It's 14 November. I've just broken my back. I can't walk. I'm on the trauma ward at St Mary's Paddington, dimly aware that three of the people I love most are hovering around the bed - Huw, Arabella and Gordon. Arabella keeps telling me not to move my neck.
I am so delusional, I think that there's a plot to harvest my organs and I keep telling Arabella that my penis has been cut off and taken to a different room. Bless her to heaven and back, she plays along to calm me down, pretending that she's retrieved it and restored it to its rightful place on my body. I tell her that the doctors have sewn my house keys into my wrist. She dutifully pretends to remove the soft cast around my left arm and reassures me that no such thing has occurred. None of this would be happening had I not responded to a come-on on a 'dating' app (please note the euphemistic inverted commas). Or maybe it would have happened anyway.
November 2012, immobile at St. Mary's, Paddington
Photo: Charles Donovan
"Do u like chems." There's no question mark in the message on my screen. Telling, really. The guy is obviously confident I'll say 'Yes'. Just another of the daily invitations to hook up for disposable passion and drugs. But I stopped taking drugs in December 2004. For years and years, I've been saying "No" with varying degrees of confidence. I find it far harder to quit alcohol but eventually have enough of that, too. My last drink is in March 2009. Since then, I sometimes confide in friends the fact that I feel more vulnerable to narcotics, simply because I haven't pushed them as far. Alcohol has lost me my home, my career, and my mental health; has landed me in hospital over and over again. But with drugs, it's easier to deceive myself, to say, "Oh, was it really that bad?". And then there are the new drugs, the ones that weren't around when I was an active user. Surely those might be okay because I have no negative history with them. I could try to get that feeling of excessive stimulation or profound languor again, without anything bad happening to me.
The two months prior to October are stressful. I am getting my cuttings book back together and building up the nerve to see whether there'll be a place for me in magazine journalism or a related profession ever again. Grindr, the afore-mentioned dating app, is the online equivalent of going to a druggy nightclub. For two years, I've been putting myself in danger by tangling with it, over and over again; managing to decline the constant offers of narcotics, always saying "No" and therefore making over-confident assumptions about my fortitude. All it takes is a tiny, careless moment and I hear myself saying "Yes". And not just "yes", but "yes, yes, yes". And I'm off. Even before I've boarded the bus towards Acton to get the mephedrone, I am high and lost to sobriety. I tell myself I'll just do it for a couple of a days - a little diversion before I get back on with abstinence. But my behaviour indicates otherwise. Within hours, I've made absolutely sure I have a name, phone number and address from which to acquire more. I haven't even taken the substance yet, but already I've arranged matters so that my lines of supply will stay open. On some level, I know that I am going to take this drug around the clock for as long as possible.
Two weeks later, two weeks without a single hour of sleep, and I am walking around Bayswater. I am convinced World War IV is about to start. I see people scurrying back and forth, preparing for the end of the world. I'm tormented by the knowledge that it's somehow my fault. Then, all of a sudden, I'm on a horrifying game show. If I don't walk at a certain speed and in a certain direction, my friends' mothers will be killed one by one. Five minutes later, and a vision appears before me, telling me that Carole King is God and that there is nothing to worry about. She, whoever this vision is, tells me that death is no reason to be scared - all that happens is that you go into a room, a nice room with tiny sandwiches, comfortable sofas and a water-cooler, along with ten of your favourite people. I start working out who I'll invite. My parents, of course, all my godparents too, Huw, Arabella, Sally. That leaves space for a few more. Oh, this is going to be lovely. We'll all have a year together in a kind of first class airport departure lounge before being reborn back on earth.
Then another woman appears. She is in her early sixties or thereabouts. She says that Carole King is certainly not God. She, this new woman, is God. And she tells me that the Old Testament is all true, and God is not particularly nice. By now I'm lost. One street looks like Geneva, the next looks like the Middle East. I'm getting more and more frightened. God says that if I hit myself with a pipe that's lying on the ground, I'll be magically transferred back home to my flat. So I do it. I bang myself in the eye with the piece of broken piping. Nothing happens. I'm still here, still lost, and now bleeding from the self-inflicted injury. I walk and walk and walk. My feet hurt. It's horrible. I must now be in that part of London around Royal Oak where roads go over other roads. Near the Westway. I've lost my glasses and I can't see the area codes that are printed on street signs. Am I near Little Venice?
There's a drop. I'm standing at the edge of something. A 40 foot drop. God is still here. This time she says that if I jump, I won't hurt myself. In any case, she adds, disability doesn't exist. All the people in wheelchairs are planted by her on earth to stop us becoming glib and insensitive. They aren't actually real. If I jump, she says, all that will happen is that I'll wake up in bed at home, safe and sound. There is no other way to get back home, back to the flat in Bayswater. I feel the whoosh of air against my ears as I jump. Then nothing. I'm not aware of the nothing because I'm unconscious. I have broken my back, my wrist and my feet.
The external fixator repairing my arm and wrist
Photo: Charles Donovan
At first, I'm not expected to live. Then it seems I'll live, but confined to bed. A day or so after that, it's one better - I'll be wheelchair-bound. Now there's a chance that I'll be able to walk again. My back has been reconstructed with metal, as has my left wrist. My feet have swollen two shoe sizes and show no signs of deflating. St Mary's Hospital, Paddington has saved my life, and the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore has made it worth living again. I am terrified about the future but some adaptive quality in the human brain is enabling me to keep going. I present normally because I'm polite, and therefore I struggle to convey how traumatised I am. Everyone thinks I'm fine. Oh dear.
But in terms of drugs, I remain liberal. I know that there are hundreds of thousands of people who can take a mood-altering chemical for an evening, and then have a perfectly normal sober day when they wake up the next morning. Just the same as with alcohol. As I write this, I attempt to look up some information about mephedrone, to describe it and put it in context. But the hospital wi-fi has a very over-protective content-blocker and won't let me read pages about the substance. I know it's a class B stimulant that was made illegal quite recently. I know that among its street names is the chillingly flippant 'Meow Meow'. And I know more than ever that all substances, from alcohol through to the various noxious substances peddled through legal high websites, are lethal for me, and lethal for anyone like me - addicts who can't stop once they start. For us, abstinence is the only way to stay alive.
There is so much more to say. And if people are willing to indulge me, I will. But this is not a postcard from the edge, because I've already jumped. It's a postcard from the abyss.
February 2013, Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital
Photo: Charles Donovan
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