I discovered at an early age that food and then drugs enabled me to ‘numb out’ and took away my feelings of self-hatred, insecurity, not feeling clever enough, pretty enough or living up to who I felt my father wanted me to be. I was constantly trying new ways to alter my feelings and to get to the stage where I could feel nothing.
I was the eldest of three daughters with dauntingly impressive parents. My father had come out of apartheid in South Africa and won scholarships at Oxford and Harvard. My mother was an American PR professional working for actors like Bob Hope. Comparing myself to these high-achievers, I never felt good enough. My family life was fractured, with my father having a number of affairs and my mother being a compulsive worker who buried her feelings in her job and the whisky bottle.
I thought that whatever I took, I could handle. I told myself that others had a problem, but I won’t. I won’t let the drugs get the better of me. How wrong I was!
Prescription drugs were available to me. Diet pills numbed my feelings but left me manic, so my mum’s Valium helped me to come down. With recreational drugs, I started off on dope, the ‘soft stuff’, when I was about 14 years old. It was illegal and I thought I was a rebel – it felt cool. By 17, I was using coke, heroin and whatever pills were available – Mogadon, Valium and DF118 (Dihydrocodeone). As a total control freak, I thought that whatever I took, I could handle. I told myself that others had a problem, but I won’t. I will still be able to work and won’t let the drugs get the better of me. How wrong I was!
The first few times I did heroin, I threw up everywhere – embarrassing when you are doing it with friends. However, I had built up a tough exterior – to hide my fear of vulnerability of course – and was determined to get to the point of sheer bliss, curling up in a ball and not feeling, as others had described. I got there and was quickly mentally, physically and emotionally addicted.
Drugs took over my life. Any job I had went by the wayside. I couldn’t hold down any relationship, including with my family
Drugs took over my life. Any job I had went by the wayside – my embryonic film career, restaurant work, retail – everything. I couldn’t hold down any relationship, including with my family. I wasn’t interested in my sisters – they weren’t drug dealers and therefore weren’t cool.
Around 22 years old, I tried to stop a couple of times, including signing up for Methadone scripts under a false name and swapping one addiction for another, but it didn’t work. Every time I tried to stop and couldn’t, I felt a sense of failure, hated myself more and this led to further drug taking. During this period, I had managed to land the film job of my dreams, but I overdosed halfway through filming. My boss was going to give me the opportunity to work on the film Greystoke, with filming in Africa, but he now said I couldn’t until I sorted myself out. This led to a series of overdoses.
It was the hardest thing to say to him “Dad, I’ve been a heroin addict for eight years, I’m dying and I need your help
One morning, in my mid-twenties, I realised enough was enough and I couldn’t do this anymore. A friend of mine had been to rehab in Broadway Lodge, but there was no help from the state at this time and people had to pay privately. I knew I had to go to my dad and ask for money. It was the hardest thing to say to him “Dad, I’ve been a heroin addict for eight years, I’m dying and I need your help”.
I had treatment at Broadway Lodge for about eight weeks and then had four more weeks in a halfway house in Weston-Super-Mare. I was one big ball of negative feeling and self-loathing. I couldn’t see a way out without drugs and knew I couldn’t live with them. Whilst in the halfway house, I decided I was going to go to London to get stoned. Instead, I ended up breaking down in tears in front of the friends I was living there with. It was the first time I had cracked open and genuinely asked for help. Since then, there has been no looking back.
I began a twelve-step programme and got stronger and stronger. At about 26, I began working as a cashier in a restaurant, my first job in early recovery. I found myself short-changing people, like I used to do to fund my drug-taking, and engaging in all the behaviours I used to do when I was using, like self-sabotaging and sleeping with my friends’ boyfriends. The difference this time is that I could share all this in my twelve-step meetings and not be judged. Slowly, very slowly, I began to change.
It was the first time I had cracked open and genuinely asked for help. Since then, there has been no looking back
I eventually started working again in the film industry that I loved. In 1990, I started my own company, Cowboy Films, and was very successful. We produced ground-breaking music videos for bands such as The Cure, David Bowie and The Psychedelic Furs. One of the films I produced was ‘The Last King of Scotland’, which won an Academy Award and many BAFTAs. I also fell in love with somebody who loved me for me, didn’t abuse me and had an incredible zest for life – we are still married 25 years later. I will always remember the horror of having to inject myself with IVF drugs when trying for a baby in my late 30s, but I got through it with support from my friends in recovery. Anything was now possible. At 40 years old, I gave birth to my wonderful twin boys and had never before felt the unconditional love that I feel for them.
Shortly after producing ‘The Last King of Scotland’, I was able to pull back from my film career to bring up my boys – the most important job I could do. I have since been able to get involved with all sorts of other ventures in education and mental health for young adults. I co-founded the London Screen Academy, a sixth form academy that opened in September 2019 for 16 to 19-year-olds in London who have a passion for film and television. I wanted to bring real diversity to the film and TV industry and the academy funds young people from difficult backgrounds who would never have dreamed they could get into the industry. I am also a Governor and a Trustee for a number of schools and charities, including Action on Addiction.
To be in such a trusted position is an extraordinary gift
If you had said to me all those years back that this vulnerable, self-hating, scared, dyslexic teenager who never passed an exam in her life and was addicted to heroin would be working in partnership with the Department of Education and trusted to co-found an educational facility, I would have laughed at you! It is a wonderful feeling to walk into the school and do one-to-one sessions with the students who will be leaving us to support them with their future plans and mental health. To be in such a trusted position is an extraordinary gift.
I still wake up every day feeling a bit fearful, but am raring to go after my shower and take the good days with the bad – one step at a time. My bed is my solace and I love to return here at the end of the day. I regularly attend Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which have been online during lockdown. I have been hosting these meetings and attended one every day for six months during lockdown.
I’ve not used drugs for 38 years and everything I have today has come from being clean and sober
I have a neon sign on the wall above me in my office with my nickname on: “The Colonel”. This name was given to me in my 40s by Nick Jones who owns the Soho House members clubs, but whom I met before this when he catered an event to fundraise money to turn the oldest synagogue in West London into the Soho Theatre Company. I later became one of Nick original investors and he dubbed me “The Colonel” because I am always very driven and have my own point of view.
I’ve not used drugs for 38 years and everything I have today has come from being clean and sober. If there is some advice I can give to others stuck in the cycle of addiction, it would be never feel too ashamed, scared or worthless to ask for help. We have a recognised illness… the illness of addiction. There is help available if you reach out for it.