My Chemical Romance


The Observer magazine was good enough to run a “curtain-raising” article for Never Enough last weekend, but I thought I’d post the piece in its “director’s cut” form here…

TO THIS DAY I don’t know why I said yes – why I rolled up my sleeve and told my old friend, “Do it”. I can’t say it was peer pressure. I harboured no secret longing to be a junkie. You’d think that, having just graduated with a first from Oxford, I might not have stuck my hand in this particular fire. In a moment of existential recklessness, I did it anyway.

Perhaps I had some sixth sense of what heroin would do for me: of how, temporarily, it would fill me and complete me and make nothing outside of me matter very much. I did know, instantly, that I’d always wanted to feel like this, as if suddenly there was an invisible force field around me. I’d wanted to feel like this since I was a kid – a skinny, shame-plagued schoolboy who could never tell you what he was feeling, because he didn’t know.

I wasn’t a wild child, madly acting out internal distress. I’d tried to be good, to be worthy and deserving. But at my core I was loveless, ugly in my heart and soul. From the outside, it all looked respectable: the middle-class family, the businessman dad, the prep and public schools. Inside it was so different: without being able to name those things, I was bewildered and alone, and crippled by self-consciousness.

Within days of arriving at Westminster in 1973 I fell in with the potheads, the bad boys. The first time I got drunk I vomited copiously in a pal’s plush home in Marylebone. But the thought that at the end of this lay heroin never crossed my mind. That wasn’t the game plan.

At Oxford, in 1977, I became more acutely aware of how anxious and awkward I felt around my peers. I never spoke of it, and neither did anyone else. I drank alcohol and dropped acid. I hoovered up speed as a tool for cramming in information ahead of Finals. But none of these chemicals did what I needed them to, which was to strip away self-doubt and nullify self-loathing. Only with opiates did my deep unease – what Proust described as “an agitation which at any cost, even that of their life, [addicts] must end” – begin to melt away.

Fate steered me into music journalism, a way of not really growing up whilst earning a modest crust supplemented by selling review copies of albums. Though I didn’t believe all fucked-up rock stars were inherently cool, inevitably I glommed on to bands that dabbled in drugs. As if validating my own unhappiness – romanticising my self-hatred – I specialised in stars who’d succumbed to the dark side of hedonism.

Depending on how you viewed it, the high or low point of this journalistic niche was the day Johnny Thunders dropped by the Paddington crash-pad I shared with, among other wastrels, Birthday Party singer Nick Cave. Thunders made the lot of us look like amateurs: Nick nearly overdosed on the cotton bud Johnny had used to strain his hit. Nor was my editor at the NME amused when I invoiced him for the quarter-gram of heroin I’d scored to secure an interview with the former Heartbreaker.

typewriter  Menlo Park, California, Summer 1982

MY OWN HEART was broken at this time, though I rarely talked to Nick about it. He and I didn’t talk about much besides heroin: who had it, where to get it, how strong it was. In November 1981, we were busted together in Earl’s Court and spent a night in the local police cells.

I’d fallen for a pretty girl who broke hearts like the Comanche took scalps. Heroin was the only thing that salved the agony of her infidelities, but it also fooled me into believing I could win her back. As addicted to her as I was to drugs – to what her beauty seemed to signify – in the end I was forced to up sticks to California in the faint hope that putting her out of sight would put her out of mind.

The drastic strategy almost worked, but I was still left with me: the one thing I couldn’t escape, however far away I fled. In San Francisco, I added intravenous cocaine abuse – a horror-show of palpitating omnipotence – to the chemical repertoire. Unwittingly, the NME paired me with a photographer who confessed a taste for Class A chemicals. One night we fixed coke till dawn on Polk Street and only just made a flight to Minneapolis to interview Survivor, then perched atop the American charts with the Rocky theme song ‘Eye of the Tiger’. Somehow I managed to bang out enough NME articles to keep cash rolling in, even after Nick Kent – the paper’s most infamous dope fiend – rightly lambasted my “half-baked eulogies to self-destruction”.

For an addict in the grip of a chemical obsession, things only become properly scary with the first futile attempts to stop. Friends took the same existential risk I’d taken but were somehow able to pick heroin up and then put it down. That alarmed me and made me wonder why I needed it more than they did. Was it less intense or less analgesic for them? The answer is clear to me now: without heroin in their bloodstreams, the world was nonetheless bearable to them. As the late A.A. Gill put it in his Pour Me, “I didn’t want to be drunk all the time… I just never wanted to be sober ever.”

I needed to change the way I looked at the world, but the motivation to do so came only in the depths of hopelessness: a dawning awareness that I could live neither with nor without drugs. At that grim point, marooned in Los Angeles in the summer of 1983, I was desperate enough to accept the offer of help – to plug into something bigger than me. At the tender age of 24 I was ready.

It wasn’t an overnight job; it rarely is. Returning to London, I reconnected with the old friend who’d introduced me to heroin and found myself unexpectedly opiated again. Midway through my interviewing Alan Vega, on assignment in New York, the former Suicide singer produced a bag of cocaine from a drawer and I accepted the offer of a generous line. The experience was repeated a few days later in Detroit with P-Funk chieftain George Clinton. I simply hadn’t learned that “No thanks” was the most important phrase in my lexicon.

In late August, the penny dropped. I got a day clean, and then another. I kept plugging in. I started to share my life with others. In November, by an odd coincidence, I flew to Madrid to be a guest on a TV show featuring none other than Alan Vega. When later he phoned my hotel room to say he had some “really good stuff”, I managed to reply that I was tired and needed sleep. It was as difficult and as simple as that. The next morning, I was able to amble about the Prado without feeling freaked out.

IT’S OVER THREE decades since I put drugs in my body, so why write about them now? Hasn’t the world had enough My Drug Hell stories?

But it turns out it’s not really about drugs at all. As a wise fellow once said, “if you think drugs are the problem, stop using drugs”. I did stop, time and time again. Then one day, in a perfect paradox, I surrendered to my addiction and never had to use again. (I can’t speak for the future.) Addiction, I discovered, wasn’t a by-product of drug abuse. It was a false filling-up of spiritual emptiness, a set of protective repetitions designed to eliminate difficult feelings and choices.

For some years, unconscious of what I was doing, I continued the vain effort to fill the void within. I was petrified of rejection – by women, by the world. Lacking much self-knowledge or any genuine self-worth, I chased acclaim and sought frantically to prove I mattered. Without drugs, there was still never enough love or money. There wasn’t enough because I wasn’t enough. Deep down, I believed I needed to earn happiness rather than, in Raymond Carver’s sublime phrase, “to call myself beloved on this earth”. Even after marrying and starting a family in 1990, the notion that I deserved to be happy simply because I was alive never occurred to me.

Most abstinent addicts will tell you they replace drugs with surrogate compulsions: sex, food, wealth, power, gambling – whatever floats the boat. For me, the most insidious has been work itself, for what could possibly be wrong with working too hard? Workaholism may not have had the hazardous consequences that sex or gambling addictions have for others, but it’s removed me from life in the broadest sense of that word: kept me from intimacy with others, unwilling to plunge into the spontaneous experience of the everyday. “For a guy like me, the work is always the last thing to go,” the late New York Times reporter David Carr confessed in his addiction memoir The Night of the Gun. “It is, in some twisted way, more sacred, more worthy of protection, than friends, loved ones, and family.”

Addiction seems more ubiquitous than ever in our society. Pushed by new technologies to chase a fulfilment that’s out of reach, I’m tricked into believing happiness is perpetually just over the horizon. In the words of George Saunders, “I’ve re-programmed myself to become discontent with whatever I’m doing faster”. No less than the greediest hedge-fund manager, or the 56% of British teenagers determined to become celebrities, I seek to achieve or amass things that might refute the futility of my existence.

“By shoring up the sense that you are a significant person in a meaningful universe,” write Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski in last year’s remarkable The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, “you become a viable candidate for transcending death via immortality.” I suspect all anxieties and addictions are rooted in the death-denying need simply to be somebody.

“YOU MIGHT BE a rock ‘n’ roll addict prancing on the stage,” Bob Dylan sang in 1979; “money and drugs at your command, women in a cage… but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Today I take this to mean that I need to be involved in other people’s lives – and need them to be involved in mine. I need to work through the pain of my past to arrive at a place where being Me is not a source of relentless discomfort. And then I need to let go of as much of Me as I can afford to live without: to right-size the distended Ego and reach out to my fellow human beings.

Not using drugs is still the key precondition of my daily life: everything flows from it, all the incidental joy and all the necessary pain. (I still can’t do it on my own.) Many view addiction as a curse, but I see it as the gateway to the greatest life I could have imagined. If it is a disease of More, than at last I am Enough. I’m a tiny part of an infinite universe, beloved on this earth. I’ve stopped taking life so personally. I’m not so plagued by shame and self-hate. When I finally grasp that nothing matters except evanescent moments of connection and love, everything becomes blissful and shimmeringly alive.

Who needs drugs when life itself – fleeting and meaningless, beautiful and terrifying – is such a wonder?

You could buy Never Enough here if you felt so inclined.


2 thoughts on “My Chemical Romance

  1. I’ve just finished reading Never Enough and found it unputdownable. It has answered a lot of questions, prompted others (for another time!) and made me understand more about myself and the Hoskyns family dynamics. I would not have realised without reading it that we were all sent out into this world similarly ill-equipped; we simply found different ways to self-medicate. Fascinating. And exquisite prose, Barney. I am proud to be your cousin. I have been since childhood, but do wish I’d known some aspects before now. Hey ho!


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