Jonathan is the chief executive of a well-known Jewish charity. He is also a drug addict.
His addiction started after a motorbike accident and subsequent botched operation resulted in permanent nerve damage to his arm. Jonathan, like three million others in the UK, was prescribed opioids for pain relief.
To outsiders, he is a happily married middle-aged father of four, running a successful charity. For six years friends and colleagues had no idea he was using Class A drugs to function, at work, at home, and even at shul. He agreed to tell me his story on the condition that we do not use his real name — he was determined to protect his identity.
He still has vivid memories of the moment a car rolled over his arms when he came off his bike on the way home from work. “I felt them crushing,” he recalls. “I was rushed to hospital and told I needed plates in my arm. As part of the operation they drilled through a nerve which left me with unbearable pain.” He clutches his arm as we speak, the memory of the pain clearly still present.
“When I saw a neurosurgeon privately he was so shocked by the catalogue of errors made by the hospital that he told me that I would be left with permanent damage.”
Jonathan was given a mixture of opiate-based drugs, mainly OxyContin, which is one of the strongest prescription drugs available, designed to be a time-delayed form of pain management.
“At no point did anyone tell me these drugs were addictive,” he says, “or that they should be taken with caution.”
“I was like any drug addict,” he continues. “I was hiding drugs at home and lying about taking them. I couldn’t function without them. I even took them to stay awake in synagogue.”
The drugs Jonathan was hooked on were not dealt to him down a dark alleyway, or given to him by a shadowy figure. They were prescribed by his doctors. According to NHS Digital data, the use of opioids has risen by 80 per cent over ten years. Oxycodone, the generic name for OxyContin, is known on the street as “Killer”. In the UK last year more than 20,000 people were treated for opioid overdoses, with 75 deaths attributed to the drugs.
Harry Shapiro, director of DrugWise, an online drug information service, doubts the UK will reach US levels of crisis, but adds that “there is no doubt that we have a problem.” He cites our ageing population and a GP system which is over-burdened and under stress. “A prescription is the easiest way for a GP to get people out of the door.”
Jonathan says it was only when it was “too late”, that he discovered the drugs were responsible for 16,800 deaths in the US in 2016. “I was taking them every day. I took them every morning and evening and a couple of times in the day. They made me a complete zombie. It was awful.”
He assumed the tablets were helping him cope with the pain. “The more I took, the more I needed them to get through the day. I would take a tablet to cope with anything I had to do.
“If I had a presentation at work, or a big meeting, I’d take an extra tablet to pick me up because I thought I needed it. If I had to go to a concert, I’d take a tablet just so I could enjoy it. If I went to a parents’ evening, I’d take a tablet.”
To put his drug use into context he explains that a palliative care patient might take 30mg a day of the tablets that he’d been prescribed. He was taking 160mg.
At the height of his addiction he was getting three prescriptions a week from NHS and private doctors who he saw for pain.
“I was given them with no question. I’m not sure they had the time to question me. I think they thought it was the best thing to do.”
After years of relying on the drugs he tried to wean himself off after deciding he did not want to be “high all the time.”
He admits: “It was taking over my life. I was telling myself I needed to come off them because I knew it was affecting my relationship with my wife and my kids. I was useless and selfish.”
But when he stopped taking the tablets, things got worse.
“I found myself falling asleep at work and in meetings, or in the car on the way home. I realised the sleep was actually a withdrawal symptom and I started taking the tablets again.”
It was only after a close friend confronted him about his problem that the seriousness dawned on him. “It was a difficult conversation. He and my wife arranged a sort of intervention.
“I told them I would cut down and I did but it was hard and I realised I couldn’t do it alone.”
He agreed to go to rehab and with the help of a drugs counsellor he came off the prescription drugs within a week.
“I felt like I was dying. I experienced violent shaking and sweating. I couldn’t move and my whole body hurt. All I wanted was to take a tablet to get over it.
“Once I was off them I realised that the pain in my arm was no better or worse. I was told if I had carried on at the rate I was doing that I would die.”
Jonathan considers himself lucky that his addiction started and ended with his prescriptions.
“I live in a nice Jewish area and there are no drug dealers at the end of my street. Other people are not like that, they get hooked on the prescription drugs and then dealers get them onto heroin.”
Attending his first Narcotics Anonymous meeting was the first time he truly acknowledged his addiction.
“I realised in that first meeting that I was a drug addict. I don’t think I had really thought about it until then.
“You think of a drug addict as someone down and out who steals from their family and buys drugs from a street dealer.
“I was getting mine from the doctor, going to different pharmacies so as not to arouse suspicion. I wasn’t stealing anything, but I was ruining my life and the life of people close to me in the same way.”
Following the 12 steps of the Narcotics Anonymous programme has kept him focused and is “almost like a new religion.
“It is easy to follow and you know no one in your group is judging you. There is something very spiritual about it.”
He says the Jewish community lacks adequate support for addicts like him. Drugsline, the Redbridge-based specialist service for addicts and their families, run by Norwood, closed down in 2016 as part of a “refocusing of resources.”
Reluctance to talk about the problem, as well as fear of stigma makes it even harder to seek help, Jonathan explains.
“Even my wife doesn’t accept that I have a problem. She doesn’t want to acknowledge me as a drug addict, but that is what I am.”
He is convinced that shame of being labelled as an addict causes unnecessary deaths.“This is the Jewish heroin, but no one wants to talk about it,” he says.
Now he attends NA meetings every week to cope with his addiction. He’s surrounded by fellow Jews, hooked on similar drugs.
“I would say that 70 per cent of the people in my drugs group are Jewish and all of them started on opioids because of something similar to me. It has really opened my eyes to the problem.”
He’s been clean for four months now, and his biggest fear is a relapse. He sounds terrified as he tells me: “They say it is at this point in the journey that people tend to fall back into drugs.
“The only thing that keeps me from relapsing is the fear of losing my family.
“My children missed out on having a proper father for six years. I would turn up at parents’ evening and say things that did not make any sense.
“My wife had to do everything. She was working full time, doing the child care, the finances; it put an enormous strain on our family.
“There isn’t a chance in hell that I could have done what she did.”
He hopes that by telling others about his story it will encourage more people to seek help and break the stigma surrounding drug problems within the Jewish community.
“I get out of bed every morning and I don’t need drugs to do it. I experience my emotions as I am supposed to, the good ones and the bad ones.
“One of the first things I realised after coming off the drugs was that I could see colours again, I could see the depth in things.
“I feel blessed to be alive, it sounds like a cliché but it is true.”
Narcotics Anonymous helpline: 0300 9991212 www.ukna.org