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News > OD Updates > A transparent look into mental health challenges and overcoming them

A transparent look into mental health challenges and overcoming them

After 2 decades of addiction, Richard Saunders (1997W) has shifted his focus to helping those who may suffer from similar mental health issues.

18 Jun 2020
OD Updates
Richard and Tarryn Saunders
Richard and Tarryn Saunders
Dealing with an issue internally, daily is something every human being faces at some point in their lifetime. Finding a healthy outlet in order to deal with it can be a hard task due to embarrassment. This has the potential to promote negative behaviour to either escape this issue or justify it.

Richard Saunder's (1997W) issue was that of addiction. Pornography addiction. It was his outlet for years of feeling unworthy or useless due to his surroundings. He suffered from his addiction for more than 20 years in silence, not telling a soul. After finally admitting to his problem and dealing with the issue in a safe environment, where he could voice his mental demons, he has managed to start to help people with similar mental health issues.

"I have been in recovery for the last 5 years and focus on helping others end the silence and shame that so often keeps people captive,' says Richard.


Richard with his wife Tarryn. 

Richard is the Head of Treatment at Twin Rivers Rehab Addiction Centre in Plettenberg Bay and holds degrees in psychology and theology from Stellenbosch. He also gives motivational speeches at schools to create awareness of addiction and how faith can help one through troubled times.

Twin River Rehab Centre

Richard was not shy when discussing his experience below. He believes by sharing his story, more people who share these experiences will have the courage to speak up.

Please send a mail to Richard’s personal email, [email protected], should you wish to get in contact with him regarding his treatment centre which is running a 25% discount due to the coronavirus pandemic.


Please tell us about your upbringing as you mentioned this had a big impact on your addiction.

I grew up in the Claremont area of Cape Town. I was the firstborn of twin boys to a loving family. My childhood was filled with a sense of safety, fun and freedom as any 1980's child would remember. Riding my BMX with my brother and playing army games and cowboys and Indians in the garden. It was a time of innocence and getting up to no-good as only twin boys can. Looking back on it, we would all be sitting at the dinner table laughing about the chaos we used to cause. Good times.

But, like every story, there was another side to the coin. As good as my childhood was, it carried with it a dark cloud that would not leave. At birth, there were complications. I was born completely blue. I was resuscitated after 8 minutes and everything seemed fine. At 18 months old I was diagnosed with hemiplegia. My entire right side was paralysed. I have major muscle function to a large degree, but I have very limited fine motor movement as I have no control or strength of my stabilizing muscles on my right side. This affects me greatly. I struggle to balance and have no true strength on my right side. As a result, my body is in constant physical pain and there are many things that I wish I could do but can't. After 18 years of physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy and Remedial Therapy – I looked like 'normal' as anybody else and then proceeded to manage my body and pain by building up my right side.

Growing up was not easy. I had all the loving support and therapy. I went to Visa Nova School for both my physical disability and learning difficulties. By Grade 6 my brother and I were ready for mainstream schooling, so my parents decided to send us to the Diocesan College prep school.

I remember being both excited and scared, but I didn't feel any different to anybody else until I got to Bishops. Sadly, I was unprepared for what came next. And I think the boys at the school were also unprepared. Looking back on it now with understanding and insight into human behaviour I no longer blame my peers for how I was treated daily. I no longer blame the teachers who mocked me in front of the class – even when I got the answer right..

 I was picked on and scape-goated. I bore the shame of others because they didn't want to look at their own lives or problems. What they saw at the time was a weak, defenceless crimple who couldn't swim, run, or play rugby as well as them. What they saw were a hindrance on their team and an automatic loss. What I saw was a human being with so much passion for life and a desire to be somebody, but without a platform to be seen, heard, or understood. What hurt me the most was that I wanted to be loved and accepted just like them. This injustice made me hate them, hate the world, and hate myself. I was full of rage that kept me sick.

Throughout my Bishops career from Grade 6 (if I'm not mistaken), I was bullied at school and bullied at home. I had no peace. More so, I had no answers to the impossible questions dominating my mind: Why was I made like this and not like everybody else?

Being the victim of that system, it was exceptionally hard for me to accept in my youth. I was enraged and utterly depressed to the point of complete hopelessness.

What role did your siblings play in your upbringing?

I have an identical twin brother. He was my best friend and my worse enemy. As loving as he could be, he was a bully who beat me and emotionally abused me because he wanted to feel powerful and control me. I am glad to say that he is now my best friend and has been for the last 20 years. We have never spoken of the abuse. But I have forgiven him.

My sister is younger by 5 years. She is a delightful little thing. Sadly, I have never had a relationship with her. She would always be in my brother's shadow. 

Being the victim of that system, it was exceptionally hard for me to accept in my youth. I was enraged and utterly depressed to the point of complete hopelessness.

At what age were you first exposed to pornography?

So, if you consider the context of questions 1 and 2, you can see the desire of my younger self wanting to break free from this cycle of abuse and wanting to be free of my disabled body. As good as it was to have a loving family, they could not help me or even understand what it was that I was going through. They had no answers. So psychologically what developed was something called a 'Slush Fund' to cope. The brain sets aside an emotional bank account that stores unwanted negative emotions – particularly anger and rage. This is done both consciously and sub-consciously. The reality is: We need somewhere to put our stuff – even if it becomes destructive in nature or uncontainable at times. However, at the age of 11 – I had no concept of a slush fund. I was subconsciously looking for an escape from reality without actively looking for it.

So my first exposure to sex and pornography happened like this. It was 1990. There was no common internet use at that stage and all adult material (movies, tapes, magazines etc) were kept behind the counters of shops. Children were blissfully unaware of such material and activity. The lack of exposure provided no context for such mature imagery – and rightly so. Sex education only started in High School in those days.

The fateful day occurred at my brother's first girlfriend's family home. This was his first crush and the first threat to our relationship as twins (co-dependency dynamics). It was a hard time for me as my brother was my gateway to social interaction. In other words, people were only friends with me because they wanted to be friends with my brother. 

We were just about to be picked up by my mother from my brother's girlfriend's home when she called us into her parents' bedroom. We knew something naughty was about to happen, so the adrenaline was already pumping. (This precipitating emotional response is part of the ritualistic nature of addictive behaviour). We could tell she was holding a magazine behind her back and as soon as we turned the corner into the bedroom she stretched out the centrefold of a porn-star in her full glory.

Now that may not sound like much by today's standards to an adult. But to an innocent child who has no context for what they are seeing – it released a flood of emotions and biochemistry. An addict will tell you they can still remember every moment of their first high. This was mine. My mind went numb with pleasure. I couldn't feel any pain. I felt no rejection. I forgot about my disability. I forgot about myself. I felt free from myself – and I didn't need anybody else to do it. It would just be me and my drug.

Your addiction lasted over 2 decades, what was the turning point in admitting to the addiction?

In short. I broke. I could not keep up the lie any longer. The person I really was and the person people saw and thought they knew were so far apart I couldn't live with the guilt any longer. Admitting to yourself that you are an addict is easy. You know that you are. No amount of denial or justification can separate you from the fact that you are a slave to your drug of choice. Admitting to others that you are a slave to addiction is the problem. An addict in active addiction will always hope against all hope that they will regain control. That, or they are so woefully out of their depth that they think they are beyond saving. The constant struggle for somebody buried in addiction is the inability to keep juggling the reality of a broken life with the fantasy of escapism in the hope that your addiction will deliver on its false promises. Addiction is a lie. We know it, but we indulge in the fantasy it offers anyway. We exchange the Truth for a lie. The most shameful thing is that we know we choose it willingly. I could no longer carry my guilt and shame. It was too much to bear. I had to give it away.

What is it that ultimately gave you your freedom of life?

It is not the drug of choice that is the problem. The problem is that we devote ourselves to a lie in the hope that we don't have to face the anguish of the pain that we feel – knowing deeply beyond any doubt that we are valuable and precious as human beings. It is the sad truth that what we are experiencing is not the way it was intended to be. There must be more to life than this… But I cannot escape the voluntary slavery that I choose every day, knowing that it is wrong – but I don't care.

I was searching for answers that nobody could give. I didn't have the answer within myself. Nobody I spoke to could answer them. Nothing in this world could. If living my life in misery, that the definition of success and happiness is based on survival of the fittest, wealth and popularity – then I don't have a hope in the world. And I didn't have any hope. By the age of 14, I had had enough. No more abuse. No more physical therapy. No more psychologists. No more addiction. No way out. I wanted to end it all. I couldn't cry and more and I had lost all hope in people. Suicide is the logical deduction that there is no other way out. Every other avenue has been exhausted.

It was at that moment, once I had reached that conclusion, that my miracle happened. Suddenly I found myself asking aloud, 'God! Why have you done this to me?'. This took me completely by surprise as I was atheist and came from an atheist family background and worldview. What happened next shocked me to the core. I literally felt God reach down and hold me and He said to me, 'Rich, my boy, you are in your Heavenly Father's arms, I love you, I AM here with you, and everything is going to be okay in the end'. From that moment a Hope was set inside of me and never left me. His Promise stayed with me until I met Him 5 years later in a church. At 19 I gave my life over to Jesus Christ.

At 19 I started my journey with Christ. I was still in active addiction until I was 35. Now that might sound odd, but that juggling act of reality and fantasy took a long time to come to terms with. Faith in Christ is a relationship like any other. Addiction is a relationship. A very toxic and destructive relationship, but a relationship none the less. It took me a long time to trust Christ with all of my wounds, and eventually with my identity as a slave, in the truth that I knew HE (Christ) had set me free and free indeed. But I was too afraid to live the Truth out as a free man. (When you have been a prisoner for so long, it's hard to 'feel' free even when the chains have come off. A slave feels more comfortable with the chains on.)

What advice do you have for those suffering from mental health issues, considering the current world climate?

Firstly, I would say that mental health is real. If you can come to terms with that then you are half-way there because you understand that something is wrong and you are not in denial. When I was suffering from depression and burn-out after a potential nervous breakdown, I was put onto anti-depressants. Do you know what the first thing people said to me was? … You are on medication so why aren't you better yet? You laugh, but it is the truth. Society's perception of mental health is entirely ignorant and sadly stereotypically judgemental and self-righteous in its understanding. Mental illness is judged as being 'weak-minded'. Addiction is seen in the same way, 'Why can't you just stop?'. My point is mental illness is not the problem. The problem is how people are treated as a result. We need to break the stigma. What is needed is compassion and understanding. Firmly delivered of course, with clear set boundaries but always spoken in love and compassion. People who are suffering need to feel loved. Without love, why should they trust you?

You see, the lack of compassion for people suffering from mental illness, addiction included, is based on the premise of 'Survival of the fittest' as a worldview. Therefore, the need for success and the fear of failure resulting in suicidal thoughts is so rampant in our modern society. The reality is that the post-modern world bases its definition of happiness on materialism, wealth and success which is all self-generated. In other words, life can be lived independently of others. This is wrong. And it is a breeding ground for addiction which thrives on rejection and isolation when we fail or appear weak. Put plainly - money, sex and power are what we strive for. To not have those material securities produces a tremendous amount of mental distress.

If you are suffering from mental distress – seek help immediately. Mental health distress/disorder is a symptom and consequence of disease. The disease is far more psychological and spiritual than we realize. If you don't understand yourself, what good is it to you? If you think this world is all about you and you are self-sufficient, what will aid you in impossible situations that are beyond your control? You are just setting yourself up for failure. As a society, we are so focused on the physical aspect of life that we neglect the other two. (The psychological and the spiritual). Put plainly, 'What good is it for a man to inherit the whole world, but lose his soul?' (Mark 8:36).

There is more to life than pushing yourself to success beyond your limits. Taking pain medication for your headaches because you don't have time to slow down. Pain medication becomes alcohol, which leads to the need for stronger substances. The next thing you know, you are in rehab for cocaine addiction. And it all started with a headache. You have a headache because your body needs rest, not because your head happens to be in pain. This example simply amplifies the simple truth. Without a reason for suffering or success for that matter, we have no need to persevere and may as well give up hope. And yet, life is full of hope but, we must find the Truth that we know exists because we could exchange it for a lie and fall deeper.


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