My name is Alex Hamlyn and I am a recovering drug addict.
I used various substances for 17 years and I have been clean for 27 years in October 2021. This is my story.
I started using drugs at the age of 13 and I used to a greater or lesser extend till the age of 30, but there didn’t seem to be anything going on in my life that drew me towards drugs. I came from a reasonably functional family. I think I was quite a popular, reasonably well-adjusted adolescent at that time.
“The psychological part is that the substance itself is not really addictive, like cannabis as an example but you are craving that calming effect that it has. That slight change of the emotion that it induces means that it is psychologically more addictive. Examples of the physical addictive part would be alcohol, cocaine, heroin, codeine and tik…”Dr Franco Colin Psychiatrist
I smoked my first joint quite excitedly but a little bit, you know, cautiously and then I enjoyed the experience and there didn’t seem to be anything negative about it and so I continued to do it. I think it was just availability. Suddenly someone said I can get you some magic mushrooms and I was like, “yeah that’ll be good” and then I took them and a few weeks passed and I couldn’t get any other drugs and somebody said I can get you some amphetamine and some speed. It wasn’t even a hesitation, there wasn’t even a “should I, shouldn’t I?” I was just “If you can get them, I want them,” and I think that’s how I started with drugs.
“This brings into play the whole topic of gateway drugs. These are drugs that are erroneously seen as safer by the group and often lead the person into using these safer drugs but then moving on to more heavy stuff like heroin, cocaine, tik etc. These drugs are traditionally cannabis, ecstasy, LSD. These drugs are not as addictive but still very dangerous.”Dr Franco Colin Psychiatrist
And when I was 16 I was first introduced to cocaine which I thought was very smart. I thought it was very fashionable. It was associated with a smart, set and jet-set lifestyle which was a million miles away from where I was but at least it was a taste of that jet-set lifestyle. Looking back at what was happening; I was spending all of my spare time, all of my social life getting and using drugs, to the exclusion of everything else. At the time we used to call it ‘partying’ and I was only interested in partying. I didn’t do anything much else and even when I started using heroin (which I did at the age of 18), I still didn’t think it was a problem, I thought it was a choice. I thought it was a lifestyle choice and it was kind of cool. There was a club where everyone was using heroin and they were the ‘cool guys’ and I wanted to be part of that.
“You have a system in your brain that tells you when something is good. When I eat lemon meringue pie for the first time my brain says WOW this is great you must eat this again. Next time when I walk past the bakery my brain says you’ve got to stop and eat that pie again because it is great. Now there are many things that are great and good for us – behaviours that we should be doing over and over again, like protecting ourselves; things that are pleasurable. Sex would be a very important one because it’s the whole preservation of the species that also activates the pleasure system but the downside of it is that these drugs now go and stimulate this particular system. So when you take cocaine into your body it stimulates the pleasure system and the brain says ‘WOW this is fantastic it makes me feel euphoric and happy” and then it kicks off these chemical changes that say you must use this again and again and that is why cocaine is so particularly addictive. So the high is all about setting free chemicals in the brain, one specifically called dopamine that makes you feel euphoric but makes you want to take the drug again.Dr Franco Colin Psychiatrist
I liked getting high. I just liked being able to alter the way that I felt, from one minute to the next. I liked the power of the control that the drugs gave me. If I was feeling happy, I could feel happier. If I was feeling bad I could tune it out. If I was feeling worried, it didn’t matter; It felt as if it gave me control and it was nice.
I had taken these two microdots and I had gone with somebody I didn’t know that well to a punk nightclub. We were looking in the mirror and pulling faces in the mirror and kind of freaking each other out and giggling a lot and it was all fun and my friend had obviously upset somebody and they came out of the cubicle behind him while we were looking in the mirror and tried to cut his ear off. Well, that’s certainly what appeared to happen. There was blood and I was scared and I was tripping really heavily and I tipped over the edge into this nightmare of paranoia and panic. I persuaded my friends to put me in a taxi and send me home to my parent’s house and they found me and asked me what had happened and I said “I’ve taken too much acid,” and they got very worried and took me to a hospital that specialised in overdoses. So I was tripping out of my head, hallucinating and panicking and very fearful and there were these overdose cases being wheeled into this hospital with syringes hanging out of their arms. The guy opposite me was vomiting all over himself and I thought I had died and was in hell. I just got more and more freaked out and more panicked. I went to see the psychiatrist who asked me what I had taken and I thought he meant what I had taken in total in my life…so I gave him this list of drugs that I had been using and it was the first time that I had ever told anybody the truth, I was that scared. I really thought I needed help. He gave me a tranquillizer and I came down and the next day he asked me about what was going on and he said “Alex it’s not normal for a boy your age to be taking as many drugs as you are taking,” and I thought he was mad. I thought he didn’t get it, that he didn’t understand what was happening. I was so convinced that what I was doing was okay that I thought he didn’t know what he was talking about.
“The second part of becoming addicted is what we call tolerance. Tolerance means that you become used to the drug. When you were 16 you could drink a beer and become drunk, when you were 25 you now have to take 5 beers to get the same effect. So it means that you have to take more and more of the same substance to have that intoxicating effect. The third component is what we call withdrawal. Because your brain becomes addicted to it, you cannot actually function without taking in the drug. So there is a unique set of symptoms like shaking, sweating, diarrhoea, tears flowing down your face (these symptoms differ from drug to drug) and secondly you have to take the drug to alleviate these symptoms when they arise. “Dr Franco Colin Psychiatrist
Nightmare years of a recovering drug addict
The last four years from the age of 26 was just a nightmare. I really, desperately wanted to not be doing it but I was so hooked that I could not find a way out. I think also around that time I ran out of veins. I had been injecting heroin for 8 years and my veins had collapsed. I had abscesses; I was really looking the part. Not only was there a problem in finding the money to get the drugs but once I got the drugs I couldn’t get them into my system so I would sit with a tourniquet on my arm and try to get a shot in the arm. I would burn a few pinpricks and couldn’t get it in the one arm so I would go to the other arm and put the tourniquet on and try to get a shot in there and couldn’t get a vein. Then I would try my leg, couldn’t get a vein, tried my other leg, couldn’t get a vein.. and I would sit there, slowly dripping blood off all my limbs thinking what am I doing? How did I get here? I certainly wasn’t under any delusion that this was fun anymore, this was painful and difficult.
“Because these people use real hardcore drugs like tik, cocaine heroin and so on, you see the physical consequences. Mood swings, rings around the eyes, trauma, fights, car accidents…”Dr Franco Colin Psychiatrist
It made me angry and that anger allowed me to do things as well; to commit crimes; to be unpleasant to other people; to not care that I was hurting my parents or my friends or anybody that cared for me. I was angry and I felt sorry for myself. I thought I had been dealt a bad hand. It’s a dark place in my mind. So much so that the last memory I have of using is of an overdose, of holding a lethal dose of heroin in my hand and thinking death would be so much better than what I am doing and I tried to get the fatal dose into my arms and I couldn’t find a vein. I couldn’t even kill myself. I know it sounds melodramatic but it was really a painful moment when I realised that I could not even administer a fatal dose and it was for me, hell. There were a lot of other unpleasant experiences where the kind of self-respect degenerated to such an extent. I was shooting up in public toilets. I would leave home in the morning, go out and steal something or sell something or get somebody else to sell something to get some money to get the next hit and then knowing that hit wouldn’t last very long, just stop in the nearest public toilet and would often wash the syringe through in the toilet bowl because there was no other water. I would lock myself in the cubicle and flush the toilet and catch the water in the syringe and use that to cook up and wash the syringe in and I didn’t care. There was no part of me saying, well you should be careful. I was kind of self-destructing and I knew it.
Dr Franco Colin Psychiatrist
“One of the terrible consequences of drug abuse and addiction is not just the effect of the drug on the brain but the effect of the usage on the whole body. Now it starts off with the physical effect of the drug on the body. This is the typical runny nose or nose bleeds in cocaine, the red eyes with cannabis, the shakiness on withdrawals, sweating, muscle aches, spasms etc with different drugs. There are many different effects attached to each drug but then there’s also the whole secondary consequences of being intoxicated with these drugs and being careless. Sharing of needles leading to AIDS an abscesses and infections in the body, increased incidences of unprotected sex and losing inhibitions that might lead to the infection with HIV so, it’s important to understand that it’s not just the drug going into the brain causing the addiction but all the behaviours that go wrong around the addiction that might lead to your untimely death.
I took an accidental overdose and woke up in the hospital and I was getting more overly suicidal and at that point, I just knew that I could not do this again. I could not carry on using and the desperation was that I didn’t think I could stop either. I could not face another day and really, today I understand that to be a moment of surrender where I just stopped trying to control what was going on and just made a decision that I was just not going to shoot heroin, no matter what.
“There are different ways that an addict can actually exit this desperate spiral into complete destruction. It happens in different ways. All the bad ones are the following: They could have a complete breakdown, lose everything, steal something, land up in jail and come into a therapeutic system that way. Not very desirable. Secondly, they can overdose; take too much of a particular drug, like heroin, stop breathing and get taken by ambulance to a hospital and come to attention that way, also not very desirable. But the best one would be if a person can personally develop insight: Understand that I am out of control I cannot stop this anymore. The only way would be to go and ask for professional help. That is obviously the best way and most desirable way to get out of the system.Dr Franco Colin Psychiatrist
Cold Turkey of a recovering drug addict
I went through cold turkey. I just lay in a bed and withdrew. Whenever I had gone through cold turkey before, I was always thinking how I was going to get some more… I was just so sick I couldn’t make a plan. If anyone had come to me I would have begged them, done whatever to get them to get me some heroin. This time I lay in the bed withdrawing and just thinking I don’t even care if I die, I am not going to use heroin. I had been attending a support group intermittently over the years as one of the attempts I was making to stop using and I had a 12 step fellowship and as soon as I was well enough I started going to meetings and I met a whole bunch of other people who were not using on a daily basis and in early recovery from drug addiction who understood what I was going through and how difficult it was and helped support me in not doing it and making those better choices a reality. The programme I was going to said just get through one day at a time, just get through that day without using and really that was all I could focus on; just getting through today without using and If I could through and get to bed without using then I am in the game.
“I think it is important to get access to a professional to help you start the process. The first step would be withdrawal. To get the whole detox phase over to get you withdrawn and get your brain withdrawn from this substance. It can be a very dangerous and complicated process if it’s not done very well and supervised by a medical professional or a psychiatrist. Once your brain and body has been cleaned out of the substance you then enter probably the most important phase, the whole rehabilitation thing. In this phase, you will then be taught about why ended up in this thing in the first place. You will exam with your therapist what led you to become addicted. Why did you get hooked? What were the factors that pushed you towards it? What are these undiagnosed conflicts, mental disorders; depression, Bipolar, social phobia etc that possibly led you into becoming addicted. What are the factors in your family environment? Lack of social support etc? So your rehabilitation will help you cope with these things, will still then make sense of them and will help you develop the necessary skills for the last stage and that is maintaining your abstinence.”Dr Franco Colin Psychiatrist
Confessions of a recovering drug addict
Having found a way that worked I was delighted. I was passionate. The real pain of the last four years of my addiction was not realising that I was in trouble. I knew I was in trouble but just believing there was no way out, believing that I could not stop. So once I managed to stop and stay ‘stopped’ I was a bit evangelical about sharing that news with people, about helping other people to stop. It’s been one of the constants in my abstinence; in my recovery; this knowledge that no matter how bad it is, there is always hope and that you can always get out of it and can stop the nightmare. I think still today I feel passionate about that and I think that’s what led me into working in rehabilitation.
I think that has been a huge part of recovery for me, sharing that message with people. It’s been many years since I last took a drink or a drug. I love my life now. I have children, I enjoy my family, and I enjoy the work that I do. I have a really fulfilling life and from where I came from that’s really chalk and cheese. I think for me, every step of the way has been wonderful. Just opening my first bank account was brilliant. Getting my first paycheck while clean was unbelievable. It’s not that I had not done any of this stuff; it’s just that I have never done any of it when I was awake. I often feel that I went to sleep in my teenage years and I only woke up once I put the drugs down. I know it’s corny but the colours are brighter and the noises, music is better, everything is better, cleaner and that is just such a surprise because I was taking drugs initially because I thought that was making everything better. I love not using drugs, I love being clean today and I love my life and I love the fact that I am out of hell.
“So it’s important to understand that you need to grow, that you need to find hobbies, new friends that are not drinking, smoking, injecting, snorting etc. You will find that often you will get rid of that social circle but you have to build a new one and so it is very important that your therapist and you work together to find replacements for these things that you have lost, all the demons in your life now being replaced with good positive things and attitudes in life.”Dr Franco Colin Psychiatrist
There is a way out, people do overcome these things and you can learn to manage, one day at a time for the rest of your life without using. I still go to support groups and meetings to remind myself what it would be like if I started using drugs again and I think that it’s important that I do that. Part of what I do is helping other people but I am only helping other people because I need the help and there were people that were there when I was ready and there will be people there when they are ready. I think it’s the most difficult thing I have ever done but when I say my name is Alex and I am a recovering addict it’s not a negative in my life, it’s the most positive thing. I have overcome this debilitating illness and continue today.
I used to say God knows that I am a good person even though my life didn’t look like that and I wasn’t a bad person, I was a sick person and I think that is liberating for me to see it from that perspective.
I did a lot of bad things but I was ill and I am getting better and I am staying better.