16 October 2009

Barb Ire

A couple of months ago, the Institute of Contemporary Arts held a debate entitled "Have We Come Down yet?" it wasn’t a bad discussion, as discussions about the effect of Ecstasy on British popular culture go: interesting, inconclusive, frustrating, funny, with only a smattering of drugs-upmanship ("I once took 17 rhubarb-and-custards and 40 doves in one mental weekend sesh and that was in the years of real MDMA, right, when I was only 3"). There were four people on the panel, including me, and about 200 people attended. Some of these were bankers, some were their rhyming slang equivalent; the odd E evangelist enthused about the underground scene, several more weekenders mumbled about it (whatever ‘it’ was) not being like it used to be. All well-documented, well-debatable stuff.

Towards the end of the session, I asked a question. It wasn’t metaphorical. Did anyone else out there ever wish that they’d never taken any drugs? That they’d made it through their little life so far without stimulants? But no one else did. No one out of 200. All drug-takers: and all proud, or at least unconcerned to be so. I was the only one - and let’s face it, any ecstasy chomper doesn’t like to be left out - who ever wondered why she’d bothered.

And I do wonder. Not because of any born-again anti-junk moral standpoint, but because I don’t think there’s anywhere that drugs - not just ecstasy, all drugs - have taken me that I haven’t been able to get by myself. Drugs are just a short-cut, a fast track, a gear shift, a nifty back route. A speedy warping of things - physical, emotional, corporal, spiritual - so that you end up somewhere, anywhere, outside your normal, everyday self. And I include downers in that as well. All drugs do is change your circumstances quicker than if you hadn’t bothered taking them.

The places drugs can take you can be terrific: hilarious, bamboozling, exciting, new. Equally, they can be terrifying; panicked, hell-like, soul-freezing, traumatic. But unless you really fry your mind - get a habit, go somewhere and not find the way back - once the hit has gone and your head is munched, what are you left with? Spiritual enlightenment? Happy memories? Great mates? Brain death?

Drugs taught me - and I’m not denying they’ve taught me some things - that I had somewhere inside me already. I can talk for hours, I can stare at nothing, I can relax, I can get paranoid. I can be funny, boring, arrogant, super-friendly, ready for a fight, fighting for a fuck, fucking all over the shop. I can really listen to music, I can dance all night, I can sleep for weeks, I can burst into tears, I can laugh till I’m sick, I can collapse in over-heated mess in a puddle and bark like a barky dog. The thing is, I can do all these exceptionally entertaining things with absolutely no help whatsoever. A vodka might ease me along: but I certainly don’t require the contents of a chemistry set.

Don’t think for a moment that I will never take drugs again, nor that I’m arguing for a medicine-free world. I’m not so disciplined, nor so principled. But I do wonder, as I get older, what drugs have actually done for me. Take Ecstasy, for instance (and no, that’s not an order). It’s easy to see it’s beneficial effects on inhibited, ill-rhythmed, self-conscious tough men: it makes them dance, and talk, and understand, and let their guard down. But who’s to say that age wouldn’t have taught them that anyway? As you get older, you stop caring what people think, you stop trying to prove yourself harder or cooler, you realise that no one cares if you twirl like a twat or babble like a goon or spin on your back pretending to be a breakdancing spacehopper as long as you don’t smack anyone in the mouth while you’re doing so.

Also, as you get older, the payback really starts to dent you. You just can’t keep up. You discover what you can handle and what your body just won’t take any more. You wake up and say never again and you mean it: at least a lot longer than you meant it before. Your insides start rebelling: the hangover isn’t just a vague tiredness, but an all-over racking body and mindache, a full-blown depression that lasts for days. And you start thinking: If I’d never taken any drugs, if I’d exercised and drunk water and gone to bed when I should have, maybe I’d feel better now. Maybe my brain would still function clearly, focus sharply instead of slopping and swimming. Maybe my heart wouldn’t hurt. Lost weekends are just that: lost.

The only other things drugs are good for is to stop you feeling bored. When you can’t find the energy for a DIY change of heart, then some chemical wherewithal can be useful. But don’t tell me the high, the buzz, the up, the ‘it’ can’t be found elsewhere. Because if you can’t feel it otherwise, you might as well be an addict. If you can’t feel higher than the stars through falling in love, or awed by monstrous nature by standing on a cliff, or all-powerful when driving, or sky-high from an orgasm, or twisted and pointless through loss, or frightened from just being alive, then you might as well be a moggy muncher. It doesn’t take a pill, or a line, or a smoke to make people lose control. Life does it well enough.

Miranda Sawyer