I can’t remember exactly how old I was but I can remember it first having negative consequences for me at the age of 11. In turn I also began using solvents and other drugs. I used whatever I could as often as I could, and it wasn’t long before I was using something every day. Whether or not I wanted to use soon no longer mattered. On many occasions I found myself in the painful position of not wanting to use yet using anyway. And I was 43 years old before I escaped from this prison.
It wasn’t as if I couldn’t see the havoc using was wreaking in my life. Family relationships, friendships, romantic relationships – all were damaged or broken beyond repair, sometimes because of my behaviour and sometimes as I withdrew in shame at how I lived. My education had suffered and I drifted from one unfulfilling job to another, often ending up sacked because of my using or the unreliability resulting from it. I moved from bedsit to basement without ever sitting down and calculating the property I could have bought with the money I had spent on alcohol and other drugs.
Every now and then, usually after a particularly shameful incident or consequence of my using, I would try and get help to prevent things spiralling further out of control. I would temporarily cut back on my using until the crisis or memory of it had passed, only to soon find myself using as much if not more than before. This pattern repeated itself over the years, as I watched on, ever more isolated, whilst my contemporaries got careers, married, had families, and yet still managed to recreationally enjoy alcohol and often other drugs.
The last time I accessed treatment services – in an attempt to prevent myself losing another job – saw me once again trying to monitor and regulate my using, except this time I was no longer able to do it. I maybe used a bit less of one drug one week, but more of another. And on it went, round in circles until in exasperation my key-worker suggested to me that as I was unable to control my using the only alternative was to abstain completely. I can honestly say that this idea had never occurred to me before. She told me of a mutual aid group run by and for addicts that I could attend to help me help myself.
I was sceptical as to whether total abstinence was either achievable or desirable, but after some consideration, and in some desperation – having now lost my job – I plucked up the courage and went. I was amazed at what I found. I was welcomed with open arms into a meeting in which all the distinctions of the outside world no longer applied. The only characteristic shared by everyone – and which mattered – was their self-identification as addicts. As I sat and listened, I realised for the first time that I too was an addict. As those around me shared their stories I heard not only similar experiences, but similar feelings, emotions, reactions, ways of being. Here were people who had all been through the same nightmare of powerlessness as I had, but had managed to free themselves from active addiction by harnessing the experience, strength and hope of those who had suffered before them. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude and relief. I was no longer alone and had in front of my eyes proof of the possibility of recovery. I felt at home. I felt understood. I felt I belonged.
My life changed that day forever. Although the path ahead was not smooth and I relapsed many times before I was able and willing to stop using, the fact that I now knew it was possible kept me coming back, as did the love and encouragement of those I met, so many of whom I now count as friends. Superficially what unites us is our drug use; what unites us on a far deeper level – and why we are so often able to understand each other and get along together – are the personal characteristics we share as addicts.
It is now several years since I have used drugs (including alcohol), something which I once would never have believed possible. I did not and could not have achieved this alone, and will not, thankfully, have to try to in future.