Hooked on heroin and crack cocaine, Melinda Ferguson plummets into a devastating rock bottom as she finds herself trawling the streets of Hillbrow, Johannesburg desperate for her next fix

Bold, raw and relentlessly honest, Smacked is a tale of earth-­shattering loss and miraculous redemption. This mega bestseller -­ the revised 20 year clean and sober edition ­- will take you to the darkest recesses of an addict’s psyche. It is ultimately a tale of great resilience and hope.

We spoke to Melinda about some of the darkest moments in the book, and how publishing it was the game changer for the rest of her life.

“My overriding motivation was to tell the truth”

During active addiction I wrote a lot. I would often write when I was high, when I was in deep and dark pain, even when I was withdrawing from heroin and crack. So when I was asked to write Smacked, by a publisher, I had a heap of material on little pieces of paper, on till slips, you name it. These days as a writing coach I call it “authentic material”.

So as I wrote the book, it was like I was collecting material and delving back into memory and the only motivation I had back then was to meet the deadline. I didn’t experience catharsis while writing. I was on a very tight deadline so there was no time for processing really. I separated myself from that damaged self and just wrote like a machine. My overriding motivation was to tell the truth, no matter how bad I looked, no matter how sordid that truth was. It was only much later when the book was out and selling really well, that I realised how healing the writing of my story had been and, all these years later, it continues to be so.

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On rebuilding her relationship with her children

As soon as I got clean and began seeing my two baby boys again, I embarked on a journey of honesty with them, explaining in simple ways, how I had lost them because of my drug abuse and how I had managed to get clean so that I could have them back in my life. Because I loved them so much.

So even though I spared them from the gory details, I never had to wake up one day, when they were older and tell them “the truth”. It became part of our conversation from very early on. This really helped my inner work on forgiving myself. Because their eyes looked back at me with love.

“They both have been my biggest teachers in finding a way to self love me”

This year they are 23 and 21 years old, and both of them are totally disinterested in alcohol and drugs. I think this has helped me feel that my bad choices have actually helped them to make self-loving and wise decisions for themselves. But truly and authentically forgiving myself has been the hardest part of my recovery. And it’s an ongoing process.
Of course there have been times that I have felt deep shame but shame and guilt are very useless emotions. They can paralyse a person.

Your position in publishing means you can help other people share their stories. And expose the scourge of rape and GBV in our country. Covid-19 has blown open more wounds in SA

What are you working on now – and what has this pandemic made you want to talk to South Africans about? Are you working on a book of your own, or mainly looking for promising manuscripts out there?

I have been publishing up a storm in this challenging time. GBV is so prevalent and it has been for a long time. When I published Rape: A South African Nightmare by Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola, in 2015, the conversation was very silent around this scourge. I think that the book really opened the doors to speaking out about it.

When we won the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award in 2016, the book grew beautiful wings and it’s now considered to be essential reading. The prof and I are working on her new book called Female Fear Factory which will be published by Melinda Ferguson Books in March 2021. This incredibly important work is going to take the conversation even deeper. I am really itching for it to be on the shelves.

In early lockdown, when we were in Level 5 I managed to publish two e-books called Lockdown and Lockdown Extended with a whole group of great South African writers who were feeling as crazy as I was.

“Kindness to the self and kindness to each other is the key to getting through this dark time. Because, as I have learnt in my recovery – you can only keep what you have, by giving it away”

In June I released the print version called The Lockdown Collection which was a combo of the e-books and new essays. It’s really a brilliant collection of writing that speaks to this unprecedented time that we are going through. I worked with 39 hugely talented and well known South African writers like Fred Khumalo, Lebo Mashile, Khaya Dlanga, Ben Trovato and Ferial Haffajee.

In June I also published Brutal School Ties by Samantha Cowen which explores the Parktown Boys’ tragedy. Very few local books have interrogated male on male violence which is extremely important to understand when addressing why so many women are being beaten up and killed by men in South Africa. And then of course there are the 20 year clean and sober editions of Smacked and Hooked.

I am hard at work on another five books that will be published from September. Kagiso Msimango’s new book called Unf*ck Yourself, Unf*ck The World will be like essential reading for all of us who are feeling insane and lost and broken during this time. Then Melusi Tshabalala is busy finishing up a book called Magenge We Need to Talk, (Magenge is “my dudes”) – like a round table of conversations amongst Black men, talking about things like violence, black love and money. In between all this crazy publishing I am trying to work on my own book, which will hopefully be out in 2022. I am too early in it to talk about it yet.

Personal coping skills in the chaos that is 2020?

I move between spaces of hope and deep despair. But I have tried to be present and focus on the day that lies before me. I have never worked harder in my life and I keep on keeping on. Thankfully I have been doing this recovery thing for over 20 years, so I have a lot of experience in staying clean and sober but saying that, I have experienced some dark days when I’ve really ached to drown my anxiety and fear for the future in a big bottle of whisky.

I continue to do online 12 step meetings which really help set me back on track and remind me of the one-way ticket to hell that using substances would take me to. I am good. I am just trying to create and see the gifts in the madness.

On a message for the scared, the frail and the hopeless…

As human beings we have the miraculous capacity to turn dark days into opportunities, to learn about ourselves and each other. I believe that COVID-19 is a brutal teacher and is exposing all our failings in systems and our follies as human beings. Kindness to the self and kindness to each other is the key to getting through this dark time. Because, as I have learnt in my recovery – you can only keep what you have, by giving it away.

About the author

Melinda Ferguson is the bestselling author of her addiction trilogy Smacked, Hooked and Crashed. She is also an award-­winning publisher. In 2016 her groundbreaking title, Rape: A South African Nightmare by Prof Pumla Gqola, won the Alan Paton Award for non-fiction. In 2020 she joined NB Publishers under her imprint Melinda Ferguson Books.