After my last relapse I asked David to be my sponsor. In Narcotics Anonymous your ‘sponsor’ is another ex-addict who supports you and teaches you the way of the 12 Steps. Usually, the only qualification they have for this is religious fervor and prison time. David was five years clean which was something of a record in the group I attended. He was completely bald and had a face which looked like it belonged on the body of a much larger man. He spoke with a wide Mancunian accent and wore a green anorak and shorts all year around. David was one of the more stable members in a group of tracksuit trainwrecks that met every Wednesday night in the canteen of a homeless shelter. None of the homeless residents ever turned up no matter how loudly we bellowed the NA refrain, ‘keep coming back it works if you work it so work it you’re worth it!’ like a L’Oreal advert for smackheads.
In my short career at NA I had already gone through two sponsors. Both had ‘fired’ me for not being ‘serious’ about recovery. I disagreed. I wanted to get clean. I just hated being told what to do.12 Steppers like to believe that they give addicts a free choice whether to follow their path to recovery or not and, to be fair, they do. Except that choice tends to be ’12 Step Program or Insanity and Death’. This scared the shit out of me. So, driven by fear, I asked David to be sponsor number three.
After a couple of weeks he called me at home. I had a studio flat in a very cheap area of England which I paid for with my government support allowance. I had worked from the age of 13 so claiming benefits was something that was new to me. Rehab taught me that I could be happy without being high. It also taught me that I could collect free money and live in a free flat if I sent the benefits office a doctor’s note every six weeks which confirmed I was a smackhead and incapable of working. As I write, this system is being changed. And no wonder. My experience of the benefits system was that it supported the lifestyle it claimed to solve.
My flat was a tiny, dust-choked affair where the weak light of Northern England filtered through a row of bare trees outside my window. My laptop, which served as a TV and a phone, was placed on a cardboard box against a wall next to piles of homeless paperbacks. I couldn’t afford a hoover so my kitchen floor was a mess of crumbs. My flat was in a block of five. In our shared hallway and corridoors, behind closed doors, there lived one girl who looked like a Guinea Pig, a guy with agoraphobia, a slutty blonde, two Hungarians and a Bangladeshi man with depression. A mountain of junk mail and unopened final demands was piled by the shared front door. The hallway windows were touched with a sickly mildew. I saw David’s taxi cab pull into the car park from my first floor window and put the kettle on.
‘Alright Nathan let’s get started’ he said after I handed him his tea.
This time I was prepared to do what I was told. To make a real effort. I was not about to be fired by another sponsor. So I brightly produced my copy of the ‘Big Book’ of Alcoholics Anonymous.
‘Right now follow me’ David said, ‘turn to page 568’.
Feeling uncomfortable already, I opened the book at the page. It was an appendix entitled ‘Spiritual Experience’. As we read it together David pointed out certain words to be highlighted and made me write phrases in the margin:
where the text read ‘…he can only be defeated by an attitude of intolerance and belligerent denial’
David had me write the words, ‘know it all attitude’.
I guess the point of this exercise was to clarify the message of the book. We read on.
Where the text read, ‘the essentials of recovery’ David had me write
‘ I’m a looser without them’.
At the bottom of the page, he told me to write the words
‘if I stay here, I will die’.
My skin shivered slightly. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to believe David and the message in the ‘Big Book’ but I couldn’t. I reacted automatically against the labels it forced on me; ‘alcoholic’, ‘addict’, ‘helpless’, ‘powerless’. Words have power. As a writer I know. Labels can change a person. I had never been alcoholic but I felt I was being turned into one. . Words can become a self-fulfilling prophesy and, while these labels might help some people, I found their effect detrimental to my confidence and self esteem.
Furthermore, I felt that I couldn’t voice this concerns to David. People who become AA or NA sponsors often have their own recovery on shaky ground. In some groups, if you are struggling to stay sober yourself, you are encouraed to become a sponsor as a way of helping yourself. So to question the program is to prize a finger from your sponsor’s own shaky hold on recovery. And David was my last shot at sponsorship. I didn’t want to loose him so I kept my mouth shut while my resentment did a little dance inside.
By the end of the session I had admitted that I was an alcoholic as well as a heroin user; that I was mentally and bodily abnormal and I had to follow the instructions in the book lest I die. I didn’t believe any of it. I had been told time often that my negative feelings to the 12 Steps was a result of denial. This troubled me. And in a triumph of cricular reasoning, I was told again that if I reacted against being labelled a powerless addict and alcoholic then this proved I was definitly a powerless addict and alcoholic.
I showed David from my flat. By now it was early evening and winter’s dark pervaded. I lived in a suburban area and inbetween the streetlamps, trees protruded. The air was cold. I had to get high. I needed to escape. I need to get away from the 12 Step Program and the terrifying thought that I would become a self-flagellating teller of woe like them. Or carry on like I was – a lonely young man hooked on smack. I couldn’t stand it. I hated the way the Big Book was written in turgid, pseudo-religious prose. I hated the 12 steppers for blindly accepting whatever they were told. I hated the fact that their main prescription is the terminally ineffable ‘spiritual experience’.
Outside my flat, in the hallway of my block, stood my bright blue mountain bike. It was full-suspension and rode with the soft click-click of well oiled gears. It was stolen. My smack contact in nearby Manchester had spotted it unlocked and pinched it. Later that day, as the crack I had bought him ran out, he sold it to me for 15 quid. Now I had run out of money and I needed someone to buy it from me. Cursing my short-sightedness I stepped around the latest deluge of junk mail and pulled open the front door.
I cycled around the deserted suburban maze. A fine rain hanging in the air. No one around. I saw a couple of people and skidded to a halt next to them on the dark road,
‘wanna buy a bike?’ I asked manically. They quickly declined.
Next time, I tried a bit of salesmanship, showing it off, explaining that it had 24 gears, V-brakes and a light aluminum frame. No luck. Even though I was selling it for at less than 10% of what it was worth, something must have spooked them. Maybe it was something to do with the unusual experience of a desperate man accosting them on a dark road demanding they immediately purchase an expensive mountain bike. It was a flawed plan.
By now my thirst for drugs had become a raging torrent that demanded satisfaction. Sobriety was not an option. I cycled to the train station and heaved my bike onto the next train to Manchester. The train was warm and old. My dim reflection stared back at me in the black window. I avoided eye contact.
I hit Manchester with anticipation in my stomach wallowing in the sights and smells of the city: car fumes and take away food, rich couples leaving the theatre, drunk students in cheap bars and a homeless man on one last hustle. I could feel heroin in the air. Through the dregs of the city centre, past hotels and under bypasses I cycled to where my contact lived.
He was much shorter than me and had the barreled ribs and rough features of a long time alcoholic/junky. Nowadays, the only way he could get a rush was from injecting crack straight into his groin. The groin is the last resort of a junky who has collapsed all their reachable veins. It is dangerous to inject there because if you miss the blue wire and hit the red one an explosive hemorrhage will kill you.
His flat was surprisingly neat and tidy. He lived alone and had been on methadone long enough to have a degree of stability in his life. The kitchen/living area had a couple of sofas, a coffee table and French windows. He had an excitable puppy which he constantly bawled at. The dog, Suzy, was now so used to being addressed at high volume that she didn’t respond to any command that wasn’t screamed at her.
‘Ah, seeya bought it back didya?’ he said, referring to the bike. His Irish accent was delivered at a speed designed to confuse and disorientate the listener. A trick of the crook. I listened extra carefully, picking out relevant information from his deluge of syllables.
‘Do you think they’ll swap it for a bag?’ I asked,
‘T’aint swapping nuthin less I tick ma rock from daman’ he replied fiddling with his mobile. The dealer picked up,
‘whasa crack?’ Bryan said, ‘ya couldna find a rock for me wouldya?’ the conversation was short and contained further incomprehensible promises and warnings until Bryan seemed satisfied.
‘Our man’s gotta bike forye’ he went on, looking over at me.
‘Ah it’s sound it is’ he said poking the bike with his foot
‘yeh, alrightthen see ya soon’ and hung up.
‘They’ll be doinit for ye’ he said ‘jus one bag mind’
I was relived and started getting impatient for the dealer’s arrival. We watched TV and I advised Bryan what phone to get. Suzy ran and jumped on and off my lap while Bryan shouted at her
It was with a degree of poignancy that I watched the hooded teenager take my big blue bike away with a smirk leaving in exchange a small bag of heroin.
The bag looked tiny. I usually smoked three times that amount. I bit the tight knot tearing the polyethylene wrap open with my teeth and tipped the brown powder onto a square of foil. I had made foil tube for sucking up the evaporating fumes while I was waiting for the dealer to arrive and it hung in my mouth like a silver cigarette. Three lungfulls later and I felt better. But it wasn’t enough. I needed complete oblivion, I wanted reality gone, blocked out for a good 24 hours. I couldn’t bare the thought of going through all this to get high and not getting high enough. It was a tease without full satisfaction. The rage was still inside me and was not going to get quenched with this shitty amount of gear. I looked around and called to Bryan,
‘can you shoot me up?’
‘sure’ he replied.
No hesitation or moral wrangling or recommendations about ‘not going down this path’ he already had the needle ready.
‘That’s clean right?’ I said looking at the needle nervously
‘coursitis’ he replied absently, engrossed in cooking process. And I believed him because if I believed him, I would get high.
I examined the veins that lay beneath my virgin skin. I asked him for a tourniquet but he dismissed the idea saying I didn’t need one. I gave him my left arm, pale with blue lines running the length of it, Bryan took aim,
‘gotta be at 45 degree yusee’ he said, the painful insertion of the needle was deadened by the heroin I had already smoked
‘Then ya tilt it like this’ he went on before falling silent with concentration.
He expertly emptied the barrel into my arm. My mouth watered and a feeling oozed up my neck covering my head in a bath of infinite golden light; wooze and ecstacy. I half-sat, half-collapsed down; gasping with pleasure.
‘Stay there fa 10 minutes makesure yalrioit’ Bryan said, returning his kit to the cupboard under the kitchen sink. That night I floated home, remembering little, in love with everything.
That was the only time I ever shared a needle and it was over a year later I got a call from a doctor telling me I had Hep C. I felt shipwrecked. My life is now part of the statistics they use to scare school children with. Now, when I register with a new doctor, instead of proudly ticking the ‘No’ box for every available health condition, I mark the box marked ‘Hepititus’; one bruised box on someone’s white medical form.