Smoking always made me feel bad – because, though it’s something I enjoy, I’d always known that the heavy feeling in the chest, the shortness of breath and the general… the swiftly conspicuous lower level of health following a period of heavy smoking wasn’t much fun. I didn’t enjoy smoking enough to accept the requisite losses to one’s health. Which is fine. An acceptable trade off. And a decision I made a long time ago.
Alcohol, too, particularly having grown up in rural England, was something I’d been aware of the negative effects of from a young age. The heavy weight gain, the unhealthy, red, blotchy skin, the smell, the lechery, the social embarrassment… And, of course, government health warnings constantly tell me not to do it. Drink-driving deaths, bans, and the whispers of both, floated, coasted, around my school, my town, social functions, society, where I grew up. They were things that happened. People drank too much. People drink too much. People here drink a bottle of wine, two, three, drive home. People here don’t think of it as an issue. It’s dangerous. Alcohol’s too readily available and too socially acceptable. It ruins lives, and lots of them. And the UK’s shoved that down my throat since birth.
The dangers of marijuana, pills, speed – you get a lot of that in the media, too, a lot of ‘You’ll lose your mind’, ‘your memory’, ‘your life’ – heavy handed, but lots of it. But cocaine, your – my – long-term drug of choice, gets a very different press. There’ve never been big national ad-campaigns trying to stop it (in my memory, maybe there were in the eighties), and though it might induce a heart attack, might damage your septum, the mass media don’t really offer more warning than that. Instead it’s portrayed as glamorous, cool – the negativity focused on cost, that one should refrain because of that. But something being prohibitively expensive? Out of one’s reach? That kind of talk encourages people to see it as a lifestyle choice, an aspirational drug: which is the way it is seen. Something wrapped up (no put intended) with gangsters, bankers, rock stars, actors, the super-rich, cartels, smugglers, syndicates, huge volumes of cash, mansions in the Colombian jungle, superyachts sailing the Atlantic with a false cargo, a worldwide network of consumers… Coca comes from one part of the world, but nostrils flare, pulses race and people gotta feeeel good all over it. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. It’s big. Big money. Big glamour. Big excitement. Here, the general message to not do it revolves around the fact that you may behave badly if you do (which has failed for years to work for alcohol), and that it funds criminals and crime. But if that’s the only window open to people to get hold of their powders, that’s the route they’re going to take.
There was a time when cocaine could be bought in a chemist, across the counter, but, after international deliberation, governments decided that the addiction and the dependency and the wider social effects of easy access to it were negative. So it was banned. Because of its inter- and ex- personal dangers. Fair enough. But this discourse has dropped. This has changed. It has gone back to being thought of as Freud’s “wonder drug”. Society, and by that I mean the people in charge of society, have their reasons for – not just keeping it “controlled”, but – keeping it theoretically “off the streets”, but these are no longer solidly and proudly discussed, enunciated. And this is why I think I, like many people, fell into the trap of regular use. It’s easy to see negativity against weed in the press, in the media: Though the leads in many American comedies are portrayed as “loveable stoners”, they are bumbling, limited in intellectual prowess, hungry and dazed. They are not in a good place to deal with anything traumatic, serious or dangerous. And many of these films get their comedy from showing these people trying to do just that. As much as society openly acknowledges that cannabis (old school) is prevalent in every strain of society in most countries (I bet my mother could get hold of weed), it does so with an awareness of the fact that it makes you less clever… less adjusted… than you would be otherwise. Pills, dance drugs, again, often satirised for the behaviour it causes, but also known for their very occasional related deaths. When people drown themselves drinking too much water, when someone in their fifties has a heart attack at a music festival… These things get picked up, get national press attention. But I can’t remember having ever seen a national news article about a death caused by cocaine use. I’m not being melodramatic, I’m not being silly, I’m being deadly serious: Crack deaths, smack deaths, E deaths, weed deaths, drink deaths, Mcat deaths, even fucking LSD deaths – these are things I have seen and read about and learnt about and had pounded into me by the British media from a young age. But coke deaths, straight, white, Columbia’s finest, powder deaths: nothing. Nada. Diddily Squat.
Now, me, I’m a sceptic, I notice things like this because I want to. And what I see is a media run by coked-up executives desperate to keep bad press off of their favourite pastime. Films, books, TV shows, songs, plays, making coke out to be cool, stylish, aspirational – this can only be because the people making media see it as that. And it seeps in, the opinion permeates society like benzoylmethylecgonine smashes through the nasal capillaries into the bloodstream. People take it up, hoover it up, we get excited about cocaine, about the idea of it: I’ll be Scarface, I’ll be David Bowie, I’ll be who-fucking-ever; and then once it’s entered the mind, the body, it’s there, locked in, eternal. I’ve been off it for weeks now, and as soon as I start to think about it, I cling onto the idea, swim in the powdrous sea of dreams, find myself waxing lyrical, blaming society, blaming others, for my susceptibility to addiction. I’m best off it, I reason. I think. I can understand, I can see, the path that led me to this point, and I can absolutely feel the pull, the attraction to go back to it. Knowing that there’s that life out there, that in London right now there are people snorting coke off marble worktops, getting ready to hit the fucking town and paint it red with the sprayback from their eviscerated nostrils. I wish I was. Where nights are beginning, instead of drawing to a close, like they are out here in the countryside. London, where functions happen in nightclubs, studio apartments, near public fucking transport and go on until the next day. It’s not even, it isn’t even, midnight and there is already a conspicuous exodus as the band still plays, pouring out Mack the Knife to an empty dance floor. They look like fun. They look like they could keep going. Maybe they’re on coke, I wonder. Though it’s unlikely.
And that’s exactly the kind of thing I mean about always thinking of it, always being there, in the consciousness. A fucking swing band in a fucking Warwickshire church hall is unlikely to be on cocaine. Jesus. My mind is a shambles. A few more weeks, I hope, I almost pray, a few more clean weeks and I can forget the urges, right? They’ll slip, slide and dribble out of me, back out of my nose, the way they came in. Right? I hope so. I want to stop thinking about it. Because thinking about it means wanting it. And I don’t want to do that.
Note: This essay was written in 2012.
Scott Manley Hadley blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com and his debut poetry collection, Bad Boy Poet, is published November 2018 by Open Pen. He is Satire Editor at Queen Mob’s Tea House and is on Twitter @Scott_Hadley. Image: Berlin, "Koks Emil" der Kokain-Verkäufer, by Georg Pahl, 1929