‘How I Overcame my Heroin Addiction – and Started to Live’ by John Crace

John Crace, who became addicted to heroin in his early 20s. Photograph: Theo Moye/apexnewspix.com

One of my favourite newspaper writers is John Crace, the Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer. He writes really well, challenges the political system and politicians (hitting all the nails on the head), and possesses a wicked sense of humour. Imagine my surprise when I discovered by reading one of John’s articles that he is a recovering heroin addict. Here is that article, straight from the Guardian of 25 March 2019.

Deciding to give up the drugs was easy. But Narcotics Anonymous meetings got me through the really hard bit – staying off them for good

It was one of the easier decisions I have made. So easy that I must have made it hundreds of times over the best part of 10 years. The first time, I was in my early 20s and had woken to find I had cramps, sweats and felt wretchedly sick. That was when I knew what I had fondly imagined was recreational drug use had slipped into full-on heroin addiction. This has got to stop now, I told myself. A couple of days of cold turkey and then get back on with my life – a decision that lasted as long as it took to get up and go to score.

So it went on. There can’t have been a day after that when I didn’t tell myself I had to stop using heroin. Sometimes it was no more than a passing thought as I drifted in and out of consciousness; on other occasions there was rather more deliberation. Sometimes, I would even stockpile methadone and sleeping pills for that moment – always a week or more in the future – when I’d be ready to give up smack.

I once even got as far as moving out of London and spent a month in the country doing nothing apart from getting pissed, smoking dope and taking pills. That felt like getting clean to me. When I thought I had definitely got rid of my habit, I headed back to the city, intending to start afresh. Somewhere on the M4 the car developed a mind of its own. Instead of driving back to my room in Peckham, I was drawn to my dealer in Stepney. That was the next five years of my life taken care of.

It was never the deciding to give up drugs that was the problem. It was the deciding to stay off them permanently. Then one day, roughly six months after my 30th birthday, I found I meant my decision to give up smack enough to keep to it. My life had been increasingly falling apart. I’d been overdosing regularly and could see that, if I didn’t stop, I would be dead within a year. Inside me was someone who still wanted to live. So when my wife and near enough only remaining friend both sat me down and told me to go to rehab, I was ready to listen. I couldn’t even be bothered to bullshit that my habit wasn’t that bad and a methadone prescription would do the trick.

The four weeks in rehab were the easy bit. Sure, the cold turkey was hell, but there was a structure. As well as a lock on the door. There was also the company of the other addicts, some good counsellors and an ever growing sense of self-preservation.

I even asked my wife to get rid of a bottle of barbiturates that I’d stashed in the house for when I got home. Yup, even when I had been willing to take that life-changing decision to go into rehab, part of me was still hedging my bets. A little reward for when I got out to take the edge off things. Some decisions have to be made in stages.

If it was rehab that got me clean, it was Narcotics Anonymous that kept me clean. Without meetings, I would have been back on drugs within days. NA gave me meaning and hope. Before then, I had never come across anyone who had stayed clean without using any drugs or alcohol. My only frame of reference had been junkies who fell into two categories: alive or dead. Back in 1987, NA was quite small in London so it was just about possible to know everyone in the fellowship. I felt an intense sense of belonging. Like a family I had never known, who understood my life, my shame, my darkness. Anyone who had been clean for more than a couple of years was like a god to me.

A day at a time. That was the mantra. I went to meetings. I took on a tea and coffee commitment. Mostly I sat at the back and listened, too shy and inarticulate to speak. In the early days, I had no sentences, not even words, to describe my feelings. Slowly, I discovered a voice, owned my pain and remade my life. I found I was still the person I had always been as a child. I was insecure, narcissistic, self-destructive and felt unloved, but I could live with those feelings without taking drugs.

Sometimes it was easier than others. Once I was hospitalised with mental health issues and have since had frequent episodes of anxiety and depression. Even now, I still have dreams in which I am using heroin and it leaves me feeling off balance for a couple of hours. But using has never been an option.

Many of the people I knew from NA are dead. Some relapsed and overdosed. Some killed themselves. Some died of Aids and hepatitis C. Others have died of heart disease and cancer: a far higher mortality rate from natural causes than among those I know who weren’t addicts. At times, it has felt attritional. But I owe all these people – the living and the dead – my life. Without them, I wouldn’t have had the ability to form relationships that are truly meaningful. I have had to learn from scratch how to be a husband, a father and a friend.

I am one of the fortunate ones. Sure, I’ve worked hard at my recovery, but I have been lucky to have people in my life whom I adore and to have been able to make a career out of doing a job I love. Yes, it would have been nice to have enjoyed it all a bit more – I tend only to recognise happiness as the absence of pain – but you can’t have everything. I’m still here and that’s the main thing – 32 years this month and counting.