Shit I can’t sleep. I can usually sleep. Shit I’m gunna get withdrawal. Damn, this is how it starts. Am I sweating? Yes, my pajamas are sticking to my legs. It’s slimy sweat too – thick with toxins like withdrawal sweat. Shit, I have to go in… four hours. Damn, why can’t I sleep? Shit.
It was Friday night before my best friend’s wedding that was scheduled to begin at 3pm on Saturday in a small village close to the town I grew up in. I was trying to sleep on a sofa-bed in a squalid bedsit in a dreary town – one month out of rehab. I had a coach leaving at 6am to take me to London and from there I planned to catch a train to the countryside. Everything would have been fine if I hadn’t relapsed the previous Sunday.
A piece of foil… a tiny bag… a lighter… inhale…. earthy-sweet taste… relief, relief, relief
It was only supposed to be one afternoon. I mean, Sunday afternoons are always depressing. Doubly so if you’re an addict newly birthed out of rehab, and only allowed back a couple of times a week for aftercare: that essential dressing on those roaring wounds: that essential gaffa tape on those screaming mouths in your head. I wanted a break. Just for one afternoon to bathe my screaming, bloody soul and silence the gnarled thoughts that gripped and poisoned by flowerbed mind.
But of course, heroin has a habit of making you feel even worse when you come down. So on Monday I sat on my bed with my head in my hands with the indefatigable rage in my head impossible to bear. I tried to be strong. Every cell was filled with willpower and focused on keeping my arse on that bed. But you can’t hold back the tide. The need was there too, it was everywhere, my whole being yearned for that medicine: the one solution I had for my pain.
I lasted minutes. And then I was on the move. The contents of my broke-ass creased in my grubby palm. The relief was instant – even before I left the flat. The trapped energy evaporated from my muscles and a feeling of intense anticipation awakened me. I walked through glorious woods: the smell of boot-churned mud and wet leaves, the blazing blue sky and the chilled air that promised autumn and gas fires.
There were no ticket barriers at the train station in my afterthought of a dead northern suburb. I stepped aboard the train and prayed not to see a ticket inspector. 10 minutes later I was out and walking fast. Junkies and police call it “walking with purpose”: it’s the fast, intense movement of someone absolutely fixated on getting somewhere as fast as possible. I scored at a homeless shelter from an anonymous junk slave. It took all my willpower to wait until I got home to suck heavily on that foil straw.
The click of the lighter bursting into life… the faint heat on the fingers… the mercurial brown blob… the vapor… grasping with my lungs…. relief, relief, relief.
It was now Tuesday and I really had to stop using. If I stopped now, I would feel a bit shit for a couple of days but come up smiling on the day of the wedding. I propped my laptop on a cardboard box and considered the internet; murky sunlight filtered through the mildewed windows.
Vapor like angels… sucking… fill my head with light… it’s coming out of my pours… the light beaming… so warm… so compassionate… this is how it should be…. Relief, relief, relief.
And here I was: 4am Saturday morning. I had managed to stop using on Thursday after a four day binge. Now the main question was if I would go into withdrawal during the wedding.
Heroin withdrawal affects people differently. How quickly you will get it depends on your body, the type and purity of the drug and how long you use it continuously for. Also, when it starts can be different for different people. Some heavy users go into withdrawal within hours. For others it may take days. I had been on the gear again for four days giving me a chance of contracting some symptoms the severity of which could not yet be ascertained. One of the first you will get is sleeplessness.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. The taxi arrived at 5:45am and I was ready in my suit. Hollow-eyed and plotting: if I can score in London, then I can smoke a few lines, just a few, enough to get my head straight and be there at my friend’s wedding, smiling like I mean it and not vomiting, sweating or sneezing over everyone. Yeh, that’s a good idea. God, I hope I can hold out throughout the coach journey.
We stopped at a service station. I had very little money. After I smoked my cigarette my all-encompassing craving needed a new object to fixate on (the process: craving, fixating, acquiring and using was a technique I used to block out the horror inside me that raged like a burning sandstorm). I filled a paper bag with expensive Pick’n’Mix candy at the service station shop and shoved it under my jacket. The thrill and guilt played in my stomach as I walked sedately from the shop and sat back down on the coach. After 10 minutes of scoffing the sweets my blood sang with sugar.
I emerged from Victoria bus station in into the roar of London: the angry red buses, the beetle taxis, and the people rushing like hamsters on a wheel. I smoked a cigarette and thought of scoring. But it was too late. The wedding began at three and I was already far behind schedule. And anyway, a few lines will just turn into a few more and soon I will be a pin-eyed stumbling wastrel embarrassing myself and possibly ruining the wedding. No, no. Better just get my arse there and hope I don’t go into withdrawal.
Despite the ominous portent of the previous night’s insomnia I was feeling OK – almost chipper. I was happy to see my friends and also terrified of their opinions. Some of them were school friends that I hadn’t seen for ages. Some of them (including the bride and groom) I lived with during the worst phase of my addiction… it’s always great to see old friends.
I caught my train out of London to a small commuter town I grew up in. There, I met Tim on a in a red-brick square under a shady tree. We had sat there as teenagers, high on LSD, smoking, pretending we were in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… Fear and Loathing in Littleford we had called it. Now here we were, both recently out of rehab, both newly relapsed and trying to hold it together for the wedding.
We sat there looking at the rich people in their shiny cars. The optimism of youth had faded and we were shaken by the sudden cruelty that can blow in on life’s wind. We hadn’t meant to be addicts. But this is what happened. And while our friends and peers were getting married and getting successful, here we were: unemployable, barely alive in shabby suits and aching for heroin.
A mutual friend picked us up from the square and delivered us to the wedding half an hour late. We sat at the back. It was a small ceremony in a small evangelical chapel. Poems on love were read. A Churchillian grandfather made a speech on the importance of faith in God in a successful marriage. And then we threw confetti and smiled for photographs.
“You’re looking really well” an old schoolfriend said. “I’m really glad you’ve sorted yourself out”, I made agreeable noises. If only he knew.
The reception was at the groom’s mum’s house. A delightful English cottage with a garden large enough to hold the 100-odd guests. At the back was a marquee (it rains frequently in England) and a number of tables where catering staff were serving drinks and heur d’ourves.
After a couple of glass of Champagne I felt a bit better and quite a lot sicker. My digestive system was still paralyzed by dope and the booze felt as if it was fermenting in my stomach.
The photographer began to arrange people in the low-angled summer sunlight. I felt a fraud posing for photos with the other happy, normal people. So I found a girl to talk to. I had kissed her in a grimy pub a few months before and distracted myself with her bright blue eyes and slender figure and wondered what her pussy tasted like. She remained cold and stiff as the gin and tonic in my sweaty hand.
It was time for dinner and speeches. Tim was also drunk by now. He was sat on a table a little away from me. He was like me, an addicted alien trying to appear normal. Addicts are so obvious to each other. We recognise other people who use the same fitting-in tactics that we do. Some are obvious: people-pleasing, showing-off, lying to make ourselves seem important while others are more subtle like the slightly over-earnest way we listen to a story, of course the most obvious is the copious amounts of booze and mind altering substances we cram into every orifice in our sick bodies. The Best Man made a lame joke; Tim punched the air and drunkenly yelled “yeah” much to the chagrin of his table.
The party was a dud. By 11pm most people had left and the dancefloor floated with debris and frumpy women dancing with little girls to 80s pop hits. We’ll just find some crack, have a smoke and come back: that was the plan as me and Tim stumbled out of the cottage garden towards the local pub where we could find a taxi. The destination was Basham, a commuter town a few miles away with a strong undercurrent of poor immigrants and gutter punks.
There was no crack. We waited in our suits for an hour in an unlit backstreet between a warehouse and a building site. Eventually the dealer showed up and handed us three bags of cool, brown heroin.
We smoked it using foil from an Amber Leaf rolling tobacco pouch. I first burned the plastic branding off to reveal the thin foil underneath – a technique I learned from the ex-cons I met in rehab. We had a little relief by this method but it the foil was too thin and we were burning the drug. So we walked a half mile to an all-night petrol garage.
We stumbled in under in our best suits, drunk, red-eyed and hollow-cheeked to purchase a roll of the cheapest tin foil and a lighter. Then we walked around the back of the carwash opposite and spread out on the pavement breathing in the sickly, mind-numbing fumes, one after the other.
The pain of alienation was gone, the loneliness, the anger, the despair of seeing everyone else so functional, the hatred of them and the hatred of ourselves for being the way we were… relief, relief, relief.