It’s Friday, way past lunch, and I’ve just arrived at work, my face covered in soot from freebasing black tar heroin all morning.
There’s no need to explain my absence, as my diary is full of back-to-back meetings, scheduled with and accepted by friends with the same questionable work ethic as myself. Thinking I’ve got away with it, I walk right into one of the sweetest – but also loudest – members of my team. “Oh man, what’s that shit you’ve got all over your face?” she asks, with enough volume to turn every head in sight.
“Oh, I… the chain fell off my bike on the way in and I had to fix it,” I slur, as those heads swivel back to laptops.
“Okay, well, go and get yourself cleaned up.”
My Xanax and opiate-addled brain is pleased with that result. ‘What a fucking save,’ I think, as I walk into the toilets and close a cubicle door. ‘Well,’ I tell myself, ‘this seems like the best opportunity I’ve ever had to smoke some heroin.’
When you’re earning semi-decent money, the addict’s thinking goes, you can afford a semi-decent supply. Earn X amount and you can use X amount.
Of course, I never thought I would arrive at such an equation. I started out smoking weed, steadily graduated to party drugs and, once I got a little too old for partying, found myself experimenting with downers to bounce back and recover for the working week. At that point, I didn’t even know where to get heroin – thankfully, it was surprisingly difficult.
Eventually, whenever I ended up using heroin – which was once in a blue moon – I went through street homeless people. After a few years, I found a plug through a good friend who was an addict, and naively added the drug to my comedown arsenal. Not long after, I made the grave mistake of using three days in a row, which, as every opiate addict knows, is the point of no return. You’re physically dependent and you can’t just stop. Congratulations, you’ve just earned yourself a new full-time job: Heroin Addiction.
There are no accurate statistics on how many people employed in the UK are balancing heroin addiction with their profession. “Generally speaking, we’re in the dark about the true numbers, because they’re the guys still trying to hide it,” says Kate Stockdale, a substance misuse specialist. “People will not access treatment services for numerous reasons, such as stigma, the naive belief they’re in control and can stop when they so choose, fear of losing their job, denial they have a problem, etc.
“Added to that, it is extremely difficult to hold down a job while addicted to heroin, and those that do it won’t manage it for long – so although we don’t have the numbers, it would be my professional opinion that those numbers will be very low.”
In November of 2020, a Public Health England report noted that drug users seeking treatment reported an increase in the average amount of days per month that they were in employment. When I started using more heavily, my situation was – unsurprisingly – quite the opposite. My work ethic plummeted and I became less and less interested in the job.
Eighteen months later, I had around seven different escape schemes, each perfect for any time of day – including “a guy about a mile from the office”, so I could score on my lunch if I needed to. As you can imagine, my performance started to slip. I’d gone from closing six-figure deals with mega brands in my twenties, to nodding off in the Monday morning sales meeting. I’d had a good run – mostly thanks to those now-historical handshakes – but I knew it wouldn’t be long before my time was up.
The exact details of my eventually permanent homecoming evade my now-sober brain, but I remember the process started when a manager asked me where I’d been all day. Knowing she’d most likely clocked my bullshit by this point, I decided to just tell her the truth – and it felt really good.
To my surprise, I think she was relieved I wasn’t just a waster with a terrible attitude; that I actually had an “excuse” for months of total incompetence. I was sent home and spent the journey telling myself, ‘At least I haven’t been sacked,’ labouring under the false belief that everything was fine.
Before long, though, the crisis started. ‘How did it get to this?’ I’d worry. ‘Am I really a junkie?’
The old cliche of “It’ll never happen to me” had become, ‘Well, I’ll be able to handle it,’ and then, ‘Well, I can just stop.’ Unfortunately, nobody truly realises quite how hard it is to “just stop” until they’ve experienced approximately four seconds of drug sickness.
After some time off, I blagged a doctor into writing me a “fit for work” note. I mean, I say “blagged” – the request is presumably so rare that the GP seemed more than happy to write out, pretty much verbatim, what I needed.
A lot of great work is being done by UK charities and advocacy groups to emphasise the fact that drug users are vulnerable people and not criminals, with some police forces introducing “diversion schemes”, where users caught carrying a personal amount of drugs – including crack and heroin – are diverted to treatment rather than criminalised.
Unfortunately, the government isn’t quite so progressive in its approach. While the UK’s Public Health Drug Strategy of 2017 made plenty of noise around improving services, the government has slashed funding over the last ten years, to the point where a recent £80 million package was criticised as a “drop in the ocean” compared to what’s needed.
The Dame Carol Black Review – an independent review of England’s drug policies, the second part of which was released in June – found that England’s drug treatment services are “not fit for purpose”. Having used these services myself, I’ve witnessed firsthand how they can quite literally make the difference between life and death – however, in my experience, there was ample help when I needed it.
Unfortunately, I made the decision to go back to work way before this point, without any guidance or help. I had no comprehension of the situation I’d be putting myself in, and the balancing act was near-impossible. Mind you, that wasn’t to matter for too much longer, as a global shake-up at my company left me redundant.
Two jobs, a 300-mile move and enrolling in a Master’s degree later, if we began this story on the “Friday” of my struggles with addiction, I can firmly say I’m into the “Monday” of my recovery. After many months using methadone as a maintenance drug and working with services to gradually taper down to the point that I’m no longer opiate-dependent, I am one of the luckier ones. While recovery is a lifelong process, I’m fortunate enough to have had the support network and treatment I needed to even make it this far.
Since being made redundant, I spent some time away from my career, exchanging the fast-paced life of the big city for my sleepy hometown. Eighteen months on, I’ve just graduated from my Master’s Degree and I’m currently having conversations with various companies all over the UK about roles to restart my career. I couldn’t be more grateful to those who have supported me through my struggles, and know just how lucky I am for a second chance.
If you are struggling with any form of addiction, treatment services are available across the UK.