- Mental Health
After hearing the sad news of Peaches Geldof’s death in April 2014, I remembered a conversation I had with her some years back.
We met at a party in Notting Hill Gate and I found her a lovely and bubbly girl. She was volunteering her time to help out at this event with her sisters and for a while we stood in the kitchen, chatting. Peaches was upbeat, even as the conversation turned to her struggle with depression. I was (and still am) in recovery from addiction, and we swapped notes on our experiences of dealing with our personal difficulties.
My first thought on hearing that she had died was “how on earth must her family be feeling?” Peaches was 25 years old, married with two young children, and on the surface had everything to live for. Her father, Bob, issued a heartbreaking statement, declaring that the family was “beyond pain”. In the days that followed, a toxicology report concluded that Peaches had died of a heroin overdose. Immediately I wondered: how much did her father know about her heroin addiction?
Although shocked at Peaches’ untimely death, I am not surprised she was using heroin to self-medicate in some way. I self-medicated with heroin for many years.
Now, I am an addiction counselor and founder of a rehab center in Thailand; we are based in the heart of South East Asia near the Golden Triangle, a region historically synonymous with opium cultivation. So how did I get here, and how did I survive when others, like Peaches, were not so lucky?
When I think about my own addiction, there’s one moment that will always be etched on my mind. I was in my 30s and I had been using crack and heroin for almost 20 years. I had accidentally overdosed yet again. This time, I woke up alone on the kitchen floor with a syringe still hanging out of my arm.
I realized how close to death I had come. If that had been the dose to kill me, my mother would have probably been the one to find me. I imagined her seeing me dead on the floor of my sad, messed-up apartment, which hadn’t been cleaned for months. I knew instantly that such a discovery was something she would never be able to get over, and the thought filled me with fear and shame.
That was the moment I decided to do whatever it took to turn my life around.
My apartment in Belsize Park had gone from a well-furnished, warm and cozy pad to something more like a crackhouse or squat. It became so disgusting that I used to joke that you needed to wipe your feet on the way out. A girlfriend had become so angry on one occasion she had thrown all the terracotta flower pots through the windows, smashing glass and dirt everywhere into the flat. And then the rain had come in. It was an unimaginable sight.
Camden Town’s drug users, sex-workers, beggars and Big Issue sellers were all welcome – a house full of guests, whoever they were, was preferable to being alone. Eventually, unsurprisingly, I was evicted.
I had always been a bit of a wild child. My twin and I got into the early punk scene on the Kings Road, London, in 1977. We started using recreational drugs, such as cheap speed and LSD.
It was in my punk days that I met Bob Geldof. I found him to be a generous and lovely guy; he always bothered to stop and talk to us. I saw his band the Boomtown Rats on many occasions; one time I remember him letting us in through the back door of the Roundhouse in Camden. I was only 14 or 15.
I first came across heroin when I was 16. I was at a friend’s squat in Islington and someone produced a brown powder and we smoked it on tin foil. I was only too willing to try it. It was unlike any drug I had ever taken.
I felt a warm feeling wash over me. I was strangely at ease throwing my guts up, without a worry in the world. It was like being in a bubble: nothing could touch me.
I was addicted immediately. I was not yet physically dependent – that took some time – but I was totally hooked anyway. It was like falling in love at first sight. Little did I know my 20-year struggle with heroin had just begun.
Nor did I know the incredible lengths that I would go to get my next hit. The relatively colorful world of punk rock was over for me and the grey twilight world of heroin addiction would take its place.
All I needed was a piece aluminum foil, that tiny bag of fine brown powder, and a lighter to make a black ball of hot tar run up and down the paper. Using a tube, I inhaled the smoke as deep as I could for that earthy, sweet taste of relief.
Why me? I could have been forgiven for thinking that it was simply my misspent youth that had brought me into contact with a dangerous and highly addictive drug.
But this is not the root of an addiction that I have come to understand. What I’ve learnt is that I have a disease, a condition that needed medicating. Heroin was simply my drug of choice.
I come from a financially-stretched middle-class family. We moved to central London when I was in my early teens and I went to a private school in Hampstead that has long since faded away. It was one of those alternative schools whose philosophy was to let children discover their own potential, so there was lots of freedom. Personally, I had a problem with motivation and boundaries to begin with, so I simply wasn’t able to manage myself under that regime. For me, it just meant chaos.
I sometimes joke, ironically, that my parents had no idea of the damage their hippie values did to me. They met at art school and had left-wing sympathies. My father was a university professor and specialized in Marxist philosophy; they both shared the same values as a lot of post-war middle-class parents did at that time, believing that it was constructive to let their kids run free.
For many years my parents simply hoped that I was artistic and all my skill and potential just hadn’t been tapped into. But their naive intention to encourage creativity and a free spirit somehow backfired.
I eventually got expelled – for various reasons, including causing mayhem, not turning up to lessons and taking drugs – so my Jewish grandmother sent me off to a kibbutz for a while. Although I can’t be certain, I think they all knew I was taking heroin. It simply wasn’t spoken about. When I think of Bob Geldof now, I wonder how much he knew about Peaches and her drug use.
At the beginning, I used to smoke heroin and always swore on my life that I would never inject it. When I came back from Israel I walked into my best friend’s flat in Maida Vale and a group of people were sitting around, injecting. It was a bizarre scene. In the six weeks I’d been away, they had moved on from smoking to shooting up.
I said, “Oh my God, what are you doing?” However, within two hours my resolve had broken and I’d asked one of my friends to inject me. It was an overwhelming, instant effect; a euphoric, orgasmic rush.
At the back of my mind I knew I was getting in deep, but another part of me dismissed any worries I had. Looking back, I was totally predisposed to addiction. My family was dysfunctional emotionally, and I had developed all sorts of personal issues. I’m a twin and my twin brother and I had a lot of difficulties, particularly with regard to our mother’s affections. Unusually for twins we were never close; we were highly competitive and always fighting. Deep down, I think we were both constantly fighting for my mother’s love and approval. I resented him and perceived him as getting more of everything at home.
As a child of the 70s, I had undiagnosed dyslexia and ADHD (this was later confirmed by a psychiatrist when I was in my thirties). I also had chronically low self-esteem and I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin. I was looking for something to fix me because I didn’t feel OK inside. Heroin seemed to work.
My drug use was not glamorous, although it accompanied me around the globe. Arrest and overdose became occupational hazards – along with brief spells in prisons in the UK and Germany.
Such setbacks didn’t stop me for long. I smoked, sniffed and injected brown powder I scored in Kings Cross, China-White in $10 raps on the streets of New York, and the aptly named Mexican-Mud in Los Angeles. The locations changed, jobs and relationships came and went, but heroin remained the constant in my life.
As the saying goes, “There is no hero in heroin”, quite the opposite. Addicts are pathologically selfish, dishonest and self-centered. They lie, steal, make empty promises and let everyone down. However, for the addict with a progressive disease, losing people and things often just means more self-medicating to deal with the chaos and shame. It is a downward cycle.
I reinvented myself often, as addicts do, manipulating opportunities. I was an expert at talking my way into things and out of situations. I moved from job to job and country to country, but I would always find myself back in the same position, with a needle in my arm.
Finally, after being repatriated to the UK from Germany by the charity Prisoners Abroad (due to my regular excursions into Holland for cheaper heroin and getting caught at the Germany-Holland border), I could no longer deny that I had lost control of my life.
My case worker back in London gave me the list of local NA meetings and sent me on my way. I went to a few meetings but, as always, did not feel like I belonged and, in my fragile state, it seemed like too much hard work. I wanted a quick fix, like the drug itself.
A burden to my family once again, my parents – who had bailed me out so many times before – finally said “Enough is enough; you’re on your own”. At that point, my existence was reduced to a life of methadone and petty crime. Addiction had totally consumed me and my life, as every day I would get up and have to look for a way to make enough money to get the drugs I needed to keep the demons away.
I cringe at these memories. Addiction is a progressive disease: it gets worse and worse over time if not addressed, or if the addict rejects recovery. Every day I became more pathetic. My hygiene was terrible and I got thinner and thinner, and more wasted. But I didn’t care. I became kamikaze, walking into a shop and picking up a TV to sell for drugs and walking out. Looking back, I think I wanted to get caught, as if I subconsciously believed that being sent to prison would mean I would get the help I needed.
I tried to quit, even going cold turkey, but all my efforts failed. I would sweat it out for three days straight but then, as soon as I could walk again, my resolve would weaken. As an addict, it is so easy to relapse. Even having people dying around me made no difference. As someone once said to me, “You learn to step over the bodies.”
But that rock-bottom moment when I overdosed with the needle in my arm was the moment the drugs no longer worked for me. Even heroin, the most efficient painkiller known to man, couldn’t kill the fear of imagining my mother finding my body.
After that last overdose, I felt utter despair and completely defeated. I begged for help and was given one final chance to go to rehab. That was over 10 years ago, and I’ve been clean ever since.
I am so grateful to have woken up from my overdose. Unfortunately, Peaches didn’t.
It’s hard to imagine how much suffering my actions caused my family over the years. Families of addicts suffer hugely, and are often powerless to help, whether they know the extent of their relative’s addiction or not. How do you help someone like me, or like Peaches? My advice is: never keep secrets, if you can help it. Always be honest and encourage honesty: active addiction thrives on secrets. Don’t be afraid to confront the issue of drug use. And above all, get help.
This is easier said than done. Whether they take the “tough love” approach or bend over backwards to help, even parents cannot always stop the all-powerful pull of active addiction.
And even when the addict is a parent, the addiction can be more powerful than the parental bond. People have asked “how could Peaches, a mother with two small children to care for, use heroin?” Sadly, to the addict, being a parent makes little difference.
A mother’s instinct to nurture her children is one of the most powerful drives in any human being. However, full-blown addiction is more powerful, which is something people with no experience of drugs struggle to understand. Working in local authority services, this was one of the painful lessons I learned. I witnessed many parents lose their children as a result of their drug and alcohol use.
I’m 50 now and am fully aware that I lost a good 20 years of my life to my addiction. But I am making up for it now. At first, when I got clean I worked as a gardener, but after about five years I started to work in rehab, helping other addicts and their families.
In 2013, I founded a new treatment project, I Thailand. It’s in one of the most beautiful settings in the world and it’s a job that is beyond my wildest dreams. We are helping addicts and alcoholics from all over the globe here.
My life is very different these days, but there are still consequences. I have Hepatitis C as a result of sharing dirty needles. I have a daughter whom I hurt so badly that it’s taken years to gain any trust. Those years can’t be undone. But I’m so thankful those years are behind me.