After only a couple of hours’ sleep and a shivery, frightened night, the dawn comes. With it, the need to get up and get showered and dressed. This takes me an hour as I have to crawl across the carpet and sit on the shower floor as the water hits me hard, waking me into this nightmare.
Wrapped in towels, I crawl back to the bed and wait another hour for the energy to dress myself, feeling weak and pathetic like a small kitten. Eventually, I make it downstairs and force down some cereal. I am told that we will be having a meeting before I attend the 9.30 a.m. meditation group.
Several people arrive and seat themselves around me. I am introduced to the clinic owner, to Elaine (who I’d spoken to on the phone), Anne, the counsellor I’d met the previous evening and one other person—a young woman, whose name and position I miss. It immediately becomes obvious that the owner of the clinic very nearly didn’t take me on as I am taking so much fentanyl. He is scared I might die during my detox; either through overdosing on my existing meds or from the effects of the withdrawal symptoms.
When Anne tells him how much I confessed to taking daily, he thinks he has misheard. He looks so earnest (they all do, in fact, with such concern on their faces) that when he turns to me to clarify this, I can only whisper, “Sixty.”
“Sixty?” he asks, one eyebrow raised—whether in shock or horror, I don’t know.
“Sixty,” I say again, with more emphasis this time. If I’m going down, I may as well do it with courage. Sixty. There’s a finality about it. And I have the feeling the stunned silence is hiding their urge to laugh this time. Someone whistles. A low whistle.
“Jesus, it’s a wonder you’re upright. That amount would floor an elephant.”
It’s the clinic owner. He’s looking at me like I’m an alien from another planet. I stare back. Too late for shame. I’ve admitted how profoundly I’ve fucked up. Suck it up like I have to, I think. It’s not as if I’m hiding anything or lying to them. Actually, I feel that some of the group don’t believe me and I don’t know why. Later, when they start organizing my drugs for the next few days before I go down to the treatment centre in the depths of the English countryside, I realize they think I’m lying to get more drugs out of my GP. Elaine rings him and they have some difficult conversations. He refuses to supply the drugs, saying it’s up to the clinic to pay for whatever I’ll need during my detox as they’re charging me nearly five grand per week.
He may have a point.
Elaine tells me there’s nothing she can do and I’ll have to pay for my drugs. This amounts to nearly a thousand pounds which I do not have, so I call Dr M. myself. I apologize for whatever Elaine has said to upset him and ask him direct: will he supply the drugs or do I have to find even more money, borrow more off my parents, throw more of my dignity down the drain?
“It’s not as if the NHS is paying to detox me off the drugs they prescribed for me,” I say.
He signs the prescription. I call Mum, she goes to collect it and then faxes it to the chemist. Job done.
At 9.30 a.m., I am pointed in the direction of the morning meditation group in premises just across the road. Four people troop in. I am already sitting in one of the plastic chairs which are placed in a circle in the tiny attic room. Anne, the counsellor for today, comes in and says good morning. She’s wearing a black suit which makes her look intimidating—corporate even. There’s a thin guy with a hoodie on, age indeterminate, a girl who looks Greek with luscious long dark hair and layers of clothing covering her slim frame and an Asian guy in a pin-striped suit. And there’s me, huddled and self-conscious in a furry winter coat, trying not to acknowledge I’m here.
We’re asked to say how we feel. I have absolutely no idea. It seems others have the same problem identifying their own mood. Anne hands out a chart with a “feelings wheel” on it. I almost snort out a laugh then, as the man wearing the hoodie picks it up, saying he has an uncomfortable sensation in his stomach/solar plexus area. His name is Will and this feeling apparently corresponds to anger. That feels like it makes sense to me. I don’t bother looking at the physical symptoms of suppressed feelings as everything hurts. I say “joy.” I don’t know why I say joy when it comes to my turn. I think I’m being sarcastic, but as each person in the circle introduces themselves by saying, “I’m…and I’m an addict,” and then my turn comes and I say the words, “I am Cathryn and I am an addict” for the first time, the tears start spilling out of my traitorous eyes and rolling in floods down my cheeks. And momentarily, I do feel joy. Like I’m not the only fucked-up loser in the world. Like I’m actually accepted by people who are the same as me. They are all nodding and smiling at me, like I’ve joined some sort of cult and it all feels very odd and unsettling. As quickly as I think the thought it passes though, and I’m just back to being the scared, crying, angry girl again. Sorry—woman. I keep forgetting I’m 39 and I really should’ve sorted all this out by now.
Today it’s Will’s turn to tell his story. To start the therapy, Anne tells us that we are all the same emotional age as the day we started using. Will laughs.
“I’m seriously emotionally retarded then,” he says. “I started stealing my dad’s booze at the age of six.” Some of the group laugh with him. I just feel pity and sadness—for him and for all of us in this small, incongruous room. Will goes on. His voice wavers with uncertainty as he speaks. He first blacked out at the age of seven, first smoked weed at the age of nine, then got into pills, coke and smack from 11 onwards. There’s more nervous laughter in the room. He’s hit a nerve. And not just in himself. I am a six-year-old boy, he says and he starts to cry. We watch in uncomfortable silence, feeling like we’re intruding on something private and secret, taking in the horror of his past.
Will eventually continues telling his story. He tells of his dad lying unconscious on the smelly, lousy sofa. The TV blaring through the night in the dingy council flat that was his home. His mum left before he went to school, just upped and went. He hasn’t seen her since. School was a passing phase. He didn’t spend much time there, choosing instead to skive off with a mate and a big bag of weed. They’d smoke through the days and nights, the flat blacked out, the curtains shut and his bedroom door locked. Hidden away in an internal world of paranoia, it was the only escape from his grim existence. They’d smoke till the bag was gone.
He was still just 11 years old.
His mate would play hardcore house music. Will took to it like a drowning man. He was a drowning boy. He started DJ-ing, later making it big in the underground music scene. We sat in horrified silence as he described the clubs he went to, filled mostly with men, faces covered with balaclavas or bandanas, eyes glittering in the pitch black. Thumping, banging noise, jagged garage, sharp and frenzied. Scoring drugs, lots of drugs, the music pumping. Scoring pills, coke, smack, crack, anything, anything. Some carried guns, some home-made weapons. Knuckle dusters, machetes. There was always someone who got hurt. It was like a jungle, he says. A beating, seething, heartless jungle. Every one suspicious, everyone paranoid.
My heart beats faster just listening to him. Spellbound and scared for him. So much hurt, fear and pain in one person’s life. He got respect. He became an underground DJ. Machetes, gunshots, knifings—and still he went: for the high, the adrenalin kick, for the thrill of surviving each time he played a set. Then he plays a tune. Clicks a button on his laptop and the sickening urgency of his world fills the room, like the panicky, racing moments before a heart attack. The vocals are otherworldly, disjointed, pleading for the listener to stay.
Never let me go. Never let me go.
When it finishes, we sit, stunned. Amazed this person is alive, has survived the unhinged world of the grotesque, twisted fantasia he inhabited. How do we fill the space with words, with meaning?
We sit. We wait.
The spell is broken by a knock at the door. Someone’s asking for me. I step outside, feeling confused. Which world am I in? There’s an urgency growing in me too. It has been two hours since my last lozenge. I’m starting to get the craving, the fidgeting, relentless need as my drug starts leaving me. Never let me go. Never let me go.
“Hello,” I say down the phone. I sound strange, distant even to myself.
It is a man’s voice. He is the chemist the clinic uses. Elaine is there with him and has given him my name and number. “Your prescription is for far too much. Do you realise the NHS limit is eight lozenges per day?” His voice is brusque and it grates against the rawness of the moment.
My humiliation compounded, my nerves jangling in confusion, I choke back some kind of sound, of disbelief maybe—doesn’t he know where I am? I reply slowly. I have to force myself to be calm and polite, measuring each word in my mouth before easing it out. “Yes I am very aware I am overdosing and I am also aware that if I had stuck to the NHS maximum, I would not be in rehab.”
It’s the pharmacist’s turn for silence. Elaine’s voice, saying something unintelligible in the background, breaks the impasse. Suddenly, I feel vulnerable, weary, hunted. She takes the phone.
“I just wanted to make sure you understand you are taking too much,” she says. At this point, I would like to ask her what the fuck she’s playing at, but I don’t have the energy. Instead I tell her I’ll see her back at the clinic with the medication. Incredulous, I put down the phone and feel a surge of anger I’m unable to express. It turns to tears. I go back into the room. Anne asks if everything is ok. She can see I am in a state.
“I’m the girl who takes too much,” I say. There’s a slight pause.
“So am I,” says Anne.
This is an excerpt from Painkiller Addict, which is published by Piatkus Books, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, distributed by Trafalgar Square Publishing/iPg.