Months dragged on, me turning up at the drug service, constantly reporting relapse, skin blotchy and spotty, fridge and cupboard empty, and many calls being made to my mum requesting twenty quid, or maybe an internet food order. Two phones were thrown at the wall, and leads pulled from handsets, with me raging in my boxers in my cell. One afternoon, I picked up my acoustic guitar by the neck, smashed it on the floor, repeatedly, until it broke in two with a twang. Then I took it out and chucked it in a wheelybin. Soon after, I was dragging my keyboard (on loan from a friend) down the road to that shrine of iniquity and stolen goods, Cash Converters. It was heavy and unwieldy, but somehow I heaved and cajoled it onto the bus, over the road, and into the reinforced doorway of the esteemed high-street name. It cost my friend £800. I got £100 for it, and went straight round the corner to score. The next morning, I woke to see a void where guitar and piano had been. My dreamed-of recording career was spiralling down, in freefall, blowing in the breeze with other random crumbs. I was running out of options.
Sipping herbal tea at the drug service one morning, someone sitting by me said they went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and found them helpful. Born of Alcoholics Anonymous, there are NA meetings in community centres and church cellars all over the world. There were several in my neighbourhood, some of them unnervingly close to places I’d used. But one Monday evening, I slipped into a meeting, untempted by the adjacent hostel, where I’d used only weeks before. All human life was there, street-geezers, social-workers, teachers, builders, an auctioneer, and a person off the telly. We sat round in a circle by candlelight, with a tank of tropical fish tranquilly, though discreetly, observing proceedings.
After a few readings, people began talking, and I could identify with a lot of what I heard. Come the end, I felt encouraged, energised, and almost hopeful. I went home and played ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ by Morrissey, in a spirit of utter defiance at my seemingly bottomless decline.
I rose the next morning with hope in my heart, and money in the bank, which I blew in the afternoon after spiralling back into disarray as the day dragged on. Not the best start, but I returned to meetings, and tried to listen to other people’s experiences, and readily dished up many theories and thoughts on the nature of addiction, whilst doing precious little off the back of my observations. I felt like an astronomer, seeing the universe about me, coming to an understanding of it, able to convey with enthusiasm how amazing and fabulous it was, but unable to reach out and touch or tweak it. I felt lights years from myself.
But the meetings were a lifeline, human contact and support from people who were going through, or who’d been through, something similar to myself. They were a cup of tea or coffee, and biscuits too, which were a rarity in my life at the time. One night, I loaded up my coat with malted milks, as my kitchen-cupboard contained one can of chickpeas and a squeezy ketchup, which, even in my emaciated state, didn’t throw up many recipe ideas.
One of the founding principles of NA is that addiction is a ‘disease’, and that the sufferer is ‘powerless’ over it, but following the twelve steps offers a path to ‘recovery’, a better life. At first, I leapt at these words like a wolf who’d suddenly found his pack. Yes, it was a disease, and I was powerless over it, my record proved it, and now I’d found people, and a framework, to put the drugs down and move on. But sometimes I would hear people, months or even years clean, talking about their disease, and how they were still powerless over it, and meanings seemed to become so vague, and unpinned from their origins, that I began to feel I was just swishing around in a huge linguistic melting-pot. What did it all really mean? I witnessed the word ‘disease’ suddenly developing a hyphen, to imply a state of ‘dis-ease’, rather than anything medically observable. A few months in, it seemed to me that all desire, if not life itself, was a form of disease, which I didn’t buy, and this nebulousness could end up with someone blaming their ‘disease’ for wanting a new Mercedes, which really just meant they were an overpaid twot.
I don’t find it helpful to think of addiction as a disease, with or without a hyphen. Nor do I believe that anyone is powerless over it – in fact, I feel it can be dangerous to use the word ‘powerless’, which can undermine the notion of personal choice. As for the promised recovery, well, how can one recover from a disease that doesn’t exist?
The twelve steps offer a ‘spiritual program’ of ‘complete abstinence from all drugs’. I didn’t much like the sound of complete abstinence. Much as I wanted to quit crack, and the heroin that was now becoming its compulsory sidekick, I had no desire to stop having the odd drink or spliff. As for the spiritual aspect, though no religion is promoted, sometimes I feel the framework itself becomes a kind of religion - for example, if one says, ‘I’ve put down the crack, but I still like the odd drink,’ the ethos of complete abstinence has been transgressed, and fundamentalist brows may furrow, as often I think they did when I spoke.
Once I said I’d had a glass of wine at a friend’s, but felt that was very different from smoking crack and crawling home to isolation and hunger. Someone after the meeting warned me that wine today would be crack tomorrow, laying out before me the slippery slope to self-destruction. I didn’t find this helpful, because my experience of alcohol has always been very different from my run-ins with crack. Also, if there’s one thing an addict likes, it’s an excuse to relapse, and this seemed to be setting up a self-fulfilling prophesy I could use to rationalise further falls from grace. But equally, another person said that if I was able to drink, I shouldn’t feel compelled to emulate others, whose circumstances may be different. Could it be that one size doesn’t fit all? Could it be that everyone is different? Could it be that fundamentalists are pests? Could it be that twelve-step fellowships are a way, not the way? I don’t belong easily. Even if there were a club for outsiders, I don’t think I’d join. But what would I have done without this, sometimes troubling, human contact? The osmosis of experience can be powerful, keeping alive people who might otherwise not be. Sometimes, someone would disappear from a meeting, having been a regular for weeks, maybe because they were using again, or gone to rehab, but often it was because they’d died, as addiction, however you define it, can kill you with your own hand. So far, I hadn’t assassinated myself, and had no desire to return to Morrissey’s warehouse any time soon.
I stuck around for months, and I think I was trying my best, even though my views were mostly heresy. I turned up, spoke, made friends, took numbers, got a sponsor (someone to help me through the steps), answered the questions in the step-working guide, wrote a load of claptrap to back up the claptrap I’d verbalised in meetings, but something wasn’t taking, the shoe wasn’t fitting, and I was still going down, just slightly slower than before. Then a combination of apathy, intellectual differences, and embarrassment, meant that meetings faded away, at least as a daily, or weekly, ritual. I’d show up occasionally, say I was fine, and dash away before anyone, zealot or not, could collar me. I only had a message of failure, humiliating for me, and probably very boring for everyone else. So it was back to the drug service, to my still-smiling counsellor, with a resigned request to be sent to residential rehab, but preferably not a twelve-step one. There’s only so long you can live on biscuits.
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Rehab on Sea