, we can and do recover.
With this project I wanted to give back to the recovery community,” says McCosh.
The idea of a naked calendar came from the true story of The Calendar Girls, a hit movie about a group of British women who produced a nude calendar to raise money for leukaemia research.
“I tried to get as wide a variety of people in the exhibition as possible because addiction does not discriminate. Anyone can get it and it doesn’t matter where you are from. If you want recovery you can find it in the 12-step programme.
“This is my experience in terms of getting clean and pretty much all of the models featured in the calendar have gone have gone through hell, I have been through hell,” she explains.
“The images represent a positive message of hope and my deepest wish is that people who think that they might have a problem or know someone who has a problem are encouraged to seek help,” says McCosh.
“I think that most people generally think that once an addict, always an addict, but we can live happy, free and joyous lives. I am now free from cravings. I have a full life with friends, genuine friends, whereas in the past I only had the drinking and the using.
“It was a miserable existence, but now I have peace and serenity… not only am I clean but I am treating myself with respect and I get a decent night’s sleep.”
The Sober and Sexy calendars cost R200 each. They are available at Issi and nationwide at http://www.soberand sexy.co.za. All proceeds will be donated to the Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre for the treatment of those who can’t afford it.
This feature was first published in the Cape Argus on October 5 2015.