Natalie’s Story: ‘I didn’t plan to be an addict’ (Part 1)

IMG_3464I first met ‘Natalie’ over 12 years ago when I lived in South Wales. I will never forget how she emphasised the importance of providing online support for people with substance use problems. She had been desperate to find helpful online information when she trying to overcome her drug problem.

Natalie has always been such an inspiration to people around her. Mind you, many people had to first get over the shock of finding that such a lovely lady had once been a heroin addict.

1. Early years
I was very happy in my early childhood. My family was well-off financially, and I can remember having holidays that would last for months at a time. My parents would give me anything I wanted and I remember being very popular at school. At this time, I did not realise that there was a darker side to my family life.

When I was about eight years old, I discovered that my parents had a serious drug habit. The reason why my family home was always busy, with people around all hours of the day and night, was because of drugs.

Over the next year or so, I began to resent my parents’ drug use. I would say to my mother, “How would she feel if her mother did it?” I think my mother stopped using drugs because of my nagging, but my father carried on.

My family moved area when I was 11 years old. One week later, disaster struck! My Dad was arrested for a drug offense and was given a long prison sentence. I had just started a new school and suddenly our names and house were in the paper and on the news. It was a horrible, horrible time in my life, having to go to school knowing that everyone knew. I felt a lot of shame.

I started using cannabis and alcohol when I was 14. It felt like something I knew. I really liked the way that cannabis stopped me feeling. I could do something and not feel guilty about it. I started dating a guy called Richard around this time. He used to steal a lot of money from his parents and we would go out and have great fun. I began mitching off school, going to score with Richard and then just spend the day doing whatever we wanted.

When I was 15, I became pregnant. Richard and I split up four months into my pregnancy. I hadn’t been going to school, I didn’t really have any friends, and I found life really boring. On top of that, I gave up all drugs while I was pregnant. I even gave up cigarettes.

I didn’t start smoking cannabis again until four months after my son Joshua was born. When I was 17 or 18, I discovered the rave scene and took my first ecstasy tablet. I began using ecstasy every time I went clubbing.

When Joshua was two years old, I took speed in front of him for the first time. At this point, I didn’t think that I was addicted to anything, even though I was regularly using drugs and getting hammered on alcohol at the weekends.

I began dating a guy called John, who was dealing speed and hash. I didn’t really like John because he was an alcoholic and used to get in some right states. However, I could phone him up any time and he would come and take me out and he had loads of speed on him all the time. During this time, I really got into the clubbing scene. I lost loads of weight and got myself into a great deal of debt.

To begin with, I thought my speed use was controlled. Speed made me feel confident and happy. I also had to take lots of valium and temazepam to come down off the speed and to look after my little boy.

2. Life with heroin
Dad was released from prison when I was 19. Whilst he had been inside, he had developed a heroin habit. I think that this is when things started to go pear-shaped for me. Dad was dealing heroin to John, who had also gotten a habit whilst in prison.

I ended up trying heroin for the first time when I was 21. I didn’t think much of it. In fact, I was wondering what everyone had been going on about. However, at the same time it made me feel really chilled out and calm. I tried heroin again a week later, but after that I didn’t use it for a while.

My drinking, and speed and ecstasy use, escalated. Joshua was spending a lot of time with my Mum and Dad. I ended up in hospital because of my drug use and I lost my job because I was caught drinking while working. When I was about 22, I decided that I had had enough of using ecstasy because I couldn’t be bothered with all the paranoia. My logic at the time was that I would just use speed.

My relationship with John was really volatile. We would argue all the time, but for some reason I just kept going back to him. One of our most common arguments was over his heroin use. One day, I just thought, “Oh my God, I might as well join him, rather than arguing with him the whole time.” I started using heroin with John in the evenings while Joshua was in bed.

For me, heroin use became normal very quickly. My Dad was doing it, John was doing it and I just accepted it – there seemed to be no problem. I remember thinking, “What’s everyone on about, you can get addicted straight away. That’s bollocks.” I honestly thought I could take it or leave it, but for some reason I still kept taking it.

I still can’t believe how fast my heroin use escalated. I never ever thought this was going to happen to me. I began using heroin at an earlier time in the day, and was soon using it all day, every day. My Dad would sometimes give me gear as his way of showing that he cared. He didn’t want to see me in pain and withdrawing.

I reached a stage where I was using heroin in front of my son. All of my ‘friends’ would be there, as well as my brother, and because Joshua lived in the room with me, he saw what we were doing. However, the gear blocked all this out and numbed my feelings. I was totally oblivious, on a different planet.

Things got really out of hand. I somehow managed to hold down a job, but I would come home from work, gouch out in my work clothes, and then go straight to work the next morning. There were times when I didn’t even take a bath for two weeks. My hair would get really greasy, but I would just put talcum powder on it.

At times, I tried to do ‘normal’ things with Joshua. John and I would take him camping or to an amusement park. But wherever we went, the bong would come with us and we would smoke heroin.

My heroin use escalated until I was spending about £130 a day on gear. There came a point where I could no longer even take Joshua to school, as I couldn’t get out of bed. I would just set my alarm for ten past three so I would be up and dressed by the time he came home from school. My Mum started taking a lot more responsibility for Joshua.

The only reason that I stayed with John was to support my habit, as he had a good supply being a dealer. I couldn’t stand him, but I was so addicted to the drugs that I just couldn’t leave. John knew this and as a result could get away with treating me awfully. He spoke to me like shit and would walk out all the time. When he wasn’t there, I would be on the floor looking for the tiniest bits of heroin. I’d be smoking all kinds of crap, dog hair or anything. If it looked like heroin and it was all stuck in dust, I’d be smoking it.

At this time, I was completely lost. I remember thinking, “I’m scared,” but I couldn’t see a way out. I felt completely trapped. I absolutely hated using gear because of what it was doing. I felt totally controlled by John and heroin.

My heroin use was taking its toll on my body. I collapsed twice from using too much, once in front of Joshua. I would be sick most days and it got to the point where I just used to vomit into a plastic bag in front of whoever was there, including my son.

I was too afraid to go to the doctor for help because I thought they would take Joshua off me. Even though I was addicted to drugs and they were my priority, I still loved my son and no way did I want to lose him.

This was a really difficult period for my mum. She was nearly having a nervous breakdown. I was on heroin, my brother was on it, and my dad was on it. One day, my mum threatened to kick me out of the family house unless I got help. This was the kick up the backside that I needed, as I couldn’t imagine having to live with John.

3. Accessing treatment
I phoned up a local treatment agency and for the first time admitted that I was a heroin addict. I was crying on the phone and when the lady told me the date of my appointment it felt like ages away. It was three or four weeks, I think.

When I went for my appointment, I was offered a place on the pre-treatment programme. The drugs’ worker kept saying to me, “You’ll do this, kid” and I was like, “Oh my God, do you really think so!?” I really honestly couldn’t believe him. I just didn’t think I would be able to get out of my situation.

The treatment agency that I went to uses an approach that is based on the Minnesota Model of addiction, where addiction is viewed as a medical disease that can be treated with one-to-one counselling, family therapy, group therapy and involvement in 12-step groups such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

As I was so nervous on the first pre-treatment day, I asked my mother to walk up to the agency with me. It was first thing in the morning, about 09.30. I thought that was punishment in itself!

I was still using heroin when I first attended the agency. There were about fifteen people in my first group session, one of whom was an ex-heroin user who had been clean for about 16 years. She came over to talk to me and I was in awe. She had done exactly what I was doing and she had gotten through it. From that moment on, I didn’t feel so alone.

The agency suggested that I attend NA meetings. I went and sat there listening to other people’s stories and I couldn’t believe that people were saying they were now clean. I thought, “Oh yeah, they’re just saying that. They’re bound to have a smoke.”

As time passed, being at the agency and attending NA meetings felt fantastic. They were the right places for me. I actually felt like I belonged. It was really nice having something in common with other people. I also started to understand my addiction, and came to realise that my behaviour was part of my illness.

The agency suggested that I go for a detox at a local psychiatric hospital. I was absolutely horrified at the thought and was thinking, “There’s no way I’m going for a detox. That’s for down-and-outs, not for me. No way!” Even my family didn’t think that I needed a detox. However, the more that I thought about it, the more I realised I needed to attend the detox programme.

I began to wean myself off heroin whilst waiting to attend the programme. My Dad measured out a certain amount for me each day and that progressively reduced in size. I had tried to do this before but it hadn’t worked. However, this time was different, as I really wanted to do it. Over about two months, I reduced from using about £130 of heroin a day to about £10 a day.

When I was cutting down, I had real problems sleeping. That lasted for about two months. Sometimes, I was awake for most of the night. I was also feeling very shaky inside. I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. It was like being back in the world after being locked up for a couple of years.

Once I had stopped using heroin, I became aware of the simplest things, like the taste of food, birds singing and spring time. It was really strange. The mental withdrawal from heroin rip up something.

I started to keep a journal, which I’ve still got. Every time that I felt that I was going out of my mind, I would write in my journal or make sure that I did something to keep myself occupied. My family was really supportive, and when I felt like I couldn’t cope they would take me somewhere – to the beach, anywhere. I didn’t necessarily want to go, but it did help me.

One of the hardest things to deal with was the mental frustration. I had so many things going around my head and I was really scared. I had tried to change so many times before and I was battling with thoughts that I was going to mess up again. I had all these feelings rushing around my head, but I didn’t realise what they were because I had suppressed them for so long with heroin.

I can remember not being able to distinguish between feelings of hurt and anger. My counsellor really helped me to re-learn what different feelings stood for, which really helped.

The hardest thing was having to face up to my past problems and the reasons why I had been taking drugs. I didn’t want to face up to the bad things that had happened and that I’d done. It was so difficult trying to sort all of that out raw, without using drugs to cope.

At the beginning, my drug-using friends kept phoning me. This was really hard because I still wanted to be with them, but at the same time I didn’t. I was jealous that they were still using and I was just stuck in my house. John was particularly persistent and in the end I had to take an injunction out against him. My counsellor really helped with this matter, and gave me good advice, like not to get involved, burn any letters he sends, etc. I had to keep myself safe.

One of my main memories of this time was when I was trying to re-establish a ‘normal’ life. I was so used to gouching out every night in my clothes that I had forgotten the process of going to bed.

One night, I thought, “Well, what do you dowas much worse than the physical withdrawals. Mentally, I was so wired up. I felt as if I wanted to ? You must put your nightie on.” It’d been so long since I’d done it. And so I put my nightie on and got into bed and asked myself, “Well what do you do now?” “Right, people set their alarms, don’t they?” I responded. So I did that and the feeling was so strange, as I hadn’t done it for years. I thought, “This is what normal people do.” Mind you, it was about two o’clock in the morning, not exactly a normal time to go to bed. However, I certainly thought that it was quite normal!

Although it was strange getting used to a new day-to-day routine, it became quite easy after a while. I started taking my son to school and getting pleasure out of doing little things. I found it really important to stick to a routine and this really helped me.