I first used heroin at 26. By 30 I was a registered addict who would be on an ever-spinning roundabout of treatment, drug use and trouble for many years to come. I lost over 12 years of my life to my addiction; for at least 10 of those years, my daily routine was consumed solely with taking drugs and finding the money to buy drugs. Often it was easier for me to remain in a single spot on the street, say a phone box or doorway, where I could take drugs, make the money to buy drugs, then take more drugs, than it was to return home. My life was chaotic, incredibly tiring and each day was the same.
I think people who haven't struggled with addiction presume that an addict's day is spent slouched on a sofa or cardboard box, smashed or high, but after a few years of using, I only ever chased the highs – I never actually got high because I’d developed tolerance to the drugs. I did develop an incredible work ethic though.
My average day looked a little like this: wake up ill at 5am and use, only ever heroin or methadone – there'd never be any crack cocaine left over, that's not the nature of crack. Sometimes fall back to sleep, but be constantly thinking or dreaming about how I would earn money that day. Get up and start to make money. For me that meant any number of jobs in and around the sex or drugs trade. Throughout the day, I’d buy and take drugs to keep well, eat a yoghurt, work more, do more drugs. Sleep a little in the afternoon, then go to work on porn lines for the whole night while doing drugs every hour or so in the toilets. Leave work at 3am, work on the way home, buy drugs, sleep and wake at 5am to start again. I did that for at least 10 years.
The only respite from that painful and eroding existence was my interaction with different drug services, often walk-in, often holistic – I had acupuncture, reflexology and talking therapy in east and central London on an almost weekly or sometimes daily basis. At least three or four times towards the end of my drug use, I accessed residential rehab services outside London. The expectation was that you would stay for three months. I didn't stay, I left to use, but – and this really matters – in the time I was there, I'd eat properly, I'd sleep, often for days at a time, I'd cry, people hugged me and told me that I was okay and that it could get better. I was made to feel normal.
In those rehabs – often beautiful country houses I could only dream of living in, like a farmhouse in Lincolnshire, or an Edwardian manor house in Somerset – I started to put myself back together again. I had developed anorexia without realising, so a treatment plan was put in place that followed me back out again and over many more years of drug use I was given drink supplements that helped me to put on and maintain weight. This helped enormously with my newly discovered HIV status. In rehab I was also tied into therapy for addiction, anorexia and HIV, which continued for the remaining years of my addiction and beyond. In one of those sessions I uttered the words that would turn my life around: "I'm transgender."
Many people have said to me that I got clean from drugs and changed my life beyond recognition because somehow I'm stronger and more resilient than others. Bullshit.
I had great interwoven support from a variety of targeted services that helped me to develop a sense of self-worth that I could scaffold upon. I was supported by a system which understood that to treat addiction you almost have to ignore the drug use, lift the surface and hug and support the underlying causes and needs. Most people I met through my drug use, be it on the street, in crack dens or rehabs, had myriad reasons – some far too brutal to mention – why drug or alcohol addiction was, for them, a safer life than attempting to create a future from the pain of the past.
A report from last year titled "State of the Sector 2017: Beyond the Tipping Point", lays out the fears of many in the drug and alcohol treatment sector that unless greater funding is put directly into services at a local level, and unless the punishing austerity cuts are halted, then treatment efficiency and availability will imminently be under severe pressure, services will have to close and one-to-one treatment, such as talking therapies, will be at risk.
The current policy and funding regime is not working. Our 'hard on drugs' mentality, which leads every successive government to maintain that they will stamp out drug use, runs parallel to the harsh truth that the average purity of street-level crack cocaine has risen from 26% in 2011 to a record high of 71% in 2016. That mentality isn't reducing the availability, usage or strength of the drugs being taken on our streets. We could, at the very least, develop a policy based on reality and kindness.
I'm still an addict; I always will be. I still need to look out for the signs when I start to slip into fear and dysfunction, only now I resolve that fear and dysfunction without drugs, utilising the strategies I acquired many years ago from the therapists and drug workers who valued my life before I did.
Those services enabled me to create the building blocks upon which I exist today. If and when I am in London and walk past someone just like me on the street asking for money, I will give them enough to score, without judgement, because I know that with all the cuts to localised and street level addiction services, my money will buy them some respite from what is an unceasingly hard life.
Somehow we have to look beyond our internal judgements and recognise that addiction rests in all of us. Hopefully it never becomes a reality, but we are no different from any addict. Cocaine use among 15 to 34-year-olds in the UK is the highest in Europe. Not all of those users, perhaps not even many, will go on to develop addictions – but some will and they will need support. Support which is rapidly disappearing.