Rugby: Otago player reveals painkiller addiction hell

Eben Joubert is determined to revive his rugby career after a long injury layoff. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Eben Joubert is determined to revive his rugby career after a long injury layoff. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
When Eben Joubert gets back on the rugby field next month he will have completed a journey to hell and back. Rugby writer Steve Hepburn talks to the Otago flanker about a roller-coaster nine months.

Eben Joubert says there is always someone worse off than him.

But he has just come through a nine-month period that would have broken some people.

A relatively straightforward shoulder operation turned into agonising pain, he was forced to spend nearly two months in hospital, and his body became addicted to painkillers before he forced himself off the drugs through sheer willpower, sending his body into uncontrollable shakes and sweats.

It all started for Joubert (27) on a day when, like every other person connected with Otago rugby, he suffered pain.

Joubert was having a whale of a game for Otago against Southland in a Ranfurly Shield challenge in Invercargill last August when a scrum collapsed on him in the second half, dislocating his right shoulder.

Otago was leading when he left the field, and as Joubert was being nursed on the sidelines, Southland managed to squeeze ahead and retain the shield.

Joubert was gutted, like everyone else. He then had to face the option of either rehabilitation, which contained risks, or an operation. He chose the latter and went under the knife on August 31.

Screws and a plate were inserted into his right shoulder and he was set to start the long road to getting back on the field.

But the pain which he thought would be there for a few days refused to go away.

"It was just agonising. I thought it was just normal and I was being just a bit soft. 'Just suck it up and it will get better,' I thought.

"But I was in so much pain. I can't describe the pain. I was getting maybe three hours' sleep a night. Going for walks in the middle of the night to get away from the pain. Having three or four showers a night. Just doing anything to stop me thinking about the pain."

He was on painkillers and the dosage increased as he managed to keep up his studies for a master of business administration degree at the University of Otago, although he did not know how he did that, considering the number of painkillers he was taking.

"People say I used to come into class and my eyes were way up high, like I was in a daze. The memory is not great about that. I managed to pass all the papers but I don't know how. Maybe they were feeling sorry for me."

Seven weeks after the operation and with the shoulder showing no improvement, surgeon Simon McMahon sent Joubert for an MRI scan, which revealed a serious infection in his shoulder.

"He put an insertion into my shoulder and then 20ml of yellow pus came out. At that time I was at the end of my wits."

Joubert went into Dunedin Hospital and in the next few weeks the wound was scraped out and an infection, which had got right under the screws in his shoulder, was cleaned out.

But that was not the end of his troubles.

"They gave me some different antibiotics and I had an allergic reaction to them. My body was covered with this huge rash. My body was allergic to penicillin. So they switched them again."

As the antibiotics kicked in, he tried to give up the painkillers but his body suffered withdrawal symptoms.

"I was getting the shakes, going crazy. It was awful."

Out of hospital after seven weeks, he knew only he could get his body right.

"By Christmas time I was going back to South Africa and made the decision then I had to get off them [painkillers].

"They said to me once I finished the antibiotics I could get into a drugs programme to wean me off them. But I didn't want that. I wanted to do it myself."

Joubert slowly reduced his drug intake when home with his parents in South Africa, but it was not easy. Coming out in cold sweats and uncontrollable shakes, he hid the the worst of it from his parents, as he crawled his body towards better health.

As the new year came in, he was making progress and was starting to feel better. He had lost muscle, doubled his body fat, but he knew he was on the road to recovery.

Now he is back, as fit as he has ever been, starting to get back into some contact work on the training field, and should play his first club game next month.

He also celebrated last month becoming fully qualified as a New Zealand rugby player, having spent three years in the country.

But, if anything, the past nine months have given him some perspective in life.

"Before this, my total focus was on rugby. And it still means a lot to me. But now if I go out in my first game and injure my shoulder again, then that will be what happens. There are a whole lot of worse people off than me.

"Some guys are destined to make it. I am determined to. What I lack in natural ability I can make up with determination, discipline, dedication and desire."