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Patrick Melrose captures heroin addiction perfectly my memories flooded back | John Crace

A new TV drama based on Edward St Aubyns books captures the untold truth of heroin addiction the blood, dirty hits and banality. For John Crace, it brought a harrowing decade back to life

I never flew on Concorde. I seldom dared leave London during my 20s. I was never sexually abused by my father. (I somehow managed to hate myself enough without being forced to endure that horror.) I never shot up heroin in the penthouse suite of a flash, New York hotel. I shot up heroin in grubby bedrooms and the back of cars.

But to concentrate on the differences between Patrick Melrose and me is to commit a major category error. Edward St Aubyns five semi-autobiographical novels contain some of the most viscerally accurate depictions ever written of what it means and how it feels to be an addict. And watching them come to life in the virtuoso performance by Benedict Cumberbatch in the new TV drama has brought the memories flooding back. In just a few hours of television, superbly scripted by David Nicholls, the checklist has been near-enough complete.

It starts with the obsession. Nothing can be allowed to get between addicts and their drugs. I never set out to be an addict. Like many others, I thought I would be the exception that proved the rule the person who beat the system. It would be me who controlled the drugs and not the other way round. As Patrick would say: Some hope.

I often took drugs that I didnt even particularly like. Drugs such as coke and speed, which made me feel far too awake, and dope, which just made me feel stupid. I took them because they were there. Anything was preferable to being me. It sometimes felt as if I was a guinea pig in my own pharmacological experiment as I tried to calibrate the platonic ideal of absence.

I
I thought I would be the exception that proved the rule John Crace in the era he used drugs. Photograph: John Crace

The first time I took heroin was like coming home. For some people I knew, heroin was the final taboo. They would smoke dope and take coke, but draw the line at smack. Not me. I actively sought it out as if we were long-lost blood brothers. As if I had always known all the other drugs I had taken had been merely a buildup to the main event. My feelings of inadequacy and despair gave way to a warm embrace. No one and nothing could get to me.

I was invulnerable. I was me and not me. I was an outside observer delivering a running commentary on myself: Patricks voiceover narration in the TV drama of a weekend he spends in New York collecting his fathers ashes is no mere stylistic device holding the drama together. Its a powerful depiction of his dissociated state.

With heroin, the world had been refashioned in my own disconnected image. Every time I took it thereafter was a desperate attempt to recreate that first experience; a longing that met with ever-decreasing success. Before long, I was taking heroin just to feel normal. Or the closest approximation to normal that I could manage.

The drama captures the relentlessness. One of the striking features of Patrick Melrose is just how much everything revolves around drugs. Most of the first hour-long episode was taken up with Patrick buying drugs, coming off drugs or taking drugs. Patricks ability to score in a foreign city in the early 1980s is impressive. I seldom left London in that era because I needed to maintain an umbilical link to my supply of drugs. And, even then, days could pass with me standing around outside phone boxes or sitting in a dealers house. Just waiting. And waiting.

In many film and literary depictions of using, the drugs are often relegated to an incidental role because the nature of addiction is so profoundly boring. Here, they get pride of place, centre stage. For a heroin addict, its the living thats incidental.

Thats the way it is. Being a heroin addict is a full-time occupation. A deadly dull one at that. One without glamour. The first thing I did when I woke up in the morning was take some smack. The rest of the day would have a familiar rhythm: taking more drugs, trying to find some money to buy more drugs, waiting for the dealer to be in. The years I wasted hanging around, buying more drugs and taking more drugs. Only once that was all sorted could the rest of my life be fitted in. Friends came and went. Crap jobs came and went. It was a question of priorities.

Patrick Melrose captures the denial. The belief that no one else knows what a mess you are; that when they look at you, they see a person who knows what they are doing. This is one of the more perverse strands of arrogance. Patrick expects to be indulged. It doesnt occur to him that there is anything abnormal about being discovered by the concierge crawling along the hotel corridor on quaaludes or opening his door naked to a valet. And if reality does briefly intrude, such as when Patrick is brushed off by a friend of his girlfriend, then it is instantly rebuffed with more heroin. Safety in powders.

Self-deception is an integral part of the addicts armoury. You intellectually understand that you are a junky and yet somehow convince yourself youre a different order of junky to those around you a superior junky. Someone who could go straight if they really wanted to, but now just doesnt happen to be the right time. Tomorrow is always a better time to go cold turkey than today.

The chaos of the addicts life frequently descends into near-farce, something the addict chooses to wear as a badge of heroic pride and Patrick Melrose has that comedy. I managed to miss almost all of my own wedding reception by holing up in a toilet with a dealer who, for the first time ever, was showering me with free smack. Patricks weekend in New York is laced with humour as he picks up his fathers ashes: he ends up being directed to the wrong body in the morgue, where he is greeted by enthusiastic mourners. But, beneath the comedy, there is pathos. Today, I just feel sad that I was absent on what should have been one of the most significant and happiest days of my life.

Tomorrow
Tomorrow is always a better time to go cold turkey than today Benedict Cumberbatch in Patrick Melrose.

Patrick describes his life as one of ungovernable shame and violence. And its the shame thats the big one here: the violence is just collateral damage. Shame is the one that gets you every time, because deep down you know how worthless you are. You know that every day is another testament to your failure. And there is nothing you can do to stop it. Your anger turns in on yourself as the days turn into weeks turn into months turn into years. The self-destruction gets steadily worse. You end up doing all sorts of things youd promised yourself you would never do and somehow you find a way to normalise them.

Until you cant. My own rock bottom came on my 30th birthday after nearly 10 years of addiction. I was holed up in a flat with a large bag of heroin, surrounded by the small handful of friends who had stood by me and Id never felt so miserable. I had obliterated a third of my life and had failed at almost everything. After that, I started overdosing regularly. Not because I desperately wanted to die, but because I wasnt that bothered if I stayed alive.

Edward/Patrick and I are the lucky ones; those who found recovery. A friend and my wife together persuaded me to get help, and I found, to my surprise, that I wanted to live more than I wanted to die. I went into rehab on 9 March 1987 and have been clean ever since. And, yes, I am still counting the days. Many of the people I knew havent been so fortunate. Some died while I was using. Some got clean and then relapsed and died. Some found the pain of living without drugs just too much and killed themselves. Others died of Aids and hepatitis C. The rate of deaths from cancer and heart disease has been far higher in those I knew who were addicts than those who werent. At times it has felt attritional. The body count on my timeline is terrifyingly high.

The Patrick Melrose books get to the heart of the addicts condition. Even in recovery, St Aubyn never soft-soaps or descends to saccharine Hollywood endings. He tells it like it is. The blood, the dirty hits, the overdoses, the casual violence and the banality. No one gets off scot-free from heroin addiction. Yes, Im unbelievably grateful for the second chance I have been given. I have a family I adore and of whom I am enormously proud. I have my dream job. Life in many ways could not be more sweet.

But there is a price. Edward/Patrick can speak for themselves, but heres my story. I have severe depression and anxiety. I have been in hospital with mental illness. I am still driven by the same feelings of inadequacy I had as a teenager. Futility and despair are still my default settings in life. I just choose not to use on them. It is not always easy. Most days, I still feel less than those around me. I still wake up feeling as if I have failed. I still find it hard to feel the love of those around me. I just know that taking drugs isnt the answer. So I plod on. One foot after another. One day at a time.

Patrick Melrose is on Sky Atlantic in the UK and on Showtime in the US. The government-run website talktofrank.com (0300 123 6600) offers free, confidential advice about drugs.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/may/22/patrick-melrose-captures-heroin-addiction-perfectly-it-brought-my-memories-flooding-back

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