I was a pretty clean-living kid. I never questioned all that baloney about drugs being poison and instantly addictive. And because of my geographical location—a small, no-mark town in southern England—and the circles I moved in, my exposure to illegal substances was limited to a few tokes on joints, a couple of dud pills and a solitary tab of LSD. Until I was 27.
I was living in North London, and had befriended a group of guys who lived nearby. Every weekend, we'd meet at someone's house, play video games for a while, then head to a bar or house party. One Friday, we were getting ready to leave when one of them produced a folded paper packet. “Anyone for a snifter?”
I didn't want help. If you need help to achieve something, what happens when that help is no longer there?
I declined the first few times. The only cocaine I’d ever seen was accompanying pictures of dead prostitutes in the tabloid press, or being shoved up the noses of Hollywood gangsters, who invariably ended up dead three minutes later. And the dire warnings of my youth were still ringing in my head.
On the other hand, I liked and trusted these people. As far as I knew, none of them had ever robbed a corner shop or had restorative surgery on his septum. What’s more, it soon emerged, possession of this drug seemed to grant my friends unprecedented access to the opposite sex. Every week, each of these guys would go home with another cute young thing draped round him; and I would go home alone.
So eventually, I gave in to my curiosity. Surely just one line would be OK, just to see what all the fuss was about?
And it was OK. In fact, it was great. It wasn’t as powerful as I’d expected—it just put a smile on my face, and enhanced my mood and confidence. Nor was it as habit-forming as the scaremongers had led me to believe. At least, not to begin with. So I started joining in. Just a bit of good, illegal fun, once a fortnight.
One day, about two years later, the guy who usually produced the folded paper packet was busy, so he asked if I could meet the dealer. I was scared out of my wits. What if I got caught? What if this guy was a terrifying huge Colombian with a scar on his cheek and a sawn-off shotgun in the back seat? But I didn’t want to let the others down, so I called the number.
It's hard to think of a man less scary than Colin. 42 years old, he was a sad-faced, white, middle-class white man from Essex who still lived with his mum.
After that, it always fell to me to collect the goodies. Every Friday, I’d give Colin a call, and he’d drive to the street behind my office. I'd pop out on the pretext of having a cigarette and he'd drive round the block, telling me about his latest romantic disaster, while we conducted our transaction.
In the new millennium, the landscape began to shift. One by one, the guys settled down or moved away. By my 33rd birthday, Saturday nights out had became Saturday nights in. But I carried on buying the cocaine, only instead of sharing it with pretty girls in nightclub toilets, I hoovered it all up by myself in my bedroom.
To begin with, it was a relic of the old times, a treat every other weekend: one gram, a couple of bottles of wine, a pack of Marlboros and the latest video game. It filled the void created by the loss of my friends, it made me feel euphoric for a few hours, and it made me forget that I was losing my hair and hadn't had sex in three years. But gradually, over the next year or so, every other weekend became every weekend, and one gram became two, then three.
It wasn't a headlong descent into depravity, exactly. Over the whole period, I only took two days' "sick" leave (though there were days—mostly Mondays—when my productivity was less than optimal). I didn’t let anyone down too badly, although I missed a few parties. And I didn’t turn to a life of crime to fund my addiction. But I was throwing away my money and my time. I was putting on weight. And each week, the moments of euphoria became more fleeting. The comedowns, and the bouts of self-hatred, grew deeper and longer.
That wasn’t enough to make me stop.
In mid-2003, I had a dental appointment: a routine checkup and clean. Obviously, since I had the day off work, the night before I’d done a gram of coke. Now, one of the side-effects of prolonged cocaine use is that it softens your teeth. It dries your mouth, increasing the chance of tooth decay, and can cause you to grind your jaws together at night. (I knew none of this at the time.) So when the dentist started jabbing at my teeth, it felt as if someone had stretched out all the nerve endings in my body and attached them to the National Grid.
Afterwards, my torturer said: “There’s some serious abrasion here. If you don't stop grinding your teeth, they're going to crumble away.”
But that wasn’t enough to make me stop.
In 2004, I was living in a flatshare in Muswell Hill with Liesl, a cute, shy German girl who had recently split up with her boyfriend. One Saturday night, at about 3am, I was well into one of my sessions when a knock came at the door. This was unheard of. We never knocked on each other’s doors.
“What is it?”
“Andy, will you have sex with me?”
I liked Liesl. She had a great body, and we were both single, youngish people in dire need of affection. But at that precise moment, I had no choice in the matter. Because while the white powder greatly enhanced my desire for physical intimacy, it had the opposite effect on my performance. Besides, if Liesl saw me in my present state—ashtray overflowing, two empty bottles of wine on the desk, deviant lesbian porn on the computer, flaccid penis lolling uselessly in my hand—I was fairly sure her offer would be retracted.
“Liesl, you’re drunk and you’re not thinking straight. Go back to bed.”
“You’re no fun,” she grumbled, and stomped back to her room.
But that wasn’t enough to make me stop.
It did, however, bring the first stirrings of a realization that I might have a problem. I looked through my diary, which, until my late twenties, I'd kept meticulously. The only entries for the last two years, at 4am every Monday morning: "Last cocaine session ever."
I didn't want help. If you need help to achieve something, what happens when that help is no longer there? I wanted to beat this by myself. And in early 2005, I got the perfect opportunity.
One of the perks of my line of work is the sabbatical: Every four years, you get a month off, on full pay, to spend as you see fit. Some use it to achieve something—do some research, learn a skill, write a book. Most use it to redecorate the bathroom. Personally, I’d always fantasised about writing a sitcom.
I was at a turning point. A whole month off; think of the mountain of coke I could get through! But then... it would be another four years before I got a shot at realizing my dream. And by then, if I carried on the way I was going, I'd be storing my teeth in a plastic box.
I planned that month very carefully. I chose a destination as far from civilisation as possible: a B&B in a tiny village in County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland. It was three miles' walk to the nearest pub and five to the nearest source of food, so I would have to walk 10 miles a day just to fend off starvation. I checked that the B&B had no broadband access, bought myself a cheap laptop, and wiped every program from it apart from the word processor. For 30 days, I would just walk, and write.
And you know what? In the end, it was surprisingly painless. Having no access to cocaine removed the temptation. Changing my routine, removing everything I associated with cocaine—my room, computer games, porn, booze—helped minimize the feelings of withdrawal. (I wasn't a perfect saint. I had a drink twice: once the first Saturday after my arrival, when a spell of monumental writer's block and boredom drove me to the pub three miles away, and again two weeks later, when I realised I was in Ireland on St Patrick's Day.) But I think what really broke the pattern was having something else to focus my mind on. It could have been anything: build a boat, cycle round Spain, learn Mandarin. My goal, crucially, was not to give up cocaine; it was to write a sitcom (and thereby, incidentally, give up cocaine). In that month, I hardly thought about cocaine at all; I was either too busy, or too exhausted.
The desire resurfaced briefly, of course, when I got back home. But on the ferry out, I'd removed Colin's number from my phone. And besides, I now had something else to fill my weekends. Because I came home from County Clare with an overlong, rough-round-the-edges, but really rather promising debut sitcom script. It didn't get commissioned, but it did win praise from a TV producer, who asked me to write another. And within a year, I had earned my first ever writing credit on a TV show.
Shortly after I'd signed the deal, at Christmas 2006, I got a text message. It was Colin. “Hi, Andy. Just wondering if you’re OK—haven’t heard from you in a while. Anyway, hope you have a nice Christmas. Cheers, Col.” My thumb hovered over the reply button for a good few seconds. Then it drifted a few centimetres to the left, and pressed delete.
Andy Bodle is a journalist and scriptwriter from London who blogs about the science of dating.