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From Groucho Club to rehab: one woman's battle to beat cocaine addiction

Sarah Graham had a high-flying career in broadcasting - and a secret cocaine habit. But what began as a way to unwind with her glamorous friends quickly became a terrifying freefall into serious addiction. Here, she describes how she was forced to choose between recovery and oblivion

Monday 06 March 2006 01:00 GMT

I'll never forget my first line of cocaine. It was a life-changing experience. It was a massive rush - like being launched into space. All the nagging insecurities and fears that had accompanied me for years were left behind and I was transformed into the person I wanted to be - super-confident, talkative, funny and irresistibly attractive. After 20 minutes of delicious pleasure I fell back to earth. Back to reality - well, Groucho Club reality, which was somewhat different from the world I'd left behind.

I'd just landed my first job at BBC Radio 5. It was Friday night and I was buzzing with adrenalin from the live studio show we'd just broadcast, when the producer and presenter invited me to join them for a drink in The Groucho Club. The shock of seeing so many famous people in one room left me feeling quite giddy - and a bit scared. So I'd already knocked back a few glasses of champagne when the presenter's girlfriend asked me if I'd like to join her for a trip to the loo.

As I squeezed into a tiny toilet cubicle with my two new friends, I didn't reflect much on what I was about to do. It seemed that lots of the successful people around me were using coke and it looked like they were having a lot of fun. Of course I would never touch heroin or crack. But coke, that's a sociable, party drug, a symbol of success, and I was happy that I'd passed the "are you one of us?" test. By the time the rolled-up £20 note came to me I was shaking with excitement.

From that night on, the pattern of my drinking and taking drugs ebbed and flowed with the jobs I was doing. For a few years my coke use was an occasional "treat". Then I was headhunted by Radio 1. That year, I went out clubbing every weekend, saw the big DJs play and tried every kind of ecstasy pill. I started on a quarter of a pill and within six months was taking up to 10 a weekend. Thankfully, Steve Wright sprang me from this pills and thrills madness by taking me with him to TV Centre, to work on his People Show. My new producer was very "straight", so I decided to cut out drugs and enjoy the Green Room hospitality with its free drinks culture.

The Big Breakfast gave me the break that I'd been waiting for - to be a TV director. The long hours and relaxed, druggy culture quickly rekindled my use of coke and ecstasy. I was working too hard all week, partying all weekend and after only a year, I had to leave with "exhaustion". I'd crossed an invisible line and my using was a problem, but I was still in denial about its seriousness, and was soon back on the work treadmill at the BBC.

When I started lying to my girlfriend, alarm bells started going off. My tolerance was increasing and I was starting to use during the week. I started trying to control my use of coke - and noticed that my drinking escalated. Arguments with my partner about my coke consumption got worse, so I started having secret binges - using 1-2 grams on my own - when she wasn't around.

Ironically, it was in Groucho's that I first admitted my problem - to Robbie Williams. We had met through friends and he was the only person I knew who had been through rehab. He was really kind and our conversation planted a seed and gave me some hope.

Meanwhile, my family and many friends had no idea that I had a drug problem. I was working for Children's BBC when Lorraine Heggessey sacked Richard Bacon for using coke. Lorraine asked if I knew of anyone else in the department taking drugs. I lied to her because I didn't feel safe to ask for help. And I still believed I was on top of things. My reasoning was that, as long as I'm moving forward in my career - everything's cool. One day I would grow up, leave behind my degenerate ways and join the ranks of the Sunday car-washers.

Proving myself and becoming a success were important. My teenage years had been tumultuous - dropping out of school to run away to Greenham Common. At Goldsmiths University, I'd been the healthiest, most positive student you could meet. Now here I was seven years later, a very different person. I was negative, and felt that life was losing its colour and spiralling out of control. My girlfriend insisted: "Stop using coke."

I did try, but it was torture. My 32nd birthday party turned into a car crash, and with my tail between my legs, I went along to some recovery meetings to get support. I found the message of total abstinence really scary but I tried to follow their "suggestions" and got to 30 days clean, then promptly relapsed.

Then in 2001, something happened that pushed me over the edge into no-holds-barred, freefall addiction. My father's cancer returned and eventually killed him. I made it through the funeral, but that night, overpowered by grief, I drank, smoked a spliff and then, with the coke, all attempts to control my illness disintegrated. I finally became one of those "proper addicts" who drink and use 24/7. I was chopping out one line after another and my partner thought I was going to have a heart attack, so she would throw my coke away. I'd go out and score more and go AWOL for 24 hours. After two weeks an old using friend suggested I go into a treatment centre called Farm Place, I agreed. What choice did I have?

The night before going into rehab I went crazy. My little brother, the boy who had once worshipped his big sis, had to pin me to the floor - after I'd snorted my last two lines - to stop me jumping out of a first-floor window to go and score some more.

I had my last drink - whisky straight from the bottle - on 12 December 2001 as I was being driven to Farm Place. Once I was there, I started crying. I cried all through the assessment, but was so relieved to begin my detox. It wasn't until three days later and coming off the medication that I began to realise just what I had signed up for. My fantasy of rehab was that it would be 28 days of pampering - kind of a posh spa combined with a bit of therapy. Then back to the real world and hard work - to pay the £550 a day it was costing and to make up for lost time and achieve world-changing dreams that had slid out of view.

I was angry to discover that nearly everything in my life was being challenged. And even more shocked when my denial started to crack and I realised that addiction had permeated all aspects of my life. This denial about the reality of my cocaine and alcohol use was there from that very first night in the Groucho. When I'd retold my night of "partying", it was all about what a great night I'd had, who I'd met and what we talked about. I edited out that I was sick in a VIP room plant pot, and embarrassed myself by committing the social faux pas of asking for more coke. I hadn't told anyone the night had ended with me, alone, passed out on the night bus home.

So the counsellors were right, everything did need to be questioned and this would be a long, slow, painful process. I had to totally deconstruct myself before I could hope to lay new foundations and start the rebuild.

Rehab is no resting place for the wicked. There's a lot to learn about addiction and through a combination of lectures, group work and one-to-one counselling I started to see how my illness started in childhood. That I was probably born with a genetic predisposition which was triggered by some traumatic childhood experiences. From my first drinking session, aged 12, it slowly crept up on me and I didn't recognise the progression for many years because it shape-shifted between many different substances and behaviours - alcohol, drugs, gambling, work, exercise, relationships, sex, food and shopping. Addiction can wear many masks.

The new emerging me, stripped of all masks, addictive behaviour and substances to "change my feelings", felt raw and my emotions swung up and down. When I returned to London the feelings intensified, so even crossing the road was frightening. I realised I needed more treatment. Partly because it became clear that I had to end my relationship and also because I had to stay well away from many of my old friends. I sold my share of our house in Shepherd's Bush to raise the money needed and completed a further six months of residential treatment. I was much stronger; and £35,000 poorer. But I still wasn't ready to move back to London or return to television. My recovery had to come first.

So, I put down roots in Surrey and got a new job - as a post woman. I stuck it out for 365 days and it was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Cycling up and down the Surrey hills got me fit and slowly I rejoined the human race.

After a few knock-backs from TV, I listened to a hunch that a new direction was calling and did a foundation course in counselling. The Priory offered me a job - at weekends - helping the nurses and counselling team. Then a miracle happened. The Priory offered to pay for me to do their Professional Addiction Counselling Diploma. I qualified as a therapist on Valentine's Day last year.

I now work for RESPOND, a new cutting-edge, holistic service in Surrey. We are an NHS/In-volve project and it's a brilliant service because we've got the NHS team, counsellors, keyworkers and complementary therapists all working together under one roof. I've helped to develop and set up a specialist stimulant drugs service and we're getting really positive results. I believe passionately that everyone should have access to free treatment as good as ours.

Despite everything, I'm glad that things have worked out the way they have. I don't miss my Groucho nights or much about the old life. I have enormous job satisfaction and I have a life outside of work. Very few of my old friends stayed in my life, but I now have a wide circle of really supportive friends and I'm close to my family again.

I feel incredibly lucky to have come out the other side. Two of my old Groucho Club friends have now been through treatment and are doing well, but one who was a brilliant TV creative is now in long-term psychiatric care and another friend kept relapsing and then killed himself.

I still put a lot of effort into my own recovery, with at least two recovery meetings a week. Because I know with absolute certainty that no matter how many years I'm clean and sober, it's important to keep the focus on "one day at a time". If I break my abstinence, my illness will probably kill me too and that really is a very sobering thought.

Cocaine Anonymous: 0800 612 0225 Alcoholics Anonymous: 0845 769 7555 FRANK: 0800 776600 (

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