THE popular image of a heroin addict is of a gaunt, pockmarked youth, lying in a subway with a syringe in his arm. That image is deceptive. A large number of addicts - middle-class addicts, yuppie addicts - look perfectly ordinary. These are the people who have a professional life by day, and take 'smack' only in the evening.

For two years, at the beginning of the Nineties, I was one of those middle-class addicts. During this blighted period of my life, spent - when not at work - in various Peckham tower blocks, Bloomsbury tenements and dodgy Portobello pubs, I became aware of a refined subspecies of addict: the upper-crust junkie.

Whenever friends and newcomers gathered to take smack, there was always one person more languid than the rest. Better spoken. More at ease. Less concerned about getting ripped off. Like silvery waterflies, these aristocratic addicts skimmed the surface of the London drug world - not quite part of it, yet somehow related. They always turned out to be Lady this, or the Honourable that, or the only daughter of a foreign diplomat.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about these high-born heroin addicts - at least to me - was the way they fluidly entered and left the drug scene. For a lot of people there are two established ways of giving up heroin: going to prison, or dying. With heroin, you don't just get up and go home. Yet for these rich kids, it was different: they really did have a surefire third alternative: signing themselves into an expensive detoxification centre, and thereafter attending cosy, fashionable, support groups.

Entire cottage industries have been built up to support the wealthy addict's needs. The resort of Weston-super-Mare, for instance, has been virtually taken over by exclusive clinics and private nursing homes, such as pounds 1,000-a-week Barley Wood. Similarly, in London there are several locales where the intravenously abusing viscount can feel at ease. One is Radnor Walk, Chelsea, site of the famous Charter Clinic detox centre, plus some understanding private doctors and several chi-chi outposts of the addicts' support group, Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

An offshoot of Alcoholics Anonymous, NA was founded in the USA in the mid-Seventies. Like its forerunner, it is a world-wide, non-profit-making, self-organising network of groups, each of which uses the so-called Minnesota Method, or Twelve Step programme. The essence of this is to get the addict to admit his powerlessness over his drug problem, and to oblige him to hand over his destiny to an unspecified 'higher being'. Only thus, NA contends, can an addict hope to slay the dragon of addiction.

An NA group meeting can vary in size from half a dozen people to 20 or more: there are at least 10 groups in the Kensington and Chelsea area. Lasting about an hour, the meetings consist of a confessional preamble from a senior member, followed by impromptu monologues from each member of the group.

During these monologues an addict can discuss his deepest addictive problems - or moan about his love life or the England football manager for that matter. The important thing is to open up and be honest. At the end of the session, everyone chips in a couple of pounds towards the cost of room hire; after that it's down the road for a drink or a meal: the Chelsea Potter pub and Pucci Pizza (both in the King's Road) are particularly popular with the west London set.

These clinics and support groups put a lot of people on the straight and narrow, and keep them there. However, they also have drawbacks, which became obvious to me, and my friends, when we attempted to enter the West London NA freemasonry.

For a start, there is something disagreeable about spending your afternoons listening to poor little rich girls and boys tell their tragic life stories to one another. You can't help thinking of all the truly deprived addicts, for whom heroin is an analgesic necessity, rather than a giggle gone wrong.

The second trouble with NA, and its Chelsea network in particular, is the way it has been hijacked by non-junkies. A lot of people use NA as an employment network - I've seen people buy and sell film scripts after a meeting - or even a high-class dating agency. Certain King's Road NA groups - with their bevies of beautiful debutantes gone to the bad - are notorious for the latter activity. The Twelve Step programme even has a tacitly acknowledged coda, what is known as 'the thirteenth step': sleeping with everyone else in the group.

None the less, such misgivings were not what made me finally despair of NA. Those upper-crust junkies could no more help their background than a streetkid. What truly perturbed me was the underlying philosophy. With NA, the emphasis is on illness, and victimhood, rather than on guilt, or penance. One ex NA- goer I know - once an heiress, now a trainee doctor - puts it like this: 'The whole NA set up is designed to take away responsibility, to infantilise you. They turn you into a little kid, someone who's got no control over your actions.' In other words, the addict is never to blame: addiction is viewed as being an unwelcome virus.

Another blue-blooded ex-addict also found it unswallowable: 'I didn't get it. It was my fault that I did drugs. It wasn't my father's. Or my mother's. It was me that bought the bloody stuff.'

One final thing that is questionable about NA is its insistence on total abstinence. On the face of it, the obligation to give up all mood-altering drugs - including alcohol - is a sensible one. An addict is never more vulnerable to temptation than when he's drunk. And yet, total abstinence is a self-defeating commitment. An addict who has been clean - of drugs and booze - will eventually and quite normally feel like a beer. Just the one. But if he does sink a pint, he then feels so guilty about breaking his vows, he gets to thinking he might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb - so he goes out and buys heroin again.

My own method of quitting heroin was, in its own way, as privileged and indulged as any Jamie Blandford's: I used my position as a journalist to obtain a free trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. This route out of addiction - that of running away - is contemptuously known as 'doing a geographical' in some NA circles, but at the time it seemed the best option, given that I couldn't face climbing the Twelve Steps.

After smoking my last bit of heroin in the toilets at Heathrow, I caught a plane to Moscow, and started doing cold turkey on the longest train journey in the world. I can still remember lying in my couchette in a muck sweat, staring out of the icy train window at Lake Baikal. I can also remember getting drunk every day on cheap buffet-car vodka - to kill the pain and the insomnia.

My suffering lasted eight days. Eventually we reached Vladivostok, where I caught the boat to Japan. Once there I stayed with a friend in Kyoto for a couple of months. There are no drugs in Kyoto.

Since this watershed I have returned to London, and revived my life and career. Out of the group of friends I used to take heroin with, most are clean. Some have done this by sticking with NA, some by running away; still others have used a combination of methadone and willpower. My abiding sadness is that those who did it via NA - rich and poor, titled or unemployed - have now become strangers; their experiences and perspectives now differ so greatly from my own it is difficult for us to be the good friends that we were.

But at least we're still alive.

(Photographs omitted)