They said I was a drug addict. I found that hard to come to terms with – I was a middle-class, convent-educated girl whose drug use was strictly recreational. And surely drug addicts were thinner? It was true that I took drugs, but what no one seemed to understand was that my drug use wasn’t any different from their having a drink or two on a Friday night after work. They might have a few vodkas and tonic and let off a bit of steam. I had a couple of lines of cocaine and did likewise. As I said to my father and my sister and my sister’s husband and eventually the therapists of the Cloisters, ‘If cocaine was sold in liquid form, in a bottle, would you complain about me taking it? Well, would you? No, I bet you wouldn’t!’
I was offended by the drug-addict allegation, because I was nothing like one. Apart from the track marks on their arms, they had dirty hair, constantly seemed cold, did a lot of shoulder-hunching, wore plastic trainers, hung around blocks of flats and were, as I’ve already mentioned, thin.
I wasn’t thin.
Although it wasn’t for the want of trying. I spent plenty of time on the stairmaster at the gym. But no matter how much I stairmastered, genetics had the final say. If my father had married a dainty little woman, I might have had a very different life. Very different thighs, certainly.
Instead, I was doomed for people always to describe me by saying, ‘She’s a big girl.’ Then they always added really quickly ‘Now, I’m not saying she’s fat.’
The implication being that if I was fat, I could at least do something about it.
‘No,’ they would continue, ‘she’s a fine, big, tall girl. You know, strong.’
I was often described as strong.
It really pissed me off.
My boyfriend, Luke, sometimes described me as magnificent. (When the light was behind me and he’d had several pints.) At least that was what he said to me. Then he probably went back to his friends and said, ‘Now, I’m not saying she’s fat.’
The whole drug-addict allegation came about one February morning when I was living in New York.
It wasn’t the first time I felt as if I was on Cosmic Candid Camera. My life was prone to veering out of control and I had long stopped believing that the God who had been assigned to me was a benign old lad with long hair and a beard. He was more like a celestial Jeremy Beadle, and my life was the showcase he used to amuse the other Gods.
‘Wa-atch,’ he laughingly invites, ‘as Rachel thinks she’s got a new job and that it’s safe to hand in her notice on the old. Little does she know that her new firm is just about to go bankrupt!’
Roars of laughter from all the other gods.
‘Now, wa-atch,’ he chuckles. ‘As Rachel hurries to meet her new boyfriend. See how she catches the heel of her shoe in a grating? See how it comes clean off? Little did Rachel know that we had tampered with it. See how she limps the rest of the way?’ More sniggers from the assembled gods.
‘But the best bit of all,’ laughs Jeremy, ‘is that the man she was meeting never turns up! He only asked her out for a bet. Watch as Rachel squirms with embarrassment in the stylish bar. See the looks of pity the other women give her? See how the waiter gives her the extortionate bill for a glass of wine, and best of all, see how Rachel discovers she’s left her purse at home?’
The events that led to me being called a drug addict had the same element of celestial farce that the rest of my life had. What happened was, one night I’d sort of overdone it on the enlivening drugs and I couldn’t get to sleep. (I hadn’t meant to overdo it, I had simply underestimated the quality of the cocaine that I had taken.) I knew I had to get up for work the following morning, so I took a couple of sleeping tablets. After about ten minutes, they hadn’t worked, so I took a couple more. And still my head was buzzing, so in desperation, thinking of how badly I needed my sleep, thinking of how alert I had to be at work, I took a few more.
I eventually got to sleep. A lovely deep sleep. So lovely and deep that when the morning came, and my alarm clock went off, I neglected to wake up.
Brigit, my flatmate, knocked on my door, then came into my room and shouted at me, then shook me, then, at her wit’s end, slapped me. (I didn’t really buy the wit’s end bit. She must have known that slapping wouldn’t wake me, but no one is in good form on a Monday morning.)
But then Brigit stumbled across a piece of paper that I’d been attempting to write on just before I fell asleep. It was just the usual maudlin, mawkish, self-indulgent poetry-type rubbish I often wrote when I was under the influence. Stuff that seemed really profound at the time, where I thought I’d discovered the secret of the universe, but that caused me to blush with shame when I read it in the cold light of day, the bits that I could read, that is.
The poem went something like ‘Mumble, mumble, life…’ something indecipherable, ‘bowl of cherries, mumble, all I get is the pits…’ Then – and I vaguely remembered writing this bit – I thought of a really good tide for a poem about a shoplifter who had suddenly discovered her conscience. It was called I can’t take anymore.
But Brigit, who’d recently gone all weird and uptight, didn’t treat it as the load of cringe-making rubbish it so clearly was. Instead, when she saw the empty jar of sleeping tablets rolling around on my pillow, she decided it was a suicide note. And before I knew it, and it really was before I knew it because I was still asleep – well, asleep or unconscious, depending on whose version of the story you believe – she had rung for an ambulance and I was in Mount Solomon having my stomach pumped. That was unpleasant enough, but there was worse to come. Brigit had obviously turned into one of those New York abstention fascists, the kind who if you wash your hair with Linco beer shampoo more than twice a week, say that you’re an alcoholic and that you should be on a twelve-step programme. So she rang my parents in Dublin and told them that I had a serious drug problem and that I’d just tried to kill myself. And before I could intervene and explain that it had all been an embarrassing misunderstanding, my parents had rung my painfully well-behaved older sister, Margaret. Who arrived on the first available flight from Chicago with her equally painful husband, Paul.
Margaret was only a year older than me but it felt more like forty. She was intent on ferrying me to Ireland to the bosom of my family. Where I would stay briefly before being admitted to some Betty Ford type place to sort me out ‘For good and for all’, as my father said when he rang me.