The easy answer is that it’s for deadbeats and dropouts. Prostitutes and pimps. A few privileged white kids popping pills over here, a couple of street urchins smoking pot over there, maybe a war vet injecting heroin in his arm around the corner, and he can be the exception to the rule. But for the most part: respectable people don’t do drugs.
Sound old-fashioned? It is, but it’s a stance not limited to grumpy old conservatives and wide-eyed moralists. It’s a stance of majority among the youth of presumably liberal countries like my own, held by those who, generally speaking, have never touched a drug and never want to.
This isn’t so surprising. It’s what kids do. When you’re not a part of something, you fumble for reasons, all entirely logical, as to why this is. If you’ve got no friends, it’s because you don’t want them. If you’re getting bad grades, it’s because you never really cared about becoming a renowned political journalist after all. And if you can’t get sex, you are, in fact, a practicing Christian/Muslim/whatever.
So it goes. Nobody seems willing to admit the possibility that they’d like to try drugs, and that the reason they don’t is because they’re afraid they’ll drop dead on the spot or become an addict and rob their parents blind to pay for their next fix. This is a mentality of weakness, presumably – and school, college and university being what they are, the last thing anyone wants to do is show weakness.
But beyond the constructions and concerns surrounding the drug fiend, beyond the fear of ending up like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction or Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting, there’s something to be said about the experience itself, at once personal and wide-ranging. It’s been observed that a drug, far from belonging solely to the domain of rich kids with nothing better to do, or to the more downtrodden as their only means of escape, has the potential to reveal as much about a person as sexuality or work ethic, for better or worse. Is there any truth in this?
I’d have to start at the beginning.
If social constructs are anything to go by, I was, at the tender age of sixteen, what is widely considered socially awkward. It’s not a classification I subscribe to; essentially I’ve never been interested in pop culture, have an ‘acquired’ taste in humour and watch a lot of David Lynch films, and while this severely limits my participation in the delicate process of making friends, it’s not something I can fairly chalk down to that most overused of adolescent terms.
I didn’t know it at the time, however, and matters were made worse by the fact that I’d been home-schooled for over half my life. This latter aspect presented both an added incentive and another obstacle in my quest for friendship, not least because the usual reaction to such a revelation is something along the lines of: So, what, school wasn’t good enough for you?
Which is probably exactly what my overprotective parents thought; but their choice wasn’t up to me. A mere child at the time, I imagine the prospect of not having to go to school for the next nine years was as attractive to me then as it would be to anyone else. But it’s not something easily explained to strangers. Couple this with the bonus assumption that home-schooling involves rich parents and private tuition (in reality, my parents had an average income; tutoring I did myself) and you’ve got a beautiful social disaster in the making.
In truth, I did make friends fairly quickly. My urgency in the matter was not altogether unwarranted – after several years in the suffocating security of the familial home, I didn’t want to miss out any longer on whatever treats life had to offer. My new friends were a step in the right direction – perhaps the only step, I’d later reflect.
However, at the time, having already identified the social hierarchy of which I and my classmates lived by, I became eager to increase my social standing, something that could only be gained by associating myself with new people, the ones who didn’t turn up to class half the time and could be seen outside the building during lunch hour smoking Marlboro Reds; in short, I had to befriend the cool kids.
Tom: How’s it going?
Jerry: All is well.
Tom: So-and-so tells me you can get drugs.
Jerry: I have drugs in my bag right now.
This is how it happened. Here, I need to tear down further stereotypes and point out that Jerry was not the type of cool kid one might first imagine. In fact, he could be said to be the opposite. Putting up fresh stereotypes, it may be fair to describe him as something of a New Age Hippie.
Jerry didn’t care what other people thought of him. Vitally, he didn’t care what other people thought of me, either. He was adventurous, level-headed and frequently hilarious, and as such, and despite having no more or less in common with him than the average college student, I managed to get along with him quite well.
And there were drugs, too. In this respect, my friendship with Jerry was cunningly twofold; not only would I be hanging out with someone the rest of my esteemed peers took notice of, but I also got to launch myself down an avenue entirely inaccessible to a home-schooled kid. My first experience was cannabis – what else? – and contrary to the passionate cult that surrounds that particular drug (or, as might be insisted, plant), the result was underwhelming. If there is indeed a way to cultivate a whole lifestyle around wake ‘n’ bake and 4/20 blaze it, it will forever elude me.
But it was just, as they say, the beginning. An aside: one of my teachers once said that it’s been suggested that children who are allowed to drink small quantities of alcohol growing up are less likely to become dependent on alcohol later in life than children who choose to abstain, or are made to abstain, altogether.
I won’t go into the details of which drugs were taken or when or how (you understand, however: no suppositories), but suffice to say they quickly made their effects known. There was little physical inclination to carry on – that is to say, no physical craving, like a cigarette, no administration for the sake of administration – but the psychological impact was huge. Utopia in a powder; suddenly everything’s clear, the family problems could be worse, your heartbreaks don’t matter, and above all, everyone’s wonderful. Even when it wore off, it didn’t feel like the illusion was shattered; rather the reality had faded, awaiting my return.
I got on with my studies – there were no dropouts, no rummaging around in Mum’s handbag for loose change; on the contrary, I did better than average at college and secured a place at university. This wasn’t before the incident, however: falling out with Jerry. The root of the problem was that most of the members in our immediate social circle were sleeping with people they weren’t supposed to. Suddenly no one was a New Age Hippie and I was a wide-eyed moralist and things ended in spectacular fashion on some nondescript East London side street.
But no matter – it was time for a fresh start. I left drugs along with London as I ventured to the uncharted territory of exotic Portsmouth. I was still young and life was still full of possibilities; with my existing social experiences I’d be sure to fit in, making up for lost time now spanning over a decade. Finally I’d be able to quell the maddening sense of isolation that had been following me around like a bad hangover for as long as I could remember, and this in turn would negate the desire for drugs. And when I moved into my new accommodation alongside seven other students, this was more or less exactly what happened.
Tom: This place, this flat of ours, I feel like it’s an oasis… An oasis of calm.
Tweety: That’s great, Tom.
And an oasis it was – a private sanctuary shielding me, in short bursts, from the arid hell of the university classroom. Despite my enrollment in what I’d been led to believe was a liberal arts course, I felt increasingly as if stuck in a room with a bunch of angry lawyers, or as if, as one of my rare friends put it, a hen on a battery farm. The attitudes of my valued peers were, in a general way of speaking, less than savoury; all the passive-aggression of the college student was there, all the petty prejudices and angst-ridden self-righteousness, only it was worse, because this time they were older, and had more faith in their convictions.
But it was alright, because I was comfortable in the knowledge that after my classes each day, I could go back home and relax with similar-minded people, all of us operating more or less entirely as equals. Drugs were the last thing on my mind, then, or anyone’s – there was alcohol, every other week, and my usual ten, fifteen cigarettes every day, but drugs simply weren’t necessary.
Sadly, the cracks showed, the illusion shattered and things generally fell apart. The principle issue at home was one that didn’t concern myself directly, but one that I probably should have foreseen and made some vague attempt to prevent. Events unfolded as something of a tragicomedy; in the end one of the flatmates of our little oasis left, and most of us decided not to live together in the next academic year.
And that’s when my problems resurfaced. It wasn’t so much being away from my former flatmates as it was that I’d convinced myself that finding a new bunch of similar-minded people would be no big hardship.
Tom: Fresh faces. That’s what it’s going to be.
Tom: There are no doubts.
The reality was somewhat bleaker – an entire summer spent in general isolation with nothing but nightmarish spiders and the sense of failure to keep me company in an oppressively claustrophobic room. This in itself was perhaps, minus the spiders, not so bad; the issue, I believe, was simply the change. Moving on in itself is neither difficult nor off-putting; moving on to something worthwhile is where the challenge lies.
But I pulled through, made it past summer and moved into my new home, where I’d be spending the duration of my second academic year with two new people. This was, supposedly, where my new start was.
It was not to be. With the onset of panic attacks and physical health issues, plus the mostly grim prospect of spending another year among the cliques and clichés of the classroom, neither the continuation of my course or the forming of an oasis was a possibility. I dropped out, shrunk back to my room, hated myself.
There were no enticing prospects in the offing. The immediate past was quickly receding, the distant past was catching up at a sinister pace, and even in one of those many daydreams I believe we’re all susceptible to, those daydreams where we imagine ourselves having conversations we’ll never have, reaching achievements just out of reach, meeting people who don’t exist, I couldn’t for the life of me envision a desirable outcome.
Physically, drugs saved me. That is to say, they prevented me from slashing my wrists or jumping in front of a train. Because while my situation may not have been truly dire – I have a good idea of what this is, and it’s clear to me I never quite reached that point – the sense of alienation, from other people and from myself, was constant. Suicide was my waking thought; it followed me through supermarkets, climbed in the shower with me, kept me awake at night with dreadful bouts of insomnia.
This went on for several months. I didn’t take something on a daily basis – the actual cravings still eluded me – but with a little bag of powder acting more or less as my sole motivation for living, my reward for getting through a week or two as I struggled to decide what to do with my life (and kept drawing blanks), it did become, daily, a part of my life.
But the real danger lied elsewhere; not in the risk of addiction or overdose, but in the chaotic swing from near total despair to near total happiness. In my seclusion I’d reach out to people under the influence, on Facebook or over the phone, managing a mostly normal tone but on my end experiencing an indescribable sense of empathy, understanding and peace. If my life, like so many others’, has been defined by the presence of loneliness and the pursuit of equality, then in those months I did live out my fantasies; and these fantasies are no more illusionary than a passionate love affair ending in divorce. Social interaction is by its nature both temporary and circumstantial, and in this respect, my thoughts and feelings can’t be said to be wholly false.
What followed was not so much boredom as a full-blown existential crisis. I couldn’t tell whether there was more truth in depression or a fix, and worse, I knew that in my instance this wasn’t down to a muddled psychology. It was not irrational, not a mental inability to differentiate between the two – the problem was that I’d placed two extremes side by side, turning normality on its head.
There are no sad endings here, not as the subject matter goes. I survived, and if this document is anything to go by, my senses are still, within reasonable theory, intact. The mood stabilized, I found support in surprising places and generally got on with my life. But there’s a distinct feeling of incompleteness, a presence that follows me where the discontent used to be. It’s a presence that reminds me that there’s so many people who’ve had it worse, who have passed the point of no return, and so many people who have never begun, who will never experience, however fleeting, what I have. Most of all it’s a presence that tells me that no matter what I do and where I take my life, my own personal utopia has already been witnessed; the presence tells me that it will never be surpassed.