CHIP Somers was a drug addict for 18 years, 12 of which he was homeless and committing crime every day to fund his habit – a pattern of behaviour that eventually resulted in a two-year prison sentence.
Since getting clean, Chip, 64, has trained as an addiction therapist and opened Focus 12, a rehabilitation centre that counts Davina McCall, Russell Brand and Boy George among its success stories. He is now a leading voice in the campaign for abstinence-based treatment for addicts.
Chip describes his former self as a ‘soap box junkie’ who believed he was on the edge of a revolution and mocked those he saw heading to their nine to five jobs, in suits, for their ‘pointless’ existence.
He started using drugs at the age of 17 and is in no doubt as to why drugs take such a hold of people’s lives.
“People take drugs because they make you feel great. I cannot think of any drug that did not make me feel great – everyone is aware of drinking alcohol and noticing a change, heroin is like that only 50 times better,” he said.
In his own case, drugs provided relief from a dysfunctional home life. Sent to boarding school at the age of six and a half where there was ‘a degree of sexual abuse’, he describes his 17-year-old self as ‘not a well balanced individual’.
Chip describes his descent into a crime-fuelled dependency as rapid. He said: “I committed a crime every day – usually theft or burglary. I was arrested 20 or 30 times, charged about 19 times, sentenced to a probation order and was homeless for about 12 of the 18 years.
“These were not things to be ashamed of in the social circle I was in, these were things to be proud of.”
In 1980, Chip’s extensive criminal record resulted in a two-year prison sentence.
This was not enough to make him to get clean, a fact that he attributes partly to the mentality of the time which he describes as ‘once a junkie always a junkie’. “There was no treatment so you went on until you died.”
It was not until a chance encounter with someone he had previously used with who had got clean that Chip made the decision to stop taking drugs.
The turnaround was quick – Chip was drug-free in nine days and completely clean in three weeks.
However, without drugs as a distraction, he was forced to confront the fact that he was a 17-year-old in a 37-year-old’s body, someone who had never done a day’s work or dealt with the problems that led him to drugs.
Now a leading campaigner for addicts to confront their problems with abstinence rather than prescriptive medication such as methadone, Chip appeared in front of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, to share his experiences in April 2012.
Methadone continues to be one of the most popular treatment methods.
Chip said that medical professionals were ‘locked into’ the treatment, which he describes as ‘an effective way to keep people out of trouble, shut them up and stop them committing crime and spreading infectious diseases’.
Speaking to Chip, it is clear that his aim is to help his clients turn their lives around. He is not interested in merely removing the threat of withdrawal, he wants to get his clients clean and help them to tackle their issues .
Of Focus 12’s clients, 25 per cent will get clean for a long period of time and while that statistic may not seem hugely impressive, he points out that no-one receiving methadone is clean.
After Chip appeared in front of the Select Committee, one of the arguments put forward against absinence was that it was ‘idealistic’ and ‘dangerous’ because it could lead to relapses, which could cause addicts to overdose.
In response to these claims, Chip said: “That’s an idea always put forward by those who do not understand the blight of drug use.
“If you relapse, there’s a danger you misjudge your tolerance and some people do kill themselves – but that’s one or two people a year.
“The alternative is you live your life on methadone continually dependent on a substance, dealing with the fear of going into withdrawal. Most people who take methadone are using other drugs, 80 per cent of people pick up syringes as well as medicine.”
One of the most contentious questions surrounding drug use is whether legalisation would make the industry easier to control.
Speaking about this, Chip said: “We would need to start from scratch – get better families, better education, people with aspirations, abilities and hope that’s recognised and achieved, without these things all you’re really doing is making vast amounts of substances available.”
Any mileage remaining in the view that hard drugs may still be largely confined to inner-cities is quickly dispelled by Chip.
He said: “Bury St Edmunds is exactly the same as everywhere else. When I first moved here they were telling me about this Suffolk idyll and I was expecting to see shire horses pulling carriages down the street, but there’s drugs of all sorts all over Bury.”
Chip believes the problem of addiction will get worse as the recession continues to bite . “I think we are giving up on dealing with it, we are being lazy – it’s a big problem.
“People will be far more concerned with the problems they are facing such as cuts to hospitals and education, they will not focus on the drug problem – the other downside is many more people will start drinking to deal with the situations they find themselves in.”