I come from a chaotic upbringing. My mum had mental health issues and was in and out of destructive relationships. I never felt like I could ever really talk about what was going on, and I felt very unhappy a lot of the time. To be honest, it was a bit of a given that I was going to end up taking drugs. My first drugs were aerosols, alcohol and weed – it was a way to fit in and have a laugh with my mates. My older brother thought that he was protecting me by giving me drugs – he thought “you’re going to take them anyway, you might as well take them with me”, so I first tried cocaine when I was 13 and my drug use just progressed from there.
I suffered from quite severe mental health issues when I was young.”
I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety around the age of 17 and had my first episode of drug-induced psychosis when I was 19 or 20. I could hear people telling me to kill myself, could see people following me and hear them saying nasty things about me. When I recovered from that episode I swore I’d never take drugs again. But I did – that’s the madness of addiction. I was constantly creating these parameters around what was and wasn’t acceptable, to prove I wasn’t an addict. Basically, in my mind there was a list of things I’d never do for drugs, because if I did them it would mean I had a problem. But one by one I’d end up doing them, mentally moving the goalposts of what was on the list, so that I still wasn’t ‘crossing the line’.
After school, I trained as a mental health nurse. I was desperate to understand myself and thought that I could help my mum by going into this line of work too. Despite all of my own mental health issues and problems with substances, I thrived at work, putting all of my energy into it. But at times it felt like I was just performing, living this pretence that everything was OK when actually my home life was a mess. My job kept me sick as for a long time I thought I couldn’t be an addict. In my mind, it wasn’t possible because I was a nurse, then when I did finally realise I needed help, I didn’t feel able to seek it because of the job.
I placed my whole identity in that role, but it started to feel like I was leading a double life – I’d go into work and be this outstanding member of society. Then I went home and had to deal with the drama there, a lot of which I was creating myself through my destructive behaviours. I didn’t handle the pressure well, and put myself in some really dangerous situations to obtain drugs, which ultimately led to me being assaulted.
When I reported this the police reported me to the nursing council, which led to an investigation at work. Dealing with the trauma and the loss of what felt like everything around me, I made an attempt to end my life. I truly could not see a way out of the pain I was in and it made sense to me to no longer be alive. As a result of this, I very nearly did die and I ended up in a coma.
If anything highlights the insanity and powerlessness of addiction, it’s that when I came round – despite the fact I was in intensive care – my first thought was drugs, the thing that had nearly killed me. It was a total obsession. But it made sense to me: I was in pain, so why wouldn’t I try to take the pain away of the situation I was in? And the only way I knew how to do that was to use drugs. I ended up using drugs in intensive care and then again in the psychiatric hospital I was transferred to but could not see what I was doing to myself and the correlation between my poor state of mind and my drug use.
One of the nurses in the hospital mentioned that I would benefit from rehab but I thought it was a bit of a dramatic statement.
I was in denial about how bad my using was, and I was shocked because I thought I was managing to keep my using hidden. I now know it was the worst kept secret!”
My cousin also mentioned rehab and because I trust her I started to think about it. Even then, when I decided to go, I did it for the wrong reasons: all I was focussed on was getting my job back. I thought that if I could keep hold of my career as a nurse, everything would be ok.
I went to Clouds House and although I completed my treatment there, I relapsed not long after. I felt a lot of shame but was so fortunate that they agreed to take me back in. Unfortunately my mental health was suffering quite badly and I was sectioned and transferred to hospital due to the paranoia, hallucinations and suicidal intentions I hadWhilst I was in hospital I had already decided that when I was discharged I would use.
Again the insanity of my thinking – I knew I would get thrown out of the dry house I was living in if I used but my thinking was that, ‘It doesn’t matter I can live in my car.’
There’s a saying in recovery, “every rock bottom has a trap-door.” Well, that’s certainly true of my experience. I’d thought my lowest point was my suicide attempt. But relapsing after I’d finally found recovery was worse, I couldn’t deal with the guilt and shame of what I was doing to those around me. I overdosed and took myself in to the woods to hang myself but I was found after having a seizure and so ended up back in hospital.
This time people noticed that I had gone off the radar again – that’s the thing about recovery. Before I knew people from rehab and the fellowships (e.g. Narcotics Anonymous), I could go missing for days and people wouldn’t notice. But now it was a different story.
As soon as you start being accountable, people notice when you don’t check in. I was still in touch with people from rehab and the fellowships, including a girl called Melissa that I’d formed a really close bond with. She made the effort to reach out and check in on me. At first I couldn’t understand why people were still bothering with me, I had hurt so many people I didn’t know how people could still have faith in me.
I decided that I wanted to go back to rehab, to give recovery another try. This time, it was much harder. I really had to fight to be allowed to go to rehab again, not only because I’d relapsed after the first time, but because my mental health was so poor (there are often thresholds around certain issues when considering eligibility for residential substance misuse treatment). The Amy Winehouse Foundation paid for me to go back in to treatment. I ended up in a small, all female, trauma based rehab that accepted dual diagnosis. It wasn’t easy, my mental health felt like it was being held together by very thin string and I suffered a lot of resurfacing of trauma.
After finishing treatment I ended up in the same dry house as Melissa happened to be in. A key worker there who was a Radio 5 Live listener told Melissa about a competition that the BBC were running. It was called the Rachel Bland Podcast Award, and was set up in memory of a BBC presenter who had created a podcast before she passed away called, “You, Me, and the Big C”, about living with cancer.
The competition was for people who had no experience in media, aimed at creating a new podcast to reach an unseen and unheard community which needed the narrative changing.
Melissa and I had talked about how little was out there in the mainstream media about addiction and recovery. We decided to go for it together – she did the initial draft of the submission, and gave it to me to read and tweak. We thought our experiences – as individuals who a lot of people might not think would have issues with addiction (Melissa was a teacher and I was a nurse) might help challenge some of the stereotypes there are about ‘what kind of people’ are addicts. Submitting the written application wasn’t a big deal, but then we were asked to send in an audio clip, it suddenly became real, however really it was just an extension of the conversations and the laughs we were having together in our living rooms.
When we heard we’d won and would be getting our very own podcast, it was unreal.”
Because it was the BBC, we knew it was a massive platform, which was a lot of pressure, but also an amazing opportunity to be a voice for those who may otherwise not have been heard.
We’ve had incredible guests on the show – from our counsellor at the rehab we met at, to family and friends, and even former BBC presenter Richard Bacon. It was really nerve wracking at first, and I had proper imposter syndrome, but gradually I grew in confidence and felt worthy of doing it.
It’s been therapeutic as well. We want to be as honest as possible.
Having our family and friends was painful but so important – it gave them an opportunity to have a voice and speak about how it had been for them whilst we were in active addiction. The response has been amazing – not just people in recovery, but family members who say we have helped them understand a loved one better, even professionals working in the substance misuse field use it to direct clients to listen to.
The podcast has also won some awards, including Best British Radio Programme of the year and a Silver Award in the Wellbeing category at the British Podcast awards. These achievements remind me why I took the risk in the first place to share my story so openly. We have just finished up with our second series and it’s a privilege to have had this journey especially because the initial award only originally gave us 6 episodes.
The past six months since the pandemic happened have been hard. As a nurse, I wanted to be out there with everybody else on the front line so I felt kind of useless. Nursing is my passion and I’m so grateful to say I have been offered a job in a child and adolescent mental health ward. It will be my first nursing post since coming in to recovery so I am nervous as well as excited, but cautiously optimistic about where my career will go.
Another passion I reignited in recovery is netball – I have played for many years but lost my motivation and commitment for it in active addiction. I now play for a North London team, and did my umpiring with England Netball. Netball is currently cancelled due to Covid which has been hard because I rely on it such a lot for my mental and physical health. I was also due to start my coaching course but this has been cancelled. The dream is to run a netball club for challenging youth.
I’m now 2 years clean and 9 months clean. This in itself is a miracle because there was a time when I couldn’t manage a day without drugs or wanting to die.
I went into nursing to help people, and I feel that what we’ve done with the podcast too. What better way to help people than share your truth? I’d never been successful at something clean before, so I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved.