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[ Opinion ] [ Personal Narratives ]

How I Made It to 11 Years Clean

Despite a nervous breakdown, four psychiatric relapses and thinking terrorists had poisoned all the blueberries in my local supermarket.

I began my recovery in January 2005, having been airlifted out of Jamaica by my family as my cocaine habit was as out of control as a runaway bullet train. I had chosen St Chillin’s, Britain’s most exclusive rehab, as I felt it would look best on my C.V. and hoped to bump into a celebrity. Despite having been arrested at Heathrow airport, as sundry dogs, passengers and tea ladies detected that my passport and all my possessions were heavily (and visibly) coated in cocaine, I considered myself to be a party girl who had simply partied a bit hard. Quite what party I was attending when I was scoring drugs in a Jamaican ghetto at midnight, thinking I was likely to be gang raped and have my throat cut, is still a mystery. Other adventures I’d got up to included being seduced by a (female) teenage stripper in Jamaica, who’d killed someone the week before (and then stole my car). And deciding that the best medication for a cocaine induced heart attack, was (naturally) to take more cocaine.

Only a few days after the benzos I’d taken into rehab ran out, (which caused major panic attacks as well as a serious problem with imaginary insects that kept on biting me) I was forced to do “Step 1” of the NA 12 Step programme “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction that our lives had become unmanageable.” The reaction from my therapy group to what I’d been getting up to in Jamaica was, instead of the laughter and applause I’d been expecting, shocked silence and a recommendation “to write it all down as a public leaflet to warn people not to take drugs.” This feedback from my peers changed my life, reducing my denial from the size of the Titanic to a one person canoe. Instead of just having a break from my using, I now decided I was going to get clean.

After relating a catalogue of disasters with my mental health, the psychiatrist at St Chillin’s diagnosed me with borderline personality disorder and said I had “too many problems” to be treated in the private sector as I would “bankrupt my family.” This diagnosis came after previous diagnoses of clinical depression and bulimia in my early twenties. The psychiatrist said I needed to move to a state rehab. I decided I’d better listen to as my decisions had ended me up in rehab, totally broke. The only place my local authority would fund that had a bed, was a tough rehab in South London, bristling with ex-cons, where I met the “love of my life” an ex-armed robber, pimp and drug dealer who’d forgotten how long he’d spent in jail. Naturally, when I left residential rehab at the end of 2005, he moved straight in with me. But I’m not sure I would have got through that first Christmas out of rehab clean if he hadn’t been around.

I was going to 12 Step meetings, which I had always primarily viewed as places you went to pick up men, arriving at the end of the meeting, with my telephone number tattooed on an exposed breast. I had chosen a sponsor in NA, which I refer to as “Divorced From My Drug Dealer Anonymous” in my blog, because her handbag collection was much, much, bigger than mine. My handbags could fill a small boutique; hers could supply the entire population of Beijing. My local authority decided I was too deranged to be left in society on my own, so my doctor referred me to the Waterview Psychiatric Unit where they had a programme to treat people with Personality Disorders. I immediately renamed it the “Prison View Psychiatric Unit” as water was as absent as lakes in the Sahara, it was actually overlooking a juvenile detention centre.

My behaviour at Prison View was bizarre. For 3 months I would leap out of bed at 3am in the morning to iron the leaves of artificial plants. As I had purchased thousands of leaves, to decorate the communal parts of the Dry House I was living in, this process took the entire night, leaving me completely shattered. From early childhood I had always had a manic surge at 3am in the morning, which the doctors said could be cyclothymia, a milder form of bipolar. I was therefore put on respiridone, an anti-psychotic, which made me sleep at night.

The first major challenge to my sobriety came with my mother’s death in 2006, when I was a year and a half clean. This came after a horrendous 6 year illness in which she had been paralysed but shaking uncontrollably, having psychotic hallucinations and screaming from 5am to midnight every day. This unbearable situation was the major factor behind my drug addiction in Jamaica. Me and the ex-armed robber, Fred, went together to visit my mother in Jamaica as she was dying. It was shocking to see her, she was catatonic and barely recognised me. 

Then me and Fred went back together for the funeral which was devastating again. He was incredibly supportive and without him, I really don’t believe I would have got through my mother’s death without relapsing.

I then became obsessed with having a baby and purchased a family house in West London. This had an unfortunate effect on the relationship between the ex-armed robber and me. He’d been perfectly happy living in a dry house which I didn’t own but as soon as he moved into my house, he started being aggressive towards me as he felt out of control. The next big challenge to my sobriety came when, after a year of escalating abuse, he hit me and smashed up the house in a frenzy of violence, causing us to split up. I fell apart as he had been my lover, best friend everything to me. But my friend Sarah from “Divorced from my Drug Dealer Anonymous” and her mother looked after me in their beautiful old House in North London. I thought I had found my perfect home and my perfect family.

This was shattered when they sold the house and I had a falling out with Sarah the following year. I turned to God, doing the Alpha Course on Christianity at my local church where instead of becoming a Christian, I decided on taking a swifter route to union with God by marrying the Priest instead. Unfortunately he turned me down, with some excuse about a wife so I was left on my own.

I’ve had a number of psychiatric relapses in recovery, almost all linked to coming off psychiatric medication, or my decisions to reduce the dose to lose weight, because of my eating disorder.

Encouraged by my sponsor in “Divorced from my Drug Dealer Anonymous” I came off all medication in January 2008. This was against the advice of my psychiatric unit. I was OK for a few months but when I was facing what I regarded as a financial catastrophe, I fell apart, planning to kill myself every time I woke up shaking and terrified at 4am in the morning. I had to go back on medication.

In September 2008 I become disillusioned with the family house I’d bought and saw another one I thought I should have got instead. I became consumed with an obsession to pour petrol on myself and light it, killing myself and burning down my house, which lasted for two weeks.

After I split up with the ex-armed robber, I felt like a demon was possessing my brain and forcing me to kill myself. Every time I left the house I thought the demon was going to compel me to crash the car. I felt totally out of control and was seriously contemplating going back to a residential psychiatric unit.

In 2012 I decided, quite unreasonably, that my former lodger was going to kill me and was told I probably had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was put on paroxetine to treat the PTSD but this sent me into a whole new stratosphere of paranoia. I couldn’t leave the house and, when I did, I interpreted the tiny cuts in the packaging of the blueberries in my local supermarket as “evidence” that they had all been poisoned by a blueberry-hating terrorist group. 

After a day in which I had 9 panic attacks, and ended the day deciding I was definitely going to kill myself, I came off the paroxetine and resolved never to try anything similar again.

In all these psychiatric relapses although killing myself was a distinct possibility, using definitely was not. I had imbibed the 12 Step philosophy to such an extent that I believed that relapse was almost as bad as death. Indeed, when I was using, I warned by the doctors that I only had months to live so this was probably true.

The biggest threat to my sobriety came when I had a nervous breakdown at the end of 2013 which was linked to a financial crisis and the fact that the ex-armed robber was having a baby with someone else. I had wanted to get back together with him. The symptoms of the nervous breakdown were that I started to do crazy OCD checking rituals 10 hours a day, from 5pm to 5am in the morning. There were so many days during the nervous breakdown where I thought there is no way I will get through to the end of this day without getting drunk. Alcohol seemed a possible way out of the nightmare of the OCD, which was making me want to cut my throat, as when I had been drinking the OCD had been under control. My sponsor in AA which I call “Vodka for Breakfast Anonymous” in my blog convinced me that my life would be even worse if I picked up alcohol and I think that she was right. If anything, just as when I was tired I had to check more for fear of making mistakes, if my senses had been impaired by alcohol the OCD could have got worse. I used the recovery philosophy of picking up the phone and asking for help to get me through the nervous breakdown, gathering a circle of people around me to look after me. Eventually the OCD was brought under control by medication and therapy.

Though my 11 years of recovery from alcohol and drugs have been incredibly difficult because of my mental health problems, I have had one absolute rule: never pick up alcohol and drugs no matter how hard life gets. I have never relapsed on alcohol and drugs since I first came into recovery in January 2005, despite being bat shit crazy for large parts of my recovery. My clean time date is actually some time in January, when the drugs I smuggled into rehab ran out. But as this date is rather wooly in my mind I have always celebrated it in the week of the 7th February, when I left detox.

I have done my whole recovery in 12 Step Fellowships, although I have always regarded myself as a 12 Step “dissident” as there are elements of the philosophy I strongly disagree with. Thus I do not believe that addiction or alcoholism is caused by “character defects” or that the core of the illness is “self-centred fear.” I think a lot of addicts and alcoholics grow up with fear, as they are often in frightening, chaotic and dysfunctional households. The great weakness of the AA Big Book, as far as I am concerned, is that it has no acknowledgement of the role of trauma and abuse in creating alcoholism and addiction. Because of this, I under no circumstances believe that the AA Big Book can be the primary guide for my life. I have by no means followed all of the “suggestions” of the AA/NA programme. I did not stay out of a relationship for my first year of recovery, I did not immediately get a sponsor and, when I did, took two years to do any step work. I do not read the AA and NA literature and have done no Step Work for 4 years, while I focus on trauma therapy. Although when I was on the point of relapse during the nervous breakdown I spoke to my sponsor quite a lot, I rarely speak to her now as I do not need to. I also do not buy this constant 12 Step quest to rid yourself of “ego” as I think it is precisely ego strength that has kept me clean.

In the UK at least there is also opposition within 12 Step Fellowships to people taking psychiatric medication. I think this is a terrible thing, which made me incredibly ill in my early recovery and has led other people who are depressed to commit suicide. The primary reasons my mental health problems are in recovery are because I am now on a higher dose of medication than I was in early recovery and I have had a lot of therapy.

My disaffection with 12 Step has deepened in recent months, as for the first time in my entire 11 year recovery I have been exposed to people who openly criticize 12 Step and say it is not the only way to get clean. This has shaken my foundations, as the received wisdom in 12 Step is that it is the only or the best way to get clean. I now think there are other ways and that total abstinence is not an achievable goal for everyone. I am in something of an Existential crisis around my 12 Step membership questioning certain fundamental tenenents such as whether, if you relapsed, you would still be powerless over alcohol and whether it would be just as bad as when you were drinking before recovery. I am not 100% sure alcoholism is an incurable disease as I know some addicts/alcoholics who are now drinking socially. But my belief is that while addicts and alcoholics may be able to drink socially for a period of time all it takes is a bump in the road, a breakup, bereavement or job loss to get them back to alcoholic drinking. I have always believed in God and found prayer has been very helpful in overcoming my various addictions. But I have recently been exposed to a lot of very intelligent people online who do not believe in God. I am therefore questioning my faith and whether Christianity is a fantasy.

I am still attending 12 Step Groups every week and have been sharing about my issues with “the Programme.” Everyone has been very receptive to my questions so I do not think it is a cult. I do not want to stop going to meetings, as many people have cited that as a reason for relapsing. But it is not just fear that is keeping me in 12 Step it is the bonding and sense of togetherness. It gives the recovering addict a massive global network. Also in practical terms it provides me with a wide circle of friends who do not drink. My crisis with the “Programme” led me to (briefly) question whether maybe I could drink again. But everyone in my life, even those who have nothing to do with 12 Step, said I would be insane to pick up alcohol as my life is going so well. Through recovery groups, therapy and medication all my addictions and mental health problems are now in recovery. I am happier and more peaceful than I have ever been and am looking forward to what I think will be the best chapter of my life.

My blog is also going extremely well with over 6,000 hits in the last five weeks. As a former reporter for BBC Radio and Television I consider writing to be my career and have been trying to make it with my own non-journalistic writing since 1999. With the blog, this is finally coming true.

Read more of my story at