Book review: We Don’t Talk About It. Ever.
If you’ve ever wondered about how drug addiction ruins a life full of potential, this brutally honest memoir will give you the lowdown. Addiction is not a quick process, instead, it is a relentless, repetitive, ever-deepening gouging of all semblance of normality, until nothing is left but the heartbeat keeping you alive. And this author, Desiree-Anne Martin, takes you there – no holds barred.
We Don’t Talk About it. Ever.traces the life of Martin from her girlhood in Cape Town, fraught with persistent yet unspoken dysfunction (thus the title) both in her family home and her environment, an apartheid-era coloured community bedevilled by poverty, gangs and drugs. Naturally bright, she excelled at her private school, but in adolescence plunged into an identity crisis laden with self-loathing – over her unruly hair, her skin colour, her weight, her racial roots.
She turns to self-harm, disordered eating, compulsive lying and the thrill of petty theft. Conversely, she also devours books, and wins a place to study drama at UCT, but doesn’t follow through with it because she suspects her parents can’t afford it and instead, takes off for London to follow a boy, getting lost in clubs, booze and pills. On her return to South Africa she embraces the Ecstacy trance club scene but when she meets Darren, a heroin addict, her life descends quickly into an unmanageable mess as she becomes an intravenous smack junkie herself.
Martin, now 42 and a mother of two, has been clean for 13 years. She is a published poet, addictions counsellor and postgraduate student. It has taken this gaping window of time for this book to come about, largely because of the internal work Martin needed to do to unravel her harrowing past, unearth the catalysts of her self-destructive behaviour and heal herself. In the process, we are given the story of an addict who plunged headlong into every drug temptation that crossed her path, heroin becoming her ultimate enslaver, rendering her a sex worker, expert manipulator and thief and eventually, a prisoner.
As the drug memoir genre expands, we are becoming more discerning. Having read a few drug memoirs myself, my take on Martin’s book is that it allows the events too much latitude – unfolding with juggernaut rapidity from one high or low to the next high or low – with too little deep introspective inbetween. The style is staccato and urgent throughout: “As he (Darren) stretched out, the empty syringe dropped next to me where I perched on the frame of the futon, watchfully. I couldn’t speak. I wanted to scream. Instead, I hugged my knees and rocked slightly. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I wasn’t supposed to have progressed from snorting and chasing to spiking. I was supposed to have gotten him clean. But nine months later and it had only gotten worse. He had returned from that detox in Knysna and gone straight to score.”
There is a lot to fit into this memoir, of course, by dint of the sheer length, scale and depth of Martin’s addiction, and for this reason alone, it wields more gravitas than other, better-written memoirs that nonetheless court with exaggeration to amplify effect. And her matter-of-fact, almost nonchalant tone actually serves to underscore the narcissistic, sociopathic beings that addicts become.
“It was a sordid courtship structured purely along economical lines. Supply and demand. I needed heroin; Abdul, my dealer, wanted sex. I had exhausted all other anxious options, all other possible means. I could find nothing to pawn or exchange. I was too feeble to steal anything. All I had left to bargain with was my vagina,” she writes.
It’s in these bleak appraisals of her worthlessness as a junkie that you feel heartbroken, knowing that Martin was, and is, so much more, that this beautiful, intelligent woman was so destroyed by lack of self worth and rootlessness, followed by wreckless risk-taking, then serious, death defying addiction. Fortunately, extended periods of rehab followed from that, and again, her voice is refreshingly authentic about the process that – far from being the magic bullet – was riddled with relapses and more bad relationships.
Life is tough by nature, and it’s been no less tough for Martin since getting clean. Her first baby was born premature, and she endured acute post-natal depression. She and her then husband Robert struggled financially, and then she discovered his infidelity. She married again, and had a second child, but the antidote to this horror story is Martin herself, her discipline in staying sober through each step of recovery, and her resilience in finding herself a place in the world without the crutches she has habitually leaned on for most of her life.
Ultimately then, this is a story of hope, in the face of a wasteland of hopelessness created by the most stealthy, merciless and dangerous enemy of all – the addicted self.
Helen Grange is a Johannesburg-based book reviewer and lifestyle writer.