When you are a penniless junkie, getting any help at all requires a lot of commitment, and it took eight months of battle before I finally arrived at the rehab, a small voluntary (as opposed to private) set-up, deep in the heart of New Town country. It had beds for only seven people, so I suppose you could say I was lucky to get in. On a spring afternoon my partner drove me there and dropped me off with all my belongings. It was the dog end of April.
My first week at the rehab was ghastly. Every horrible day unfolded in the same way. Breakfast was until eight, but I couldn't eat a thing. We had to give urine samples, and a female member of staff came in the toilet to watch over me as I produced it. Then there was an hour for daily jobs. At 10am there was the first (of two) daily group sessions where I was introduced to the other residents and what they were in for.
The ratio of boozers to junkies was 4:3. A man known as Clarence and a younger man known as Lurch (who was built like a quarter back) were both smackheads. There was Mrs Mopp (a 70-year-old alcoholic woman with rat-pack syndrome - compulsive hoarding), Bruiser (a thirtysomething former bouncer, bank robber and bar-owner who was a "cross-addict" - he had swapped heroin for drink), Jog (so-called because he went running every day, a quiet, lonely old man with an alcohol problem) and Parkbench (an alcoholic in his 40s who'd been living rough on the street).
The first 15 minutes of the 90 minute-long meeting was taken up with "feelings". Sitting clutching my hot water bottle, I told them I felt terrible. It was explained to me that I was going through methadone withdrawal but I didn't see how that could be as I had finished my last 2mls two days earlier, and had only been coming off a small amount which I had not been on for a long time. Compared to the horror stories the others told me - a two grammes of smack a day habit or 100mls of methadone daily for years - I was strictly in the Mickey Mouse league (a part-time dragon chaser whereas these boys were seriously into needlepoint). I didn't believe it was possible that I could be suffering from the same withdrawal symptoms that they had, though speak to any junkie and they will tell you in the voice of doom never to touch methadone. It turned out to be good advice but too late.
I was so cold my very soul seemed frozen and I felt continually sick and had diarrhoea. One morning I was convinced I had flu and ME as I was so weak, unable to move. Perhaps the worst part was that I couldn't sleep so I did not manage even a few hours respite. The rehab's policy on painkillers was very firm - I had to ride it out, paracetamol being the only help on offer. Then the emotional stuff hit me, it just crept up from behind and mugged me. I was so exhausted, physically and mentally, that at that point I was almost ready to admit defeat and head for the nearest dealer. But I didn't; some deeply buried streak of willpower would not allow me to give up, especially when it had been such a struggle to get into rehab. Somehow I pulled through, though it was a full month before my body and sleeping pattern settled down.
When the worst of it was over, I took stock of my surroundings. It didn't take long before I began to realise things weren't quite right. The little things bothered me at first. The house was falling to pieces, nearly all the domestic appliances didn't work properly or were broken. I had to beg to get a key to my room. The "healthy diet" advertised in the brochure constituted of fry-ups every day. There was no No Smoking area - Jog and I were non-smokers stuck in a small house full of chain-smokers.
The residents weren't the problem. I got on with most of them, except Clarence, who was always trying to embarrass me with sexist remarks and smutty innuendo. Being the new girl, I felt unable to object much. The staff, however, were a different matter. I had asked for a female key worker, but had been assigned a man - a sweaty, Billy Bunter type. We got off to a pretty poor start when I tried to discuss with him the psychodynamic approach he was going to use; he seemed visibly annoyed to learn I knew a lot about psychotherapy for a layperson. But the most disturbing aspect of his behaviour was that he never missed an opportunity to touch me, particularly when there was no on else around in our counselling sessions.
The other important staff figure was a middle-aged woman whom the residents called Attilla. Her speciality, it turned out, was telling tales about you to other residents. She told everyone, on separate occasions, about my past - what job I used to do - and that I thought they were all complete morons (which was completely untrue).
Things became more confusing still when it became clear that the staff were not only unprofessional but unfair. Punishments would routinely be handed out to one resident for breaking a small rule; others would get away unreprimanded for breaking a serious rule. It bred terrible resentment among us all.
I wanted to complain to somebody officially many times, but was always talked out of it. Then everything came to a head one hot Sunday when I had a row in a park with Billy Bunter, sparked off when he punished me but not another resident for walking further than 100 yards without his permission. It was not the first time I had been "restricted" where other clients had not, and that, coupled with Billy's refusal to rein in Clarence, who practically got away with murder (he had taken heroin, drank and threatened a member of staff but not been ejected) pushed me to the limit. I exploded, told him he was crap at his job and poked him in the chest with my forefinger to make my point. Billy said I had "assaulted" him and tried to throw me out. It was touch-and-go until we found the manager who allowed me to stay, finally realising that something had to be done about Clarence.
After that Billy insisted I have a key session with him every time he was on duty and these - and he - became increasingly hard to handle. Even though I had challenged him about touching me, he carried on, even in front of the men, sometimes sidling up behind me, putting his arm under my shirt and sliding it round my waist. I complained to the manager twice and warned him I would go to an outside authority if things did not improve.
I went to the local Social Services Inspection Unit, who came to the home to investigate my complaints. Billy and the house manager denied many of the allegations - but shot themselves in the foot because it was documented in their records that punishments were issued unfairly. Following the inspector's visits, I hoped life at the rehab would improve. The touching stopped. But little else changed. After all, Billy did say to me one morning: "It's the word of a junkie and a trouble-maker against mine, and I think I know who'll be believed." That sent a chill through me, realising he was right: they could abuse their power and position as much as they liked, they had the classic escape route - it's a well-known fact that junkies are liars and piss artists spin yarns.
By the end of July, my position was intolerable. In my last five days, I followed the advice of the inspectors and wrote two letters to the acting manager. I didn't get a reply but a final written warning instead - for breaking the rules (I was a real rebel, receiving "restrictions" for being too long at the phonebox and forgetting to say I was going to Sainsbury's).
On my last day, Clarence came into the lounge and threatened me three times. He has a history of violence so I rang the police. I was asked by the managers to leave the premises. So anxious were they to have me out before the police arrived, that Billy and another member of staff drove me back to London at midnight. Clarence has since been sent down for GBH, and some of the staff were promoted soon after I left.
My three months at the rehab were an awful experience and not one I would recommend to anyone seeking help. It was an endurance test rather than the "therapeutic, non-judgmental and supportive community" advertised in their brochure. Yet, despite everything, I realise now that it was the best thing to happen to me. The men could not understand why I stayed, saying they'd have left long ago if they weren't dependant on the rehab re-housing them. But I dug my heels in because I had gone there to make an incredibly important change to my life, and was hindered in that by the very people who were supposed to help and support me.
I had been an unusual client, people from my background don't usually go through the system. It was a shock for the rehab to have someone like me, the only educated, articulate, middle-class woman with a bunch of ex-cons. I was aware of my rights and not afraid to demand them; they are used to clients coming from an environment of disempowerment whose attitude at the rehab was voiced as "keep your head down and do your time". I was an undercover reporter in my own nightmare where, unfortunately, the cliche about residential care turned out to be true. However, I was told by the inspectors that because of me, the rehab would become a better place for future residents. I hope so.
Meanwhile, I remain drug-free and have become what I wanted - changed for the better. But perhaps the most valuable lesson I learnt from being in rehab is what a lucky person I am, with everything to live for and nothing to take heroin for.Reuse content