Steven Smith looks at the affect addiction has on us all, how it can be so prolific among the LGBTQ community, the often-misguided views people have about those living with addiction, and of course shares his own tale.
November 26th, 2010, the phone rang with news I had been expecting—my lifelong friend Lester Middlehurst, the witty, Machiavellian, and brilliant journalist was dead at 55. He had been in coma for days after a suspected suicide attempt.
I know how I was supposed to feel to the world. But putting down the phone, there was complete numbness followed by anger, and then an overwhelming relief that the man who had formerly been my friend, but had in later years become my tormenter was no longer. No more waking to drunken abusive messages, or being the brunt of his jokes or outburst at parties, and I’d no longer have to apologise to other people for his behaviour towards them.
Lester Middlehurst was one of the first openly gay staff members at The Daily Mail. He was legendary. At the coroner’s inquest it turned out he had not killed himself, rather his death certificate said that he died of a hypoxic brain damage attack. Everyone agreed it was his addictive lifestyle that killed him.
Lester was one the most addicted people that I have ever met, and he was my friend and I loved him. A month later I must have spent a day crying over him. The sadness was really that he never got help for his addiction, and you could say that my lack of knowledge of it prevented me from helping him…but that would be romanticising a terrible situation.
Back in 2009 I got him to agree to attend the Meadows Clinic in Arizona, but the next day he told me not to be so stupid. In truth, I did not feel strong enough to stand up to him. As my knowledge about addiction has grown, I have become more aware that there was nothing I could have done unless Lester had wanted to do anything about it.
According to the Centre of Addiction, members of the LGBTQ community are at greater risk of substance use and mental health issues compared to those identifying as heterosexual.
Members of the LGBTQ community face chronically high levels of stress, often due to having to suffer from social prejudice and discrimination. Fear, isolation, and depression increase the chances of self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. As a man that has lived a life in big cities, I have witnessed addiction in all classes and types of people. Addiction is a mistress that does not care who she dances with, yet the LGBTQ community are often her favourite partners.
As the self-confessed addict, actor Russell Brand explains that the distinction of any compulsive or addictive behaviour is when it begins to negatively impact on the rest of your life.
So, you might love chocolate so much that you’ll ignore all logical reasoning, “I have to have chocolate…I have to have chocolate…I don’t care what else happens”. If you’re crashing your car because of chocolate, that’s a problem.
According to Wikipedia, addiction is a brain disorder characterised by compulsive engagement in a rewarding stimulation despite adverse consequences.
Of course, addiction is certainly an illness and not a lifestyle choice, and if we are honest, addiction is in all of us in some way or another.
For me, I just can’t not buy a large French baguette, cut a few slices off, and put it back for later. I end up devouring the whole thing. Subsequently, I do not buy French baguettes unless I am feeling poorly. Whether it’s chocolate, coffee, or your favourite tipple, we all have cravings.
Much as Russell Brand is right, there are so-called functioning addicts who you would not even realise are hooked on their drug of choice, and it can take many years for the effects to begin to show. Often referred to as “high functioning addicts” owing to their having powerful jobs or enough money to effectively hide their addiction from others. This knocks on the head the commonly presented image of an addict being down-and-out or living on the streets. According to the American Psychiatric Association, there is no such thing…they are all just addicts who have created coping mechanisms.
My father, God rest his soul, came home after holding down a high-powered job and drank whisky every day of his life, yet he would be horrified at the idea of being described as an addict. But when he left hospital after lung cancer removal surgery, he sat down and demanded, “Get me a whisky and a cigarette.” On the suggestion that was not a good idea and that he would end up back in hospital, he snapped “Are you threatening me?”
Growing up, I was told that an addict was someone who got up and drank first thing. Drinking after coming home from work and weekends was seen as normal for many in the 60s and through to the 90s. All of our soaps were featured around a pub, making alcohol look like a socially acceptable way of life.
I had a volatile relationship with my dad, but his fight with cancer gave me a better understanding of the nature of his addiction and where it had come from. He had been a talented jazz trumpeter and played with the BBC orchestra, but his nerves had come to the forefront and he started to self-medicate by having a few whiskies before his shows. Eventually, he gave up and started a family, but the drinking did not stop.
My father adored my best pal who also fights addiction, and is a truly remarkable human being who I was fortunate to love, and my dad did not like many people. The two were like two peas in a pod and talked for ages.
Spending time with my dad before he died made me wonder whether, if he had managed to overcome obvious anxiety and continued playing, perhaps he would have been happier. Of course, back then mental health was seen by many as a weakness and not to be spoken about.
My world has been filled with people who are addicts in one form or another. They are the most charismatic and amazing people and the arts are full of them. In my opinion, they all have one thing in common—they can snap and become almost frightening at the drop of a hat, and then suddenly they are wonderful and make you feel like you mean the world when they are OK. Sadly, during my childhood there was more of the former with my dad. Though I knew in the end that he loved me.
There are so many people living with addiction, anxiety, and mental health issues who are in denial. Even with all the help groups and open discussions there seems to be a quite a bit of stigma attached to it still.
Dr Pam Spurr, a popular self-help expert and radio television personality, says she often encounters people who are in denial about their issues that are the source of their addiction problems. They say things like “I just have a little problem with confidence” which ignores the fact that they drink excessively to help make them feel more confident. Or they say, “I only drink after work to take the edge off.” But when they count up the units, they are far in excess of government guidelines. It’s at times like these that I encourage them to think honestly about their drinking (or drug taking) and consider expert advice.
Many addicts get clean either by joining the 12-step programme, by checking into rehab, or by seeking counselling. The journey of recovery can be different and what works for one person might not work for another person. It is important to point out that as much as the newspapers show pictures of celebrities dashing off to glamorous-looking rehabs, getting into a state-run rehab in the UK can be very difficult for mere mortals.
While helping a friend who was using OxyContin (a pain killer) and had got into a mess from ordering online and then become addicted, the general health services did not want to know. Even going through other channels, she was advised that her chances of getting into rehab were slim, although she did come away from it with a strong network of friends around her.
A beautiful girlfriend of mine found her sobriety in a man as her anchor who was also living with addiction. They have both been clean for seven years now.
Living in LA, the 12 steppers (12 step programme) were like the mafia, and rumour had it that all the best movie deals were done at their meetings and also that many there did not have addiction issues and instead just wanted to pitch ideas.
There is no doubt that the 12-step programme helps many, and even if the meetings can become the new addiction it’s a healthy one.
I agree with Doctor Pam that it is amazing how much of a lack of understanding there is about addiction.
My gorgeous bubbly friend Monica is originally from California. She is a super bright academic having gone to Yale, lectured all over the world, and she also ran a school for a while.
Yet three years ago she decided to open an up-market catering company as her award-winning chef sister is a goddess in the business. People actually beg for invites to try her canapés.
Lunch with Monica is always fun—it starts off with “Darling shall we share a cake after?” Despite being gorgeous, she is always on some kind of diet. Her little addiction would be cake.
Like one or two other intellectuals I have met with qualifications coming out of every orifice, their life skills sometimes leave me speechless. Despite having a gay brother, she once commented on a photo shoot involving five men I had directed “Is the man with his foot up against the wall a sign he is gay?” I replied “No darling, there are no secret signs; it’s a James Dean inspired clothing shoot.” She just smiled and continued eating.
Today, however, she was on the warpath. She was catering for a big party we had worked on together to get celebrities at. One of the celebs had behaved inappropriately to some of the other guests and to a couple of waitresses.
She was not amused when I laughed, “Well darling, at least he did not get his cock out and try and pee in the champagne fountain like at my other friend’s launch. How that did not end up in the papers is beyond me.” I got the school ma’am look.
He was living with addiction – not surprising considering his childhood trauma and the abuse he lived with. He really should not have been drinking. I am not excusing him, but it’s not the end of the world that I did not invite him to the next few. I said that I’d have a word. Her eyes got wider, and she seemed shocked that I had empathy with the celebrity at all. She wanted him banned for life.
As much as I have some reservations about the 12-step programme, saying you’re sorry to those you may have hurt is not easy to do, but it sometimes isn’t enough. I started talking about addiction, and a few minutes in it was clear that it was going nowhere, even though I was sharing this with someone highly intelligent.
Addiction remains a taboo subject. There are so many people in denial and as much as the newspapers are full of celebrity headlines about them being addicted, most of us don’t want to talk about it or feel labelled by it.
A year ago my phone rang—it was a friend who had come out of family day at a rehab centre that her daughter was attending. She was fuming that they suggested that it may run in the family, “They had better not be blaming this on me. I have no addiction.” She was not amused when I laughed “It’s not about you and I will remind you of that next time you refuse to come home from the bar or spend two weeks obsessing about something.”
Outside those who are counsellors, therapists, and those who talk openly about their addiction and some of their loved ones, I have found very few people who understand those living with addiction.
A very wise woman, author, presenter, and journalist, Jane Moore was one person who seemed to understand it. Lester and Jane were great friends and the two together were hysterical. Yet Lester had gone on a tirade about her and I was mortified since she was a true loyal friend to him, and he was starting to run out of friends due to his behaviour.
While ringing her and offering full apologies asking her not to fall out with him, she calmly said, “I could never be offended by Lester. He is hurting too much, but he’s lucky to have a friend in you.”
At the time I just thought, but I wish if I had taken those words more to heart I might not have taken his behaviour personally and got as hurt as I did in the end. It helped later in life as I saw the pain addiction brings too.
The LGBTQ community have learnt to talk more as we have needed to be heard to survive. Most surveys say that a larger proportion of those identifying drug and alcohol use as a coping mechanism are LGBTQ, but I beg to differ.
I have sat in many restaurants and bars in London watching the city boys and their entourage go back and forth to the toilets, passing each other along the way. I am pretty sure they are not the kind found in the survey.
Addiction is a worldwide human crisis according to the World Drug Report. Unless we start talking about it, spotting the signs at an early age, and treating it as an illness, many will die with all the new and powerful drugs flooding the market. Whole towns have been wiped out in the US due to drug addiction.
Chemsex is the consumption of drugs to facilitate sexual activity. Both terms refer to a subculture of recreational drug users who engage in high-risk sexual activities under the influence of drugs within groups. Chemsex parties are said to be prolific on the London gay scene, but that is a different story. Not wanting to be righteous, I have no experience of it or want to engage in it. Recent reports in the gay press say chemsex parties are held across UK, but there is a correlation between addiction and sex shame.
The perfect storm
David Stewart of 56 Dean Street, an award-winning HIV and sexual health clinic in the heart of London, explains that this trend is driven by a convergence of factors: “Vulnerable gay men with issues around sex, new drugs that tapped into that problem and changing technology. What they call the perfect storm.”
There was enough of a problem for the government to lay out guidelines in 2017.
Actress Danielle Westbrook, who I have interviewed many a time, put it simply to me, “Look Steve, you get ten people at a party and they all try coke for the first time. Four never try it again, four have it once in a blue moon, and two poor things are addicted six months later.”
The answer would be to never take the risk, but human nature is never that simple.
My friend Lester will never come back but it led me to have so much more of an understanding of addiction and how to protect myself around addiction. Many of the world’s beautiful people are soldiers fighting addiction every day of their lives.
For the whole story on Lester Middlehurst see It Shouldn’t Happen To A Hairdresse
Dean Street is in Soho to help with all types of issues from chemsex, HIV, sexual health, and counselling.