A Smack Addict's Tale

London Portrait Magazine – 1985

This article was commissioned by London Portrait Magazine but not published, at the author's request, following the death of Melanie McLaughlin. She had been a frequent visitor to the author's flat in Earl's Court Square. "You can let me in," she once said, "'cos I'd never nick nothing... I'd tell you if I needed money or something... I wouldn't steal from you." And she never did. She died in a basement squat in Warwick Road where she spent her final days in a virtual coma in the company of trans-sexuals. Her funeral in north Kensington was attended by a number of fellow prostitutes, social workers and a member of the local police along with the author.

Melanie McLaughlan could well be dead in a few months' time – by the time you read this in fact [and, in fact, she was].

Illegitimate and abandoned by her mother, Melanie grew up in a children's home. At 13 she ran away to become a drug-addicted child-prostitute living on her wits on the streets of London.

Exploited by a succession of older girls until she was 16, she then had to abandon a baby of her own because she was homeless, helpless and hooked on heroin. The vicious circle was complete.

Now aged 20 her life is not unlike that of a stunt motor-cycle rider facing the wall of death. She has to race faster and faster to maintain a heroin-induced centrifugal force sufficient to drive her higher and higher up the circular vertical wall – a wall of thrilling but terrifying danger, a wall of street violence, theft, police, prisons, pushers and prostitution.

Race too fast (overdose) and you fly out of the top, out of control, to certain death. Race too slowly (miss a fix) and you plunge into the darkness and to another form of death at the bottom of the wall.

Melanie McLaughlan at the author's Earl's Court Square flat, shortly before her death. "You could get me in the papers, couldn't you," she used to say.

In an unguarded moment Melanie admits that her life is really just an existence – an all-absorbing obsession to maintain a habit that will certainly kill her unless she manages to kill the habit first.

Her way of life is, she admits, degrading and humiliating and she often wonders whether she wouldn't be better off dead.

Melanie is tough, chirpy, intelligent and amusing. She brings out a protective instinct in almost everyone she meets. She has a bewitching ability to attract, disarm and manipulate everybody around her.

If she were less appealing it's unlikely she would have survived even this long. All those concerned, sympathetic and forgiving social workers, magistrates and 'worried friends' are the very people who enable her to continue her suicidal existence – with the help, of course, of dealers and organised crime.

She's the centre of their attention. She manipulates every one of them. They adjust the throttle by supplying her with more drugs or drying her out for a while, keeping her going and preventing her from facing reality.

But personality apart, the truth is that she's just a statistic so far as the authorities are concerned.

The Home Office has recently announced that last year there was a 42 per cent increase in 'notified' addicts: 5,864 of them.

Think about it: a 42 per cent increase in one year.

Bearing in mind that there are at least five times that number who have not registered, the true total is more likely to be around 30,000. And here we're not talking about trendy individuals with a coke habit. These are serious, fatally addicted youngsters who really are facing the wall of death.

More worrying still is the fact that last year's vast increase came largely from new addicts (not old ones returning to the list) and that girls are now the fastest growing sector of the market – paving the way for all the horrors of more addicted new-born babies.

The peak age is 20 with a dramatic escalation among teenagers.

With some pride the police say they made just over 26,000 illegal drugs hauls in 1983 – 21 per cent more than the year before and a record number of seizures since 1976 when the heroin trend really began to take off. But these hauls are mostly softer drug seizures. What is puzzling, however, is that most hard drugs are now more available, more cheaply, than ever before. Those with the heaviest habit paid anything up to £120 per day to keep themselves supplied three or four years ago.

If more seizures are being made than ever before and the demand is almost doubling each year and the price is tumbling so dramatically it doesn't need a brilliant business mind to work out that vast quantities of heroin are getting into the country and onto the streets with great ease.

That can be no source of pride to the Home Office. A popular misconception which is doing as much as anything to keep addiction rates high – and climbing – is the view that the addicts are poor little waifs at the mercy of unscrupulous dealers: that they'd love to give it up if they could. Most addicts (the 'caring professions' prefer to call them abusers) laugh at this naive public view and exploit it for all it's worth.

Esme Crocker, 17, lives with a boyfriend in a council flat in Holloway which she obtained by pleading she was at severe medical risk.

"The problem with all you journalists is that you glamorise the whole thing. I've never seen an article which tells the truth."

"The problem is that addicts may say they want to come off but they'd be bored to death in a few days. Being on smack [heroin] is a way of life. You're flirting with death. It's the danger that keeps you going. Will you get the gear? Can you get the money? How can you get the money? Will you get nicked? Can you get away with it?"

"When I was a kid I was always wanting to be in a dangerous situation – I loved the idea of doing something really dangerous, really frightening, being at someone's mercy and them doing whatever they liked or me escaping and getting away. It turned me on."

As she was saying this she had £1.30 in her purse and her boyfriend was planning a raid to get the gear. She wouldn't know whether he'd been successful till 8.00 pm that night, by which time they'd both be desperate and frightened.

"Yes, in some ways, I'd like to come off if I could find something else that satisfied me. But there isn't. People say that heroin turns you off sex but it isn't really that. A fix is better than an orgasm and it gives you that warm, safe, satisfying feeling. If there was a job that gave me the same excitement and buzz I'd do it – but there isn't one."

"The first time I took heroin was with a boyfriend. It sounds funny but before I learnt to inject myself he did it for me. I used to think of the needle being his prick and injecting himself into me. That really scared me and I liked it."

"Track marks are funny, too. To begin with I used to cover my wrists and my arms but now I don't. I suppose I enjoy being part of the scene – being visible so the others know who I am. You can tell one another just like that – the dealers know who you are."

"Getting the money can be awful but you can usually plead some hard luck story to Social Security or else you can steal or you can go on the street. If sex doesn't mean very much or you're gay then it doesn't really mean anything if you sell sex for smack."

"The trouble with the newspapers is they just don't know the truth about the violence and the corruption and all that."

"They think that the addicts are victims. When I go into court I'll tell them some hard-luck story and tell them I'm desperate to give it up, get some treatment or something. It's like girls who have babies – they do the nicking or mugging or soliciting because they're less likely to get sent down [imprisoned] than the others."

"What is sad is the number of really young kids that get into it. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen year-olds: a lot of them are girls that get picked up by some really heavy dyke who scares the shit out of them but it's sad that they're probably watching their friends OD or get knifed or carved up by someone when they're that young."

Here, Esme cites Melanie as an example. The girls know each other, as many of London's addicts do, because they're either in the same racket to get the money, using the same dealers, ending up in the same detention centre or, when things get too much for them, retreating to the same drying-out hostel such as City Road near the Angel, Islington.

City Road, however, is another soft option that keeps the wall-of-death addicts whizzing round in circles.

Addicts are taken in for three weeks at a time in voluntary isolation. It takes ten days to actually drop the heroin by using a substitute in decreasing quantities and a further ten days to go through the withdrawal stage. After that there should be a prolonged period of recuperation and after-care but few of the inmates take up the opportunity.

Many of them go in because there's a better chance that social workers and probation officers will get them off any serious criminal charges or persuade the courts to take a lenient approach to those who've jumped bail, absconded or are wanted by the police. In addition there are usually generous hand-outs to be had from the DHSS plus the possibility of housing for some.

In fact, within days, the boredom of incarceration has most of the inmates planning the biggest and best spree they can imagine the moment they get out. Something has to get the adrenalin going again and if it's a combination of physical danger, manipulating a few suckers, exploiting a few punters, surviving the ruthlessness of life on the streets and shooting up enough to flirt on the edge of death, without OD-ing, so much the better.

The fact is that there is nothing remotely glamorous about the squalor, violence, decay and universal distrust that makes up the day-in day-out life of heroin addiction.

It's no more glamorous that the agony and loneliness of a marathon runner training day after day. It's no more glamorous than the nerve-racking anticipation faced by a gambling addict. It's no more glamorous than risking a fortune in the City on a big deal; clinging to a mountain ledge in Snowdonia; walking onto a West End stage; hitting the Cresta Run; or breaking into a bank. In the final analysis all these activities appeal to high-adrenalin individuals who have learnt from childhood that they need just that exact level of pain, fear, excitement and risk – the remorseless acceleration around the wall of death.

The only difference is that some are socially acceptable and some aren't.

It's about time we, the public, stopped fooling ourselves and stopped allowing the addicts to fool us too.

No-one goes down the Cresta unless he wants to. No-one forces us into a life of crime, fame or high risk activity. We do it because we have to and because we want to.

Most heroin addicts don't usually want to stop being addicts. Sometimes they want to stop for a while. But we must either give them some other more socially acceptable way of flirting with death and the extremes of human experience or face the fact that a proportion of the high-adrenalin population will always seek and find some way of going to the limits – heroin or no heroin.

Interestingly, one new organisation seems to be getting somewhere near to facing this phenomenon at last.

Families Anonymous seems to have recognised that everything from drugs and sexual excess to the most admired physical, emotional and material achievement has a lot to do with high adrenalin. FA, at least, is taking a tough and uncompromising attitude to Britain's young heroin addicts.

Melanie McLaughlin often asked me to publish her story. "You could make a lot of money if you sold my story," she used to say. "You could give me some." Sadly her tale was far too commonplace to interest the press, radio or TV. Thousands disdainfully ignored her emaciated little figure as she plied her trade outside Earl's Court tube station during the 1980s. She was of no interest to anyone except her 'punters'. But she would have been amazed if she had known that you are reading what she had to say on the internet now.

See also: Drugs and Tough Love at Families Anonymous

© (1985) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

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