On the 20th anniversary of the cinematic release of "Trainspotting," we speak to members of Calton Athletic, the soccer team-cum-recovery group that was brought in to keep the film authentic.
Craig Broadley is standing in the pissing rain on the Kingston Bridge, an ugly motorway flyover that cuts Glasgow in two, his cell phone pressed to his ear like it's the only thing that can save his life.
In just over a year, he's spent £20,000 [$28,000] on cocaine. He's lost his roofing business, and he's on the verge of losing his girlfriend and his baby daughter. He is crying his heart out, spewing great big sobs.
On the other end of the phone, John Ferns of the Calton Athletic Recovery Group—who's been there and done things with drugs you can't even imagine—is telling him he is going to fucking die. It's time to make a choice.
Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electric can openers... But why would I want to do a thing like that?
Those opening lines of Trainspotting, Danny Boyle's 1996 film of Irvine Welsh's classic novel, are so iconic they're almost a cliché. The film—starring Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Johnny Lee Miller, and Kelly McDonald—defined a generation. This was drug-taking like we'd never seen on screen before—injecting, snorting, cooking-up, all done with gusto by junkies in Edinburgh's underbelly. There were the clubs, the parties, and the sex. Then there were the comedowns, overdoses, and terrifyingly trippy withdrawals.
And the reason it felt so real? "They got it from the horse's mouth," Willie Burns, one of the founding members of Glasgow's Calton Athletic Recovery Group, tells me.
"The Trainspotting team came here and got clued-up. These were also our stories that they were depicting," says the ex-addict turned mentor.
The Calton Athletic crew appeared in the Trainspotting credits as "special advisors," keeping the script writer, director, producer, and actors right on everything from how to shoot up authentically to what withdrawal really felt like.
"Danny Boyle, Ewan McGregor, and Johnny Lee Miller used to come to our meetings and sit in the back as part of their research," says Colin Nelson, whose claim to fame is that he booted a football into McGregor's face in the opening five-a-side scene. "They'd listen to what the life of a drug addict was like, the places it would take you."
Set up by former alcoholic and drug addict David Bryce in 1985, Calton Athletic Recovery Group is in Glasgow's East End. It's a working class area, once known for its violence—the territory of the infamous gang the Tongs. Even now, the life expectancy of a man in these parts hovers just under 70. Then, it was even lower. Drug addicts were dying in the hundreds. Those in impoverished schemes and once-industrial areas decimated by Thatcher suffered most.
Before Calton Athletic, if you wanted off heroin, you signed up to a script for a sickly-sweet, bright green dose of methadone.
But these guys are not about half measures. This was about abstinence—getting fit and getting clean the hard way with other former hard men who had learned how to open up and cry about what had gone wrong. This was about creating a new sort of peer pressure.
"I was 20 when I came," says Davie Main, who met David Bryce at a treatment center. "There was no drink, no drugs, no going out. I thought my life had ended. But though I didn't like what I was hearing, I liked what I was seeing. They were healthy; they were smiling."
By 22, he was David Bryce's right-hand man, and they went on to run a seven-day-a-week service for men and women, as well as a hugely successful football team and a schools outreach program. But they clashed with authorities over their outspoken opposition to methadone: "It doesn't work. People are being sold down the river," he says.
Funding dwindled. In 2011, David Bryce died, and now, more than 25 years later, Main runs the show on a much reduced, voluntary basis.
The "premises," as they all call their white-washed office, has seen better days; there are old cardboard boxes piled in corners, and it's so cold you can see your breath.
But the cuttings from Trainspotting days are still on the walls. And it's packed out when I go to meet them. It's warm with noisy chatter and bravado.
There's Bill Lynch, a recovering alcoholic, who's done 40 months (and 11 days and 23 minutes) of attending meetings with Calton Athletic and no longer wakes up in a pool of his own piss. Now, he's super fit and part of the Calton Athletic team going to Everest base camp this November.
And there's Brian Watt, who came here after he nearly died jumping off a building. He broke his back and both his arms and realized he couldn't return to a life of addiction.
But as everyone tells me, the most important person in the room is Broadley—the newest member. "I look at him, and I can feel his pain," says Burns. "Oh, I remember that."
"This is really fresh, very hard-hitting, and very emotional," Broadley admits. This is just his fourth meeting. "My daughter turned one in January, and I thought: I can't do this any longer. Cocaine just made me feel low, but I couldn't stop. I was taking it first thing in the morning, in my roofing van, off the back of the drill box, last thing at night. A friend used to be part of Calton, and he said to me: 'Here's the number. If you want to sort your life out, this is how you do it.' I made that call, and John Ferns answered it."
If you want to talk to someone about drugs without any judgement, Ferns—who has been in recovery for 13 years—is a pretty safe bet.
"My wee mammy was an abusive alcoholic," he says. "She committed suicide when I was ten—threw herself in the River Clyde."
His 17-year-old sister brought him up to be clean-cut until he "went out into the world" at 16, and it all changed. He started with joints and beer but soon found amphetamines and heroin.
"I've got to be honest. My first hit of heroin was fantastic," he admits. "My scheme was one where the windows and stairwells were boarded up. But heroin made it look like Barbados. But within weeks, I was craving it. Within months, I was selling my clothes, vinyl, anything I had. Within a year, I was robbing."
The party scene exploded in Glasgow, and Ferns added ecstasy to the mix. When he stopped being able to get cocaine up his nose, he turned to the crack pipe. He crushed whatever he could get his hands on, added water, and injected.
So what brought him to Calton? "I died," he says. "Choked to death in my own vomit in a stairwell and two paramedics managed to bring me back to life."
He woke up in hospital, and his sister took him home and locked him in her house for three weeks, where he rested in the fetal position, "a bag of bones wrapped up in skin."
"I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat. I had DTs. I was rattling, sweating, vomiting into a bucket at the side of the bed," he remembers. "One of my mates came up and said: 'I think Calton Athletic could help you.' I would have said yes to anything to get out of that house. But I came down here, and Calton Athletic taught me something: I had physically, mentally, and spiritually battered myself to the ground."
At Calton, he learned how to rebuild himself—mentally through the meetings and physically by working out. The spiritual came by putting the two together. One day, he realized he liked himself again. "I owe everything of substance in my life to Calton Athletic," he says.
As it turns out, with the help of Carlon Athletic, choosing life is not so bad.
Donate to Calton Athletic's Everest trip here.