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Breaths and Breaths and Breaths
The squat is full of people, hyenas circling all of us. They come with their needs and their wants. They come to collect and deliver. I’m feeling shaky. I’m feeling very shaky.
Last night I went back to the Camden flat for a quick bath and a change of clothes and Ian pinned me against the wall and yanked my sleeves up. He was checking for tracks.
It felt violent. He felt violent, as if I had personally let him down.
I remember pulling my top up and flashing my tits and saying Do you want to check these out too?
Why did I do that?
He’s only trying to redeem me.
But I am past redemption.
I am past my sell-by date.
You really disgust me, he said, and walked away, and I laughed.
I walk up to my bedroom. The hellhole I still pay rent for, or to be more specific, that my Father still pays rent for. I slouch on the floor and look around for something of interest. Aled must have returned from his field trip from Russia. Clothes and books are scattered everywhere. I examine his underwear for hairs. I find some long silky blonde strands. Ha! He’s fucked some Russian bitch. I felt not one millisecond of sympathy for the other bitch, the one he left me for. I only have sympathy for myself now. Or is it pity? I search through his travel case and eventually find something useful. A full bottle of over-proof Russian Vodka. I smile. Vodka is not even my poison. I am a Jack and Coke girl. Uncle Jack makes me crazy and I love it. I mean normally if you get pissed and make a fool out of yourself people say She got pissed and behaved badly. But when you get hammered on Uncle Jack everything is forgivable. I got fucked up on Jack. Cooooool. Like you’re some kind of hero. But it’s alcohol and it’s Aled’s prize and so I want it. I snap the cap and take an almighty great swig. Wowthatburnslikeamuthafuka, I say aloud to the empty room and hit the floor twice with my foot in a parody of a Texan Rodeo Star.
I hold the bottle by its neck the way they do in the movies and slouch around looking for more mischief. I see an essay all ready for marking. The legal implications of something or other. My hand becomes automatic. I have no control over it at all. It picks up the coffee cup filled with cold old arabica bean juice and tips it slowly at an angle.
I remember this cup had a bright blue glaze and I watch fascinated as it swirls over the papers raping and looting and pillaging all the sooty ink. It is a completely ruinous gesture and so is the essay. Guilt starts to tap at the door. I take another few swigs of voddy.
Must be days since I last ate but I like feeling hungry. I get this incredible kick out of the gnawing hole that appears in my stomach. I like the controlled act of refusing myself nourishment. I like the dizziness and sense of achievement. I just fucking love being thin.
It’s probably time to leave. I’ve still got the vodka bottle by its neck and begin to sass out of the door pretending I am a movie extra in Sunset Boulevard and decide to walk back to the squat. It’s only a mile or so and the exercise will do me good.
Ha! I start walking and swigging at the same time. It occurs to me that I am feeling pretty fucking drunk. I feel I could conquer the world. I’m invincible. I have a supervillain complex. I’m looking into the shadows and trying to read them like tarot cards. I wiggle my fingers at them and they nip at the flesh. Pull my mittens on. They are red just like Little Red Riding Hood. Her and me have a lot in common. We both have wolves at our door.
Then I see this police van coming towards me. I can’t resist and do something very, very stupid. I give them the finger. But because I’m wearing mittens I think they can’t see what I am trying to do and I watch them drive past and laugh so much I am almost sick. Fucking idiots. Then I hear a screech of brakes and spin round. The bastards are doing a three-point turn and the Met are coming to fuck me up. I hold my breath for a second and then leg it.
I run quickly up the street and take a chance on a small grubby housing estate. In the middle of a barely lit parking area dominated by the skeletons of Ford Fiestas I notice a grubby white van. I crawl very carefully, very quickly underneath, making sure that the vodka is safe by stashing it behind one of the wheels. I pull myself up underneath the van and turn my head, so I can catch the whole show. There’s a lot of raucous, furious noise and then four meaty fuckers pile into the parking lot brandishing extended night sticks.
The meanest looking one, with his shirtsleeves pulled up is shouting, Let’s get that little bitch, when I’ve finished with her she’ll be fucking toast. Yes, he’s really that clichéd and I have to stifle a giggle. The ugliest one replies with I’m going to shove my dick so far up her arse she’ll be giving me a blowjob at the same time.
Now I’m frightened. I mean, I’ve talked the talk about the police, slagging them off with the best of them. Chortled about fried bacon and oinking and every porcine simile I could think of. But up until that point my conditioning has always let me respect them secretly. I now realise that they mean business and that every horror story I have ever heard about the Met is true.
I try to become part of the undercarriage. I try to merge into metal and become oblong and tubular. And I hardly breathe. I try to meditate but end up crying. I think about how young I am and poor me poor me poor me. And the irony of being unable to accept responsibility for all my shit is totally lost on me.
Time passes, and the swearing has stopped, so I think the cops have left, which is a good thing because then my arms give up and I fall with a thud into an oil patch and something else like that smells like rot and jizz, but my vodka is still in one piece so there’s that.
I crawl on hands and knees through the slippery black oil, mucous, dog shit, and I really don’t care. I am alive. I am not toast. I have not been fucked in the ass. Grateful for small mercies I gulp and gulp from the bottle. Need to get back to the squat because I can feel the “jonesing” beating my serotonin back, pulling and pushing and stretching my nerve ends.
Feeling edgy and odd I pretend to be a secret agent trying to reach the safe house. I’m exhausted, but feel this thick terror that tells me if I stop moving even for a second I’ll lose my grip on the single thread of the hemp cord that keeps me from falling into the pit.
I’d started thinking about heaven and God. I’d always pictured God as this sweet old man who smiles benignly at you from over a golden staff. It’s an image to make feminists eat themselves like an Ouroboros but it’s an image that’s always given me comfort. But I’m anxious that I’d not be let in, that I’m just not good enough for eternal peace. That I’ll forget the password or behave inappropriately in front of St Peter.
But I know I was good on the inside once and that if you dug deep enough through the rot and decay I was essentially a good girl.
I enter the squat by the basement door hoping to slip in anonymously. Feeling wretched and itchy for a spliff I don’t see the solitary figure who sits at the broken table drinking out of a cracked cup. Oh! It’s lovely Johnny who I fucked in a bath at a party once. It was good, and I was Oh! So sexy drunk.
And I remember coming down the stairs soaked through and giving some half-arsed account to Aled about the torrential rain outside. Johnny smiles at me and I feel a glow of warmth before I notice the pity in his eyes and the glow is frozen out by humiliation.
I don’t have the energy to explain that I’m okay really. That I just look like shit but really, I’m still pretty inside. I try a half-smile and move on up the filth-encrusted stairs until I find myself outside Face’s door. Nobody ever enters his room. But that’s an indication of how needy I have become.
His floor is a collage of cockroach-brown filters and spoons. He acknowledges my presence with just a blink of his eyes and I feel wanted again. This is how worthless I have become. That an involuntary eye spasm from another junkie makes me feel worthwhile. His room is so quiet – somber, crypt-like. Face has some works stuck in his arm. He’s withdrawing blood and syringing it onto the walls like a freaky cave painting. There is nothing else to do but leave.
I watch dawn break over the high rises of London. I feel the agony and ecstasy of a girl who wants to be a girl again. The addict in me only tolerates this for a few minutes but for a short while I pretend that I can start again. I could be fresh. I could be the girl I started as. But my body betrays me and sends the twitches and I am too weak, too sad, too fucking everything to say no.
I could walk away and go cold turkey in Tara’s back bedroom. Puke and shit the toxins out over days. Claw my way back to health. I smile at the image and shake my head as if I have just heard something particularly wry and unobtainable.
I pick up the dirty works beside me and search for a vein, feeling comforted by the ritual. The snap of the rubber cord – the bulge of vein – the hitch of my breath when the needle finds the sweet spot.
And then it’s gone. The fear, the anxiety, the self-hatred, the panic, the rapes, the beatings, the spit and swallow and the demons that catcall in my head – all swept away in a current of molten syrup.
And then there’s nothing.
Tabatha Stirling is a contributor to A Wild and Precious Life: A Recovery Anthology, edited by Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert, to be published by Unbound next year and crowdfunding now. You can pledge to buy a book or support someone in recovery here:; fifty per cent of editors’ profits will go to St Mungo’s and Hackney Recovery Service.