For many people, drinking alcohol is as Christmassy as turkey, Michael Bublé and arguments with family members about the best size to chop a roast potato. But many opt to spend their holiday season under the influence of harder substances, the imbibing of which remains far less socially acceptable than a Christmas morning buck's fizz.
Perhaps it’s not surprising: Christmas is a relentlessly commercial period in which we're expected to experience profound peace and joy while being forced to cohabit with people who often inspire neither emotion. For those with substance abuse problems, it’s easy to fall back on those crutches that help them get through the most regular of days. Add in the fact that we’re in the middle of a loneliness epidemic and that mental health charity Mind says one in four UK citizens will suffer a mental illness each year, and it makes sense that many will be looking to detach from reality at the most wonderful time of the year.
Here are the stories of five people VICE spoke to.
Claire Truman, 26
By the time I was 17 I could easily sniff ten grams of ketamine in a day. I started developing symptoms of damage, mainly extreme stomach cramping, which were only remedied by more ketamine. Some substances suppress appetite, but ketamine makes me hungry. So I could do a line right before Christmas dinner, then nip out for another line before dessert. One year, though, I started getting awful cramps during lunch. I tried to sit through it but the pain was so intense I just needed to be in bed and breathe through it. I always managed to pass off to family that my cramps were IBS or a stomach bug. I remember feeling guilty and disappointed in myself for not taking it easy, but it was only briefly because my mind was focused on the pain and how to make it stop. I was desperately clinging to a hot water bottle and focusing on doing the next line. Even though the pain would come back with a vengeance, it was worth it for an hour of relief.
Karen Bright, 29
When I was using heroin I hated this time of year. Dealing with what I thought was the negative judgment of my family exacerbated feelings of stress and shame I had. Perhaps more powerful was the sense of jealousy I harboured for the people out there in the "real" world. Everywhere you looked, people were supposedly living their best lives and happy, while I was lost in a sea of heroin. Normally I’d be at my uncle’s house from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day. I’d smoke a line when I took my dog out in the morning on Christmas Day. I’d be drinking a bit throughout the day, then I’d go out after lunch and smoke again, then once or twice more in the evening. I wasn’t getting out of it; just doing what I felt like I had to do. One year, I couldn’t deal with seeing everyone and lied and said my mate was doing a "friend’s Christmas". I just stayed in by myself, got high and watched TV. Although I was obviously not in a good place, I actually enjoyed that Christmas more than the ones before because I felt less stressed. I’m clean now, with a beautiful daughter. I think Christmas is amazing! I feel blessed that I’ve had the chance to fall back in love with it.
David Johnson, 32
On Christmas Eve I’d normally be drinking with friends. The last thing I’d do before going to bed was rack up a line of CK1 [cocaine and ketamine], for when I woke up in the morning. I'd sniff that and then start drinking. I’d easily get through a large crate of cider and one or two bottles of rum and whiskey, and be re-dosing throughout the day. I’ll get through anything up to three grams of both drug, and I tend to turn my phone off – or at least turn calls off – and just let myself have it as a day of isolation from the world, mainly because I want everyone I know to enjoy the day and don't want to burden them with my rollercoaster of emotions. I’m a software developer and tend to work on personal projects during the day. I’ll listen to a very emotionally driven Spotify playlist and, while it's not all that fun a day, it's become a ritual that really helps me in coming to terms with all the things that occurred in the year: the good, the bad, the stressful, the heartaches and so on. I’ll stay up then catch up with friends on Boxing Day and continue until the early hours of the 27th. I've recently moved away as part of my plan to eventually stop using, so I’m not sure what I’ll be doing this year.
Nikki Mattocks, 21
Christmas is so hard for users and their families. We put expectations on ourselves to feel happy and have a perfect day, but if you’re struggling with addiction nothing is perfect and every day is a battle. I’d be taking cocaine in the toilet or in my room, and my family had no idea. I drink a lot of Diet Coke, and they just thought I was hyper or, when I was coming down, they thought I was just having a moment as they knew I struggled with depression. I wouldn’t be hungry, but forced myself to eat, then basically threw it up almost straight away.
Being high around them would make me anxious, so I’d just use more until I wasn’t, stay in my room or lock myself in the toilet. One Christmas I remember texting my ex and asking him to drop off more drugs, so I went for a "walk" and got some. An hour later I was sitting in the living room, hiding under my blanket, hysterically crying. It was a cycle. It was an incredibly dark and hideous time of my life.
Darren Turner, 27
I’ll take an Etizolam [a benzodiazepine analog] as soon as I get up, then take a couple in the afternoon then another in the evening. I’ll be feeling extremely anxious about seeing people all day so I’ll be drinking heavily throughout: I’ll probably drink eight beers over the day, plus a couple bottles of wine and any other festive drinks going round. My family are big drinkers so, even though people might make the odd comment about how much I’m putting away, it’s in jest and I don’t think anyone really notices. Even though I’m outwardly friendly and upbeat, I’m so pleased when most of the family go. My dad, my uncle and I will then normally get a bottle of whisky and polish it off. Obviously I know by most people’s standards it’s a lot, but I don’t think it’s that unusual really. It’s what you do at Christmas.
Thanks to Sesh Safety for their help with this article.