The way back — interview with an addict

When I greet Sofia, she looks like the picture of health with toned muscles, glowing skin and a big smile. It is almost impossible to imagine that only a few years ago, her life was consumed by drugs, alcohol and parties. She lives in a house in Nunhead, southeast London with her husband Reuben and their two cats. Her home is filled with framed photographs of family and friends, but mainly with pictures from her midsummer day’s wedding in Sweden. Sofia is newlywed and a 200-year old emerald ring sparkles on her finger. ‘My husband’s mum gave it to me. The original owner was an actress and there’s a portrait of her at National Portrait Gallery wearing this ring,’ she tells me as she serves a plate of heated cinnamon buns.

Sofia has lived in London for ten years now and can’t see herself living anywhere else. When she moved here the original plan was to stay for six months; she is now on her tenth year in the capital. She grew up in the small village of Kungsör, in the east of Sweden, but moved to London two days after graduation, desperate to get away as quickly as possible. With only 5000 inhabitants, it was hard to hide from the tormentors in her class and Sofia’s teenage years quickly turned into a living hell. ‘I was bullied by a group of boys from school, for no particular reason. I think I was just an easy target. I couldn’t speak to my parents about it. Teachers at school have told me now that they knew exactly what was going on but they didn’t do anything about it.’ She says that her difficult teenage years ruined her confidence completely. ‘It completely ruined me for a couple of years, my self-esteem was extremely low. I started to isolate myself. I spent a lot of time on my own.’ The Internet became a refuge for Sofia. ‘Online, I could chat with friends, I think that support saved me.’

Sofia arrived in London June 2002, equally nervous as excited. Even though she had never been to London before or knew anyone in the city, she fell in love with it instantly. ‘What I love the most about it is the ability to be free and not having to fit into anything, it was such a contrast to where I came from. It wasn’t easy to move to a new country but I was pretty excited.’ She started taking English classes as well as working as an au pair. Even though she liked to party, she says she didn’t touch drugs until she started university, doing a BA in Psychology at City University. ‘I was quite a party-animal and liked to go out a lot. I was quite careless and naive, didn’t really think about the consequences at that stage,’ she says.

The first drug she ever tried was ecstasy, which was provided to her by her best friend, who was a regular drug-user at the time. ‘I took so much that I blacked out, I can’t remember that much of it,’ she tells me. ‘People say you can never get addicted to ecstasy but for me it became a psychological addiction pretty much straight away.’ She soon moved on to ketamin and cocaine. “It went badly really quickly and I lost control quickly. I wasn’t able to handle it in the same way that some people do. I could never take just one or two pills or one or two lines, that didn’t work for me.” Her behavior changed drastically and she started lying about her spending and using habits to her friends. “I stole drugs from friends and put myself in some very dangerous positions.”

Apart from studying full time she also worked part-time as a nanny. ‘I often worked under the influence; I would show up at work wasted.’ Simultaneously, she was dealing with a ‘very difficult and abusive relationship.’ She mainly did drugs on the weekends, but the weekends were long, ranging from Thursday evening until Monday and usually totally sleep-deprived. ‘I was too busy staying up all night doing drugs to sleep. Then I spent the beginning of the week trying to recover, only to start doing it all over again.’ As this vicious circle continued, her spending habits spiraled out of control. ‘I could spend up to £800 on drugs on one weekend. I couldn’t afford it but always managed to get the money somehow. I coped with University but didn’t get very good marks,’ she says shrugging her shoulders.

At the time, Sofia lived with friends in Mile End, in the east end of London. She stole from her friends and lied to them on a regular basis. Angelica, who lived with Sofia at the time says it was heartbreaking to see her friend’s ‘My friends were very worried about me. They made vague threats about kicking me out and stopped trusting me.’ Despite all of this, Sofia still did not see herself as an addict. ‘Things had just kept getting worse and worse so quickly. I had lost a lot of weight; I had no appetite because of the drugs.’ As her life continued in a downwards spiral out of control, drugs remained her only consolation. “I couldn’t see clearly. I got very, very depressed and the only thing that made me feel better was to go out and get drunk and take more drugs. It felt as if I was going downhill on a bicycle, only my breaks were not working.’ She looks down on the floor and takes a sip of peppermint tea before continuing, ‘I started to realize that most people that go out for a glass of wine don’t end up somewhere three days later wanting to kill themselves. Looking back now, I don’t understand how I could put myself in the dangerous situations that I did; getting into dealers cars and hanging out with prostitutes, you know, it’s not a good place to be in.” In June 2007, at 24 years old and after three years of drug-use, she had what she describes as a ‘complete breakdown,’ and realized there was something profoundly wrong. She was severely depressed and felt suicidal. Then a friend of hers who was a recovering alcoholic told her to come with him to an AA-meeting to see if they could help her.

Sofia started going to NA and AA-meetings every day, following the 12-step programs religiously. In order to quit drugs, she knew she needed to stop drinking altogether as well. ‘Alcohol and drugs goes hand in hand for me, if I drink I want to take drugs and vice versa. I just felt like it wasn’t a safe option.’ She stopped using in July 2007; her rehabilitation remarkably only took a month. ‘The realization of how bad things could go really scared me and being scared helped me to get out of it fast. The levels of support in those meetings were really incredible. Afterwards, people would come up to me and hand me their phone numbers in case I needed to talk, I felt cared for by people I didn’t even know.”

After getting clean her next move was to do a Masters at South Bank University in Psychology of Addiction & Counseling. ‘Thinking back, that was probably not the best decision but I wanted to be able to work with people living with struggles and to give something back.’ Today, Sofia works as a therapist in Peckham, helping recovering alcoholics and drug-addicts in an after-care program to rehab. Many of her patients have been addicted for a very long time; many of the young girls have been sexually abused and spent their teenage years as prostitutes and many of them are homeless. ‘It is easier to understand what an addiction is and how to fix people if you’ve been there yourself, but it doesn’t necessarily make me a better therapist.’

Sofia’s advice to people with drug and alcohol problems is to visit AA. ‘Look up the 12-step meetings and speak to someone. There is this huge stigma in society about it, but there is nothing to be ashamed about. There is much more support out there than people expect.’ She thinks that it’s extremely easy to fall into the ‘drug-trap’ as a young person in London. ‘It’s scary to see how many young people are drawn into it, like it’s a glamorous, cool thing. It is quite frightening how accepted it is. It is almost expected.’ She is very modest about turning her life around in such a dramatic manner. ‘I’m not very good at feeling proud of myself, but I feel very, very grateful and lucky that I got out when I did. It got bad but it didn’t get as bad as it could have gone.’

When I ask her about her hopes and dreams for the future, she replies ‘I hope that I can continue to live a happy and healthy life.’ All the cinnamon buns have vanished from the plate by now and the pot of peppermint tea is empty. As I leave, Sofia is busy packing her gym bag for her weekly, grueling session of British Military Fitness in Peckham Rye Park. Although the rain is pouring down in the dark outside and the temperature is freezing, she is adamant never to miss a single class. She invites me to come along to one of the classes. ‘It’s the best exercise,’ she insists. I tell her I might wait until the weather gets warmer, but if it would make me look and feel as healthy and happy as her, I might just have to give it a go.