IIt was a Saturday night in early October 1986. My 30th birthday party, or what happened to that. Just a handful of junkies and my few remaining friends sitting on the floor of a gray, bare room in a South London apartment. I had thought it would be fun, because for once there was no shortage of heroine. Instead, I felt miserable.
I was in total despair as a rare moment of self-awareness had kicked in. It wasn’t just that I had ransacked my entire twenties, getting next to nothing of note; it was also that I saw no prospect of the future. My self-destruction was complete. I had hit rock bottom. It was a terrifying time, so there was only one thing going for it. Take more and more drugs until I lose consciousness. Happy Birthday to me.
For most drug addicts, heroin is the ultimate taboo. For me, not so much. I embraced him, actively searched for. When I first took it, at 20, it was like hooking up with an old friend. I felt warm, invulnerable. It was the barrier between me and the outside world that I had always sought. All of my feelings of low self-esteem, failure, and self-loathing were swept away. I didn’t need anyone or anything else.
Not that I intended to become a drug addict. Like every other junkie I met, I thought I could beat the system. I would be the one able to control my consumption; the slap wouldn’t control me, thank you very much.
The first few years, I almost got out of it. I set strict limits for myself, like taking heroin only on Saturdays. But everything has become blurry. Saturdays turned into Sundays. No harm done. Then I didn’t see why I shouldn’t start on Friday. Then Mondays. To take advantage on weekends. Before long, I was taking it every day. Then, one morning, after a day in which I couldn’t take medication, I woke up to find that I was sweating, having severe cramps, and needing to vomit. It took me a while to figure out that I had a habit.
The next eight years were years of not-so-steady decline, years in which I did all the things I had sworn never to do. Injecting heroin was only for real drug addicts, so I never would. Except that I did. All the misery, scams and lousy betrayals associated with drug addiction have become a part of my daily life. Lying and cheating have become second nature. I had a number of crappy jobs, but I never got to keep them because being a junkie was a full time business. I’ve lost count of the hours I spent hanging around in cars, pubs and street corners, waiting for dealerships to arrive. There were no cell phones; back then you had to work for your habit.
I have tried to give up countless times, either slowly reducing my daily use or taking a course of methadone, but nothing worked. I did not know of any drug addict who managed to cleanse himself. But with each failure, my self-esteem diminished and my sense of futility grew. Above all, it was the feeling of shame at what I had become. It’s always the shame that wins you over at the end. Almost everyone had abandoned me. I had given up on myself.
My lowest lasted almost six months. The feelings of hopelessness that overwhelmed me on my 30th birthday kept getting worse. I wanted to give up, but I didn’t know how. So more and more I sought self-annihilation. My use just got worse and worse. I flew away, only to come back lying on the ground much later. Overdosing became a way of life – the only way I could cure my self-hatred.
Then came a moment of clarity. Or a miracle. Call it what you want. I was challenged to quit by my wife – whom I married in 1985 and who had supported me despite everything – and one of my last friends. And rather than just push them away and say I would do yet another methadone treatment that I knew wouldn’t work, I agreed to do whatever they suggested. My desire to live was, briefly, stronger than my desire to die. A few days later, they returned with the name of a rehabilitation center. I had hardly heard of such a thing, let alone known someone who had been to one. Within a week, I had been admitted.
I don’t remember much from my four week stint in rehab other than they made me lose my mind – I was sick like a dog and barely slept the first two weeks – and that I was amazed to learn that I would have to stop taking all drugs, including alcohol. There were supposed to be therapy groups as well, but by far the most important thing the rehabilitation gave me was an introduction to the 12-step program.
I will never forget my first Narcotics Anonymous (UKNA) meeting. I sat in the back, shaking with fear and completely silent. What I heard changed my life. There were addicts with months and years of abstinence – something that seemed impossible – whose stories were similar to mine and who spoke of feelings that I could relate to. I never knew such people existed or that recovery was possible. It was like coming home.
The meetings became a lifeline for me when I got out of rehab and I felt ridiculously proud when I was chosen to be the host, offering tea and coffee. Again, I was the only person to volunteer. The meeting secretary later told me that his heart sank when I raised my hand, as he was sure I would only last a few weeks before relapsing and disappearing without a trace.
But I kept coming back, made lasting friendships, and slowly rebuilt something that felt like normal life. Finding work has proven to be problematic: who would want someone with an unexplained 10-year gap in their CV? Yet after a few years of part-time employment, I was inspired by a friend whom I admired at UKNA to write. I sent something to the Independent on Sunday and they accepted it. Mainly, I think, because they thought I was the novelist Jim Crace. No matter; I had a chance. Soon I was writing regularly for national championships and had been offered a book to write about cricket.
It took a long time for relationships to mend, for old friends and family to trust that my recovery was not another flash in the pan. But little by little, after a lot of therapy – I’m still with the same therapist 30 years later – things took shape. After five years, my wife and I even felt secure enough to start a family, that we had the resources to be decent parents. Our kids are now 29 and 26 and are much more articulate and emotionally accomplished than I was after many years of quitting drugs. I couldn’t be more proud of them.
Even so, the recovery was not easy. Many of my friends and acquaintances have passed away. AIDS, hepatitis C, suicide and overdose after relapse were many. The incidence of cancer and heart disease also appears to be much higher among recovering addicts than among friends who haven’t spent years abusing their bodies. No one comes out unscathed.
My mental health is plagued by depression and anxiety and I am often on the losing side. There were many days when I could barely get out of bed because I was having a panic attack, when nightmares happen almost every night. I regularly have dreams in which I return to drugs. On two occasions things got so bad that I had to be admitted to a mental hospital – most recently this summer. Even on good days, low self-esteem and low self-confidence are still present. The desire to disconnect, to disappear, can be overwhelming.
I have no doubt that if I had continued to take the amounts I had used in the last year of my active addiction, I would have died within six months. Just another junkie stat. Mourned by some and long forgotten by all. Yet here I am, almost 35 years later, still buggering me, my life much fuller, richer and longer than I could ever have imagined inside of me. I couldn’t have done it without the love and support of so many people. To all of you, I have a debt of gratitude that I will never be able to repay.
A Farewell to Calm by John Crace (Guardian Faber, Â£ 9.99) is out now. To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
In the UK and Ireland, The Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by email [email protected] Where [email protected]. The Mind Mental Health Charity can be contacted on 0300 123 3393 or by visiting esprit.org.uk. In the United States, the National lifeline for suicide prevention is at 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis assistance service Safety rope is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org