After I’d left residential rehab, my ex-armed robber boyfriend Fred and I soon settled in to the sober house on the edge of Notting Hill. We realised, almost immediately, that not just me but the other residents of the street had some very strange ideas.
A man with a green mohican would constantly do Kung Fu in the middle of the road, ignoring the cars swerving by. I thought nothing odd about this, as a recovering exercise bulimic I knew the importance of not letting anything stand in the way of your daily exercise. There was no bird song, I noticed when I opened my windows. The birds had more sense than to live so close to the flyover with its sirens and juggernauts. But there was a Bird Man who would regale the street with strident renditions of a cuckoo at 8pm every evening. His loud “cuckoos” were sometimes drowned out by an angry Chinese woman shouting at her toes. Or a scrawny crackhead whose novel way of begging was to stand in the middle of the road and heckle the passing cars with ABBA songs.
After discounting the fact that a mushroom quiche from Tesco was making us hallucinate, Fred re-christened the street “Lunatic Lane.”
Half my neighbours seemed to have escaped from the nearby Psychiatric hospital and were being un-cared for in the community. The other half were pedalling crack or stolen bicycles. Almost every night, a phalanx of police cars would screech up, after residents would fling themselves through ground floor windows – sadly ignoring the glass – or stabbings would erupt in hostels infested with crack.
Fred loved it. He may have given up drugs but there was something about the chaos he almost missed. He’d always moaned that being in recovery was like driving at thirty miles an hour with a seat belt on – something he flatly refused to do. But the seat belts were definitely off for the residents of my street – and so was a wheel of their cars.
The other curious thing about the dry house was that all the alcoholics and street drinkers in the area would sit around chugging down Red Stripe on our front wall. This was presumably allowed by the dry house to show us where we might be heading if we relapsed. One of them was called “Slasher” and would sit there in a surgeon’s outfit and a stethoscope. As he glugged down on a bottle of beer, he said he was a cardiac surgeon but had retired for “personal reasons.” He offered to check out my chest but I declined.
Even inside the sober house something very odd was going on. People would ring on our doorbell at 3 and 4 am and they weren’t trying to deliver a pizza they were looking for crack. We soon realised one of our neighbours had turned her flat in this supposed “sober house” into a crack house which she was dealing from. The organisation that ran the house refused to do anything about it until the neighbour stole my credit card and was filmed on CCTV using my card on Portobello Road. For once there was someone – apart from myself – who was committing fraud on my card. It was almost a relief it wasn’t me. Now I was out of rehab and had my credit cards back, my shopping addiction had had a bit of a relapse. I was compulsively purchasing furniture and exotic accoutrements to turn the flat in the sober house into a des res.
As I fitted in rather too well on Lunatic Lane, my substance abuse worker at Kensington Council said I needed to continue my treatment at a day programme. So I went for an assessment at the Addiction Association in Central London. I went to the interview wearing a large black cap with 50 bright pink rollers on underneath. I must have thought the Addiction Association was doubling up as a hairdresser. As the interview started, I took off the cap and then spent the entire assessment winding and unwinding all the pink curlers, placing them carefully on my lap then back in my hair again. I was absolutely astonished when they put me in the Dual Diagnosis ie crazy as well as addicted group. Not that I made it into the group that often, they had strict time keeping boundaries and so with my pathological lateness I was never allowed in.
I was outraged that I was in a group with schizophrenics, who were much saner than my uncle but obviously, in my mind, much sicker than me. But the staff said the schizophrenics were much more under control than me as they were all on medication. I was frantically shopping online all night in a totally demented way. But, unlike before I went into rehab, I was spending within my means and didn’t run up an overdraft. This was partly because I had switched my attentions from Bond Street and Selfridges to discount store Argos and Portobello market.
It wasn’t just the clients at the Addiction Association that were dual diagnosis, their pets were unhinged as well. So one woman who had tried to hang herself had a dog which was not only an alcoholic but ate 30 cigarettes a day and compulsively self-harmed. Maybe the dog had picked up the behaviours from her as other dogs learn more usual skills from their owners such as walking to heel.
One of the schizophrenics who I got on very well with, in fact I think he fancied me, was incredibly happy one day wiggling and dancing around the therapy room singing the Black Eyed Peas song “My humps my humps my lovely lady lumps.” “Have a great weekend” I waved at him hoping to see him wiggling back in the following week. When we came back in on Monday, we were told that that very weekend he had relapsed on heroin and committed suicide. This was a terrible shock and should once again have alerted me to the dangers of forming close friendships with people in treatment. Is it me, I thought, aware that this was almost exactly what had happened to my special friend at my detox unit St Chillin’s.
As my time keeping was not conducive to me staying at the Addiction Association, I was referred by my doctor to the Waterview psychiatric unit, which had a three year programme to treat people with personality disorders. I immediately renamed this the “Prison View” psychiatric unit as views of water were as absent as lakes in the Sahara – it was actually overlooking a juvenile detention centre.
As soon as I arrived at Prison View, I decided that the crucial thing for being an outpatient at a psychiatric unit (7 days a week) was to have the correct (faux) designer wardrobe. I bought more designer sunglasses and oodles of new fake bags so I was always suitably dressed. My fake Chloe Paddington bag was realistic enough to be a clone but my fake Prada bag – from Prada of Peking – had a spelling mistake and was called Prickr instead of Prada. I was proud of my Prickr bag. I would strut down the street every day like a peacock from the dry house to the psychiatric unit not thinking “Oh God I’m going to a psychiatric unit,” but instead, “I wonder if someone’s going to photograph me I am in Notting Hill.”
Some of the inpatients at the unit were not so suitably dressed, shuffling around with their bums hanging out and toenails so long they could make a phone call. A disturbing number seemed to be Afro-Caribbean, and some were so bloated with medication they looked like the corpses of whales. Some would just sit on the grass outside, staring into space, totally dysfunctional. At least my uncle had a lot of energy in his hallucinations. He had in fact walked twelve miles home from a psychiatric hospital in his dressing gown and slippers in two feet of snow. Unlike my uncle, none of the inmates at Prison View looked like they thought they owned Knightsbridge, or had discovered Julius Caesar’s Roman Bath under a traffic light. They didn’t even look like they owned the shabby clothes they were in. I wonder if their parents beat them as well.
After a visit to a car show, I purchased an imaginary car (the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority was still persisting in its insane conspiracy against me) a BMW Z5 which had not been manufactured yet. As I was driving my imaginary car to the psychiatric unit, I was struck by a deep sense of certainty that I was the only sane person there.
My flat in the sober house was far from ideal with wood chip wallpaper that looked like an outbreak of chicken pox, “wooden” furniture from the Forest of Melamine and purple carpets which, after being covered with rugs, still looked like a bad acid trip. I had been threatened for years by (unpaid) electricity companies with a Power Key, where you had to buy the electricity in advance at the local shop. I now had my very own Power Key and could experience the joys of a blackout at 3am.
I had never lived in social housing (owned by the local authority or a housing association) before. But this change in my circumstances was absolutely not going to dent my interior designing flair. So I decorated the flat with my interesting collection of ethnic artefacts. I also decided I needed to spruce up the communal parts of the dry house (which were simply not up to scratch to receive my important visitors like my friend Susanna and parcels from Argos). I had a load of pictures, unwanted by the tenants, from my house in Notting Hill. But also resolved I needed to adorn the communal parts with artificial plants. I found a bunch of 5,000 fake green leaves in a shop on Portobello Road which were as realistic as fake diamond encrusted 6 inch nail extensions. But as a temporary solution it would do. I obtained suitably minimalist steel pots to hang the plants on the walls. But there was a serious defect with the leaves – the crease in the middle of the leaf was in the wrong place. As I’ve already said, the OCD was back on me again so this wrongly positioned crease was totally unacceptable.
I therefore started leaping out of bed at 3am every night to iron all the leaves, with the help of a mini travel iron which I’m absolutely sure the instructions said “can be used on plants.” I am not sure why I had to get out of bed at 3am but there was absolutely no question in my mind that it was precisely that moment that the leaves had to be ironed.
I think this had a lot in common with my sprinting around the library at 4am when I was at Oxford. I would be full of manic energy in the small hours of the morning, which the doctors said was cyclothymia, a milder form of bipolar. These leaf ironing interludes would not take half an hour or so I would be at it for the entire night. By 8am in the morning, having been ironing all night, I would be shattered and dysfunctional. I would go into the psychiatric unit, looking exhausted, almost crashing my imaginary car, and everyone would say “What on earth is wrong with you?” “I’ve been ironing leaves all night,” I would say with a sigh and everyone in my therapy group, would burst into laughter. This manic ironing went on for three months, interrupted by the odd night where I would jump out of bed and spend 7 hours removing split ends. My hair was pristine and split end free, I was completely frazzled.
This eventually came to an end when the psychiatrist at the unit prescribed me respiridone, an anti-psychotic, which for the first time in my life made me sleep at night. I would still pop out of bed at 3 to go to the loo and relapsed slightly with the OCD not ironing leaves but doing a bit of gardening.
I developed other forms of disabling OCD, relating to dog shit and serial killers in my cereal drawer. Because of my phobia of dog shit I became completely unable to walk down the street at night. I would hop, like a frog on speed, from one lighted patch of the pavement to another. This was (obviously) in case the dark patches concealed a poo. Alternatively I would just walk in the middle of the road, ignoring all the cars. I then had to dodge Kung Fu Man. When it snowed, I had to inform the psychiatric unit that I was completely housebound, as a dog shit might have been concealed under the snow.
After unfortunate further exposure to serial killer films (with my great sensitivity on the subject I found Shrek extremely harrowing) I spent huge amounts of time hunting serial killers. I had to check under the bath panel, the freezer, the cutlery drawer and even in my shoes. This did not strike me as irrational – these serial killers had an amazing propensity to shrink and the miniature serial killers were more deadly than malaria infested mosquitoes.
Another less helpful use for the cutlery drawer was that I had taken the 12 Step slogan “willing to go to any lengths for your recovery” to a slightly psychotic extreme. Thus every time I wanted a drink, which was frequent in that year, I would slash my arms with a carving knife instead. After one of these incidents my support worker at the project, who clearly had a doctorate in mental health, said that the solution to my complex mental health problems was simply “to eat more blueberries.” I tried this advice, I was willing to try anything I was so mad, but unfortunately the curative power of the berries passed me by.
I was in phase two of my life, the madness of using was (hopefully) over I was now into the Insanity of Being Sober instead. Fred was oddly sanguine about all this craziness and was about to register as my official “carer” on the National Health Service. He had, very tellingly, said when we were in rehab together “I love being with you, however mad I am I’m not as mad as you.”
He had decided to turn away from a life of crime by becoming an electrician and was studying electrics at a college near his house. So devoted was he to me that he would spend an hour taking three buses to the college every morning whereas he could have walked there in five minutes from his flat. Despite his commitment to a new life, contacts from his past would ring him up and offer him “jobs” all the time. One I dissuaded him from taking was working as a getaway driver on some enterprise, no doubt nefarious, in Birmingham.
The only thing Fred didn’t like about me was that I couldn’t sleep in the same bed as him and would end up on the sofa every night. This was allegedly because of his snoring but actually because I couldn’t handle the intimacy. Also when he went to bed, I would still be compulsively shopping on the internet. He wrote me a plaintive note saying “I go to bed alone I wake up alone.” I resolved to make more of an effort to sleep in the same bed as him so made him wear a gas mask to stop the snoring.
I developed a psychopathic obsession with getting a new mobile phone, spending 20 hours a day online looking for phones and all my time out of the house squatting in mobile phone shops. This replaced the ironing leaves as my new obsession. After 3 months in which I had talked of nothing but mobile phones and wanted to get a promotions job dressed as a giant charger, Fred said “I’ve had enough of you talking about phones why don’t you just go and buy one?” The phone that I bought (carefully colour coordinated to match my accessories) has been the most important phone in my life, as it still wakes me up every morning almost ten years later.
Despite his annoyance with the mobile phones, Fred was incredibly patient. When I looked into his dazzling cerulean eyes and felt his strong arms around me, I felt loved as I had never done before. I thought “this is the feeling I was looking for when I was on drugs.” The hole in my soul I’d had my entire life was now filled with love. Of course, with my mother complex, this meant I retreated to being a two year old again and started calling him “mummy.” I now decided that this ex-armed robber, pimp and drug dealer who’d tried to kill at least one person and had left a man paralysed after a fight, was of course, my perfect mother. Can you believe, after all of this, that I actually stayed clean?