More months of torpor crept by like a deviant monk, and my counsellor, probably lost for ideas, mentioned an approach to matters addictive called Intuitive Recovery. She said it was different from the twelve-step fellowships, and that, if I would like, she’d refer me. If the drug service had run a loyalty-card scheme, this transaction would’ve been the sun-lounger and parasol. Soon I would be in the catalogue, tanned and sated in a recovery position, smoothie beside me on responsibly sourced decking, implying a fun approach to responsible living. Yes, maybe it was worth one more lunge at hope. It would be a four-day course to take place at one of the drug-hubs in the borough. It all sounded fairly inoffensive, and at least it would get me out, show me new coffee-shops to sit in. Then, after a few more weeks of stasis, up came my number, and it was time to unfurl that parasol.
There we sat, 10am (dawn in drug-world) on day one, me and six classmates, in various states of mental and sartorial repair. Before us, two tutors, an impish Mancunian and a London lass, and, behind them on a whiteboard, a diagram of a human brain. They seemed sparky, welcoming, but not overly, and my cult-radar went into standby. I was tired of the twelve-step idea of the ‘disease’ of addiction, so opened what was left of my mind in the hope that, somehow, something helpful might get jemmied in. I was desperate for almost anything to refresh my senses, just make sense to me. I’d have almost pinned my colours to a seminar taken by Keith Harris and Orville, with Emu on the basics of relapse-prevention. It was a torrid yet tired state - any clarity that did shape as a light-bulb above me, I’d reach out and switch off to conserve resources, with only just enough energy to do that, tired of light, tired of the causes of light.
Thankfully, though, my credulity wasn’t overstretched. No puppets were deployed at all, nor any form of ventriloquism, another nice change from the twelve steps, which seemed like one big act of mass-ventriloquism, especially if you happened to stumble on a convention. No strings attached, but puppeteers everywhere.
Our tutors were both ex-users, but didn’t seem to be bringing with them an agenda, hidden or otherwise, or presenting themselves as templates of what ‘recovery should be’. They didn’t want us to shout into cushions, talk to empty chairs, or paint mugs. I was glad of this, because by now I was counselled out. As far as is possible in a world of drifting, fought-over meanings, they seemed to offer facts rather than ideas, or even ideals. Not everyone was quite so enamoured though. One guy behind me asked to go to the toilet, and that was the last we saw of him. So, to a dwindling class, our tutors talked about the brain’s relationship with pleasure, and showed how addiction can be seen as a natural and normal state for the brain to adopt, once introduced to a suitable catalyst - no more a disease than desire.
To me, this brought back my concept of addiction to me. More clearly I saw my problem as part of me, rather than a diffuse offshoot, a shadow-self, a mishmash of disease and defects that other people were defining around me. Rather than the ‘disease’ of addiction, the course spoke more about the ‘decisions’ of addiction. Rather than the ‘addict’ as something someone is, the inflection was more on ‘addiction’ as something someone does, a string of decisions that keeps alive the diminishing loop of relapse, remorse, and repetition.
At first I was pleased to have a platform, or gallows, from which to jeer at the twelve-step rabble, but even this kneejerk rebellion dissolved into less rigid thinking. Maybe one person’s disease was another’s bad decision. A twelve-stepper and a peddler of more clinical ideas might use different terms, but in the end they’re both trying to do the same thing, stop resorting to the quick fix. Why sing from different hymn-sheets when we’re all shouting into a whirlwind anyway? What’s in a name when it’s swept away in the hurricane? I can be booked for warzones.
I’d been lost in the noise of it, past advice, current advice, and advice that it seemed I was doomed to hear for the rest of my days, but never heed. Riddled with self-doubt, I still thought maybe the twelve steps would save me after all, like open arms I could no longer afford to shun. Maybe I was, as one NA fundamentalist had implied, in denial, not ready, not willing, or thought I was ‘special and different’ (SAD). Beset by clichés, I sometimes thought my only option was cling to one, in the hope it might take me somewhere safe. Better live shallow than die deep. Or maybe I was doomed to go round and round in the proverbial revolving-door of treatment, one that, if you’re not careful, spirals in the more you spin, ‘til you’re coiled around the spindle like a barber’s sign, face, just discernible in scarlet diagonals.
But here, in my informal-yet-lifesaving classroom setting, kettle’n’biscuits never far from reach, I didn’t feel preached at, or challenged simply for having a mind, asking questions. I felt spoken to on the level, factually, without recourse to the cobweb-clad identity of the ‘addict’, which by now was beginning to remind me more of the idea of original sin, transubstantiated into substance. I didn’t feel patronised either. The tutors, though ex-users, had nothing of the sinner that repenteth about them, no do-as-I-do map leading from rock-bottom to a precarious ledge halfway up a cliff.
It was a shaky progress, though. My demons and analysts were in full chorus throughout. On day three, with just three of us left, money went into my account, and I felt a compulsion to score when I got home, but somehow resisted by getting stoned and staring at octopi on Eden. I even had a dealer’s number in my phone, which I’d not quite deleted yet. It was touch’n’go – using would have scuppered the course, left me with a diminishing set of options, and more weeks of fear and despondency to negotiate before yet another hopeless push at hope. Their tentacles drifted balletic before me, seeming to wave me through, to a place of fluid blue. Almost as clever as dolphins, octopi, can even do crosswords - well, could if they could write.
Day four had a motivational, end of term feel to it, and everyone, that’s to say the three of us who’d stuck it out, seemed enthusiastic, even enlightened. We recapped, and looked at ways of keeping ahead of the addictive voice within. Then, after lunch, we completed, having turned up and said enough to indicate we’d been mostly awake. We were each given a certificate, a key-ring, and our workbooks to refer to as and when, but more, much more than this, they gave me what addiction, even rehab and twelve-step fellowships, hadn’t – a sense of a self.
Back in my flat, I was relieved to have made contact with people I found authentic, and sane. I was sad it was over, but they weren’t selling a set of values, an identity, a lifestyle, so why would they keep us? But it was no Saul-to-Paul thing. I wouldn’t have trusted it if it had been. There was no moment of clarity, more of a continuation of the tearing away of the cobweb, rubbing away of the condensation, and this experience consolidated what I was already coming to realise, rather late, some might argue, that I was in the driving-seat of my life, whether I liked it or not. I’d been writhing in the boot, bound, like a Houdini tribute-act, bent on getting famous for failing. Now it seemed, though, that the ropes had never been tied, boot, never locked. Whodini?
But I still felt frozen by years of inactivity, having lived in a flat for a decade that many couldn’t have stood for a year. It felt like a museum to motionlessness. But I was the gaoled and the gaoler, bewailing my confinement with key in pocket. Socially, I felt translucently alone, like I was slowly disappearing due to lack of human contact. People would pop in and out of my life, but it was intermittent, and mostly drug-related, how to get them, how to avoid them, what to do if you’ve used them and are feeling bad. Some old friends were gone, some were never there, even fewer still around, and there’s only so far you can take your relationship with your pharmacist.
The world through my window seemed like a dream seen through a prism. Each day felt like a piece of cold plasticine, its potential remote, something could be made from it, with some patient, thumb-numbing moulding, even though there were bits of hair and grit in it. I was tired of hurriedly morphing little men, only to fist them flat because they wouldn’t do the high-jump when I wanted. So I chose to adopt the attitude that genuine change is plasticine, not damascene.
For weeks, even the slightest threat of normal living flummoxed me. There wasn’t a lot of food in. There was money in the bank. What was I meant to do with that conundrum? One evening, I found myself milling through the rush-hour, pacing to the cashpoint, transmuting into that familiar apparition of pure appetite, to emerge scowling, on the verge again, outside Sainsburys Local, where I bought a pizza I couldn’t read the label of, and milk. I ate it watching Time Team, and cried. It was ham’n’pineapple.
and here is a song for you...
The Nice Man Cometh