Content Warning: images of drink, drugs and paraphernalia.
Blue Bag Life is an Instagram feed unlike any other. It was started by the artist and lecturer Lisa Selby in 2017, which for her proved to be a very turbulent year. First, her mother Helen died from cancer, having refused hospital treatment in favour of self-medicating at home with alcohol and heroin. Within a few months, Lisa's partner Elliot Murawski was jailed for dealing drugs to fund his own heroin habit. The account is named after the blue plastic wraps that Lisa would find hidden around their home, a telltale sign that Elliot – who was clean when the pair first met – had relapsed.
Following their journey together through a stream of images and captions, the account documents Helen's struggles with drugs and drink, Elliot's time as an addict both outside and inside prison, and Lisa's own battle with alcohol dependency. As word has spread, these personal snapshots have become interwoven with contributions from other addicts of all backgrounds, from middle class housewives to recently incarcerated working class men. The result is an intimate, illuminating and unsettling glimpse of lives that often remain hidden from view due to social stigma and shame, an odyssey through addiction, prison and loss with a love story at its core.
Today, Lisa and Elliot are free from addiction and continue to run Blue Bag Life together alongside their day-jobs (Elliot is a workshop facilitator for Think for the Future, a mentor programme inspiring young people facing barriers to education). I caught up with them in Café Sobar in Nottingham, to talk about the account and the most harrowing moments of their lives.
VICE: The photos and stories you post are often incredibly intimate. What's your experience of sharing this side of yourselves publicly, and how did you get the guts to do it?
Lisa: l've always taken pictures of everything and everyone around me. I wanted to capture information forensically, analysing it afterwards. I photographed drug paraphernalia in my late mother's house and shot footage of Elliot injecting himself, purely to make sense of it, to understand what was taking Elliot away from me, and what took my mum away from me. I hadn't known that blue bags were heroin wraps, that a burnt asthma inhaler was a crack pipe, or a bloody Kinder Egg had been used internally to smuggle drugs, until I considered those photos.
Elliot: I decided to appear with my real name because the only things online about me were news stories of my arrest and police mugshot, taken when I was desperately unwell, withdrawing from drugs. To counter that, I explain how I got there, why I started taking drugs and what happened afterwards. Whenever I was clean [previously], I couldn't talk honestly about my addiction, as heroin is kept out of public view, entrenched in secrecy and shame – that was when I'd relapse.
Lisa: I spent my childhood keeping my mother's addiction a secret – my head was exploding from holding it all inside.
Is that how you came up with the angle for your TEDx talk?
Elliot: We called it Addiction and Prison: The Undoing of Shame, because shame is tied to addiction. Society judges people who use drugs, but if drugs are your coping mechanism then shame will only drive you to use more.
Prisons are some of the least understood spaces in our culture. How did serving time in prison affect you?
Lisa: There are some sensational documentaries and shows like Orange Is the New Black, but they aren't realistic. You don't see the simple daily challenges, like trying to get hold of some Velcro so you can stick a towel to your door for privacy.
Elliot: It’s traumatic and really boring at the same time. You stop noticing violence, drugs, self-harm and suicide attempts around you. Monotony and the little things are the worst – being promised something that doesn’t materialise without you knowing why. You can't have expectations, because your life isn't in your hands.
Lisa: The system jeopardises people's relationships, like denying the prisoner a call someone is expecting – yet evidence shows the key to rehabilitation is their support network on the outside.
What about the logistics of running the feed, finding contributors and getting round censorship?
Lisa: We get hundreds of messages a day! Some via email, others in comments. We're not a support line or mental health professionals: we tell stories. We plan guest contributions carefully, with a lot of conversations. It takes up all our time, we're never off it – every break at work, evening, the last thing we look at each night. We speak all over the country and we're writing a book. Posts get deleted regularly, the account was removed once, but we persevere. Instagram has drawbacks, but it's still the platform that reaches the most people.
Is there any light relief, and how do you cheer yourself up after wading through so much human misery?
Lisa: There isn't always relief; it's heavy. There isn't always a happy ending. I had my mother's ashes in a prison locker while visiting Elliot; two consequences of addiction. My reward is gratitude from people whose stories we've shared without judgment. It's overwhelming. Then there are the teenagers, those aged 15 to 18, some starting life sentences for murder, who we meet in our prison workshops. We teach them their stories are valuable and mean something. It's amazing when they listen to each other in the session.
Elliot: It can be funny – I phoned my dad from prison and he took the piss out of me! We laughed about it to get through it.
Lisa: I was asked if attitudes to addiction are changing. I don't think they are yet, but we are getting somewhere with [de-stigmatising] mental health, so we'd love the day to come when the perception of addiction and prison is in the same trajectory that mental health is now – becoming normalised. That's the goal.
Scroll down to see more images from Blue Bag Life.
Helen at home, the year she died.