I was four years clean when my beloved brother died – I had promised him I would finish my memoir, so that’s what I did
I wish I could tell you that I quit heroin due to some profound spiritual revelation or sudden thunderbolt of wisdom. But the truth is that the first time I quit was because, at 28, I found myself in a novel situation. It was the first time in my adult life I had absolutely no way of getting my hands on illegal drugs.
It turns out it’s extremely difficult to have heroin and crack smuggled on to a high-security psychiatric unit like the one I’d ended up on at Homerton hospital in east London (and believe me, I did try). Since it was clear I wasn’t going anywhere for a while, I decided I might as well walk out – whenever that may be – clean. Not just of illegal drugs but of the host of other medications – methadone, diazepam, zopiclone – such places tended to prescribe to people in my condition. And so, six weeks later, that’s what I did.
I had landed on Homerton’s Bevan ward after a failed suicide attempt, which should tell you that, until then, although I desperately wanted the negative effects of addiction to end, I couldn’t actually imagine living without drugs. I’d had enough of the endless poverty that comes with addiction and the degrading measures required to deal with it; I’d had enough of the constant terror of withdrawal; I’d had enough of the overdoses, ruptured veins, hepatitis C and the thousand other shocks that junkie flesh is heir to. I’d had enough of the annihilation of anything resembling self respect. But what that meant, to me, was that I’d had enough of life. I could only imagine two choices: addiction or death.
But after leaving the Bevan ward, clean for the first time in my adult life, I began to learn what I had somehow failed to figure out until then: that there were things worth living for. Real relationships. Meaningful work. Integrity. So when I relapsed after a year and found myself back in the living hell of chronic heroin and crack addiction, some part of me remembered there was a better, saner way of being alive, if only I could find my way back to it. That’s why, when I was offered a place in a charity rehab that offered long-term psychotherapy, I took it. I would need a lot of help, but recalling that year of being clean gave me something I hadn’t had the first time I quit: hope, based on tangible evidence that life could be different.
And that was, I believed for some time, the end of that story – the story of how I quit – and the beginning of a new one. In the summer of 2019 I turned four years clean. If you’d met me at that time, you’d have found me indistinguishable from an ordinary citizen. I was working for a psychotherapy charity. I was healthy. I was happy. I was in a relationship with a woman I loved and hoped to spend the rest of my life with. And, to my astonishment, in autumn 2019 I signed a deal with a major publisher to tell the story of my life – my childhood as the son of a strict evangelical preacher, my catastrophic teenage loss of faith and subsequent struggles with addiction – in the form of a memoir. I’d made it, I thought. I’d recovered.
Then, after making the right choice for 1,614 days, I made the wrong one. No doubt some colossal instinct for self-sabotage was at play. But what may otherwise have proved no more than a brief slip spiralled into tragedy, trauma and chaos when, a month later, my beloved brother Jonathan died suddenly at 34. My inability to stay clean afterwards destroyed my relationship, leaving me feeling doubly grief-stricken. I felt, at times, that I was done: that I’d tried my best, thrown everything at it, and failed anyway. It was time to quit quitting. It was time to Quit, capital Q, full stop.
But there were two reasons why this didn’t prove to be the end of my story: why last year I made one further trip to rehab, started from day zero again, and got clean once more almost 10 years after that first time at Homerton hospital.
The first was because, as it turns out, several years in recovery will give you a greater capacity to form meaningful relationships – in short, to give and receive love. This is a double-edged gift: it means you’ll have a stronger support network to draw on if you find yourself in crisis again. But it also hugely increases your capacity to harm other people. Seeing the terror and hurt on the faces of the people who tried to keep caring for me as I kept relapsing in the wake of Jonathan’s death eventually forced me to get serious help once more.
The second was due to a promise I made to my brother, the night before he died. Celebrating my recent book deal over pizza in a restaurant, and mindful of my lifelong habit of leaving projects unfinished, Jonathan made me swear that, whatever happened, I would finish writing my memoir.
It was recalling that promise that, numerous times, pulled me back from the brink of quitting everything.
So, clean again now, and with my first book – Original Sins – just published, I have my brother largely to thank for the fact that I quit again. And, even more importantly, for the fact that I didn’t Quit, capital Q, full stop.
Matt Rowland Hill is a writer based in London and the author of Original Sins, his new memoir
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org
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