It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding, by Simon Pooley, 2004
The first image he told me about was a Polaroid of a sick and frightened looking young man, taken in St. Annes-on-Sea, Lancashire, in February 1996. He said that this rude portrait of him was taken by a nurse, whose name and face he couldnot remember, on the morning of his arrival at Pierpoint House Rehabilitation Clinic. He told me that the photograph was unusual in that it was taken quickly and without warning; that he was not allowed any time to adjust himself for the camera; that it was a surprise conclusion to an otherwise routine medical examination; and that he saw the image only once, briefly, before it was filed and locked away and then lost forever. He said that in the years that followed he had become marked by this one particular image, that somehow he knew that it captured the experience of addiction for him, but how or why he’d never been able to fully comprehend. He told me that he was now certain that he’d finally arrived at the answer.
He wrote me: I disappeared in January 1996. My mother made the phone call to report me as a Missing Person and the authorities asked her my NAME? AGE? HEIGHT? BUILD? HAIR COLOUR? HAIR LENGTH? EYE COLOUR? COMPLEXION? Then: COAT? UNIFORM (OUTER)? UNIFORM (INNER)? UNIFORM (LOWER)? FEET? OTHER? And so on and so forth. One further category was negotiated: FREE TEXT – it must have read something like this: He was last seen at home on the morning of 10 January; at some point during the day he left the house. A few items of his clothing, his wallet and his passport were missing. He failed to return. Chaotic drug user; prescribed methadone; potential suicide risk. The information was logged, data-based, processed and a message relayed to my mother: NO TRACE. And that was that: Missing Person; Potential Suicide Risk; No Trace.
He wrote: The Free Text was almost right, just substitute ‘Potential’ with ‘Definite’. Have you ever wondered about the genealogy of a suicide? Mine started with nothing more than a rogue thought – a rogue thought that somehow found its way into the usual psychic trajectory I accelerated into on what had become an otherwise normal morning: I awoke with junk sickness, thought ‘solution?’– schemed a scheme or two to get some, felt slightly better, remembered that this was truly hell, felt slightly worse, thought ‘solution?’: ‘Doctor’; ‘Relocate’; ‘Therapy’; ‘Hobby’; ‘Detox’; ‘Sport’; ‘Anti-depressants’; ‘Job’ – the usual stale litany of suggested and discredited remedies – and then, out of nowhere, ‘Kill Yourself’.
He wrote me: I contemplated this kill yourself option and reasoned it to be a simple and fool-proof, one-hundred-per-cent-success-rate antidote for heroin addiction; upon further reasoning I then dismissed it on account of the possible pain I might have to endure and because, in the absence of any coherent religious or metaphysical beliefs, I was terrified of death. While the pain I was in was certainly acute, I concluded that a suicide attempt would certainly entail a superior form of agony – eternal damnation, even. As time progressed and my condition worsened my view on this economy of suffering reversed itself. I fantasised a suicide with increasing frequency, projected my hopes and dreams onto it in the same way that others cling to the happy promise of a retirement on the Costa del Sol. I thought about it in greater and greater detail: How? Where? When? There were infinite variations, so many possibilities. I could not make up my mind, I didn’t want to commit, but surely could go on no further? And then, on a January morning in 1996, I decided to do it and I disappeared.
He wrote: The final request made of my mother by the authorities was to provide them with a photograph of the missing person: a recent photograph, one with a good likeness. She looked but there simply weren’t any. An exhaustive search revealed that I faded into photographic obscurity circa 1992; the last picture she could find of me was taken on my eighteenth birthday – after that, nothing.
He told me: It was here in the family album, in these private snapshots, that the story of my addiction was told and wheremy disappearance was most tellingly delineated. Up until the age of about eleven I’m consistently represented, staring out from almost every page: a generic newborn cradled by an uncertain looking mother(1973); a fat-faced toddler sat on Santa’s lap, trousers tucked in wellies (1976); my first day at primary school (1980); my First Holy Communion (1983); my first day at big school (1985); on family holidays (Anglesey 1979, Torremolinos 1982, Rimini 1985, Tenerife 1987, Orlando 1988); at weddings, at baptisms, and so on – the usual variation on a big occasion that families feel fit to solemnise for their own special pleasure.
He wrote: And then my presence begins to dissolve. I appear occasionally between the ages of eleven and eighteen, but only with an accumulating sense of awkwardness and reluctance. There are no single portraits; instead I take my place at the edge of the group, in the background somewhere – out of the way, out of focus, out of sight. I begin to look increasingly withdrawn, fragile and anaemic, as if my health and well-being were somehow dependent on my being photographed. The image taken of me on my eighteenth birthday shows me in the final stages of this photographic anorexia: I’m stood posed in front of the new car that my parents had bought me and I look as if I’m about to collapse. And that’s it – after this image my presence could no longer be verified.
He told me: It’s no coincidence that my image wanes from eleven onwards – this was the age at which I first began to investigate what, at this point, seemed to be the potent delights of the stuff kept in the cupboard under the sink: glue, gas, polish, thinner, lighter fluid, air freshener. My research continued throughout my mid-teens, increasing in its ambition and intensity, becoming more refined and sophisticated in its subject matter: Dope, Acid, Speed, Mushrooms, Ecstasy, Benzo’s.
By eighteen I was completely fucked: skag-addled, needle-fixated and methadone ‘scripted’. I tried to quit, I failed; I tried again, I failed again – for nearly two years, always trying and always failing and then concluding: I am weak, I have crosseda line and there’s no going back now, this is it. Given no option, I unconditionally surrendered to addiction – it swallowed me up and the photos stop.
He wrote: When I think of these images, when I consider them in order, the narrative I see being played out is not that of the passing of time, nor of the folly of time, but rather the narrative of addiction. My protracted erasure from the family photo album signalled my wider withdrawal from the family unit; my wider withdrawal from the family unit signalled my wider slide into addiction.
He told me: Addiction is a lingering extinction – a slow subtraction that, in the course of its full orbit, dissolves, corrodes, leaves you with nothing and then finally nothing. The family album reveals this evanescence perfectly through its chronicling of my documented body, but an important lacuna still persists: the succeeding three years, from eighteen to twenty-one – the period in which my addiction reached its denouement; the period in which the physical body disappeared.
He wrote: There are no images to account for these years but scars and wounds and physical aberrations remain and lend themselves to memory like so many old photographs.
He told me: The body tries to resist and mends itself quick, but the perpetual insults that a determined addict visits upon the flesh are quicker. It cannot compete, it gets confused, it retreats. Veins refuse you entry, become as hard as glass; where once they offered a probing hypodermic a welcoming gush of deepest crimson, they now emit nothing but a miserly trickle of scarlet – the vein is dead: avoid. So you look elsewhere and plunder and berserk your body until there’s nowhere left, but you still keep trying.
He told me: To use intravenously is to enter into a sub-culture within a sub-culture – a schismatic territory shunned and derided by the sniffers and snorters, the pill-poppers and puffers, the chasers and the casual dabblers. This is narcotic fundamentalism and the stakes are raised and the body-count increases and its intensity scares them.
He wrote: I never thought that I’d go this far, nobody ever does. And even when you’ve finally got that needle in your arm there’s always someplace worse that you could be sticking it and you think to yourself: ‘Well, at least I’m not that bad!’ Even with IV use a certain form of stratification still exists, a snobbery that separates the better-offs from the worse-offs, the fucked-up from the completely fucked-up. It elevates those who fix in their hands and arms above those who fix in their legs and feet; those who fix in their legs and feet above those who fix in their groins and, finally, those who fix in their groins above those who fix in their necks. The body is carved up into a series of upmarket, downmarket and somewhere-in-between zones; your track marks become not just a signifier of addiction but, according to where they are, also of your addict caste and status – of how you’re fairing in the game. In my own spiral of downward mobility I mined and exhausted my arms, my hands, my feet, my legs, and my groin. All my veins had vanished, my body had evaporated and I hobbled about because my feet were bloated with abscesses. I would be dead soon, my gravestone epitaph would read: ‘He never fixed in his neck’.
He wrote: The suicide attempt failed. I didn’t bungle it or change my mind and it wasn’t one of those feigned-attempts-as-cry-for-help stunts. What happened was this: I left home and booked into a non-descript, out of the way, two-star B&B. I went out and bought a sizable quantity of Heroin, a chunk of Hash, some porn, a tracksuit and some trainers – the last tokens of pleasure and comfort that, as a condemned man, I felt tradition-bound to grant myself. I planned to have one final chemical fling and then overdose myself on the last of the Heroin. I was two days into it and boiled as a owl when the hotel management figured out what this hungry ghost in Room 28 was up to and called in the police. I was arrested and searched. They found my passport, radioed my details through and made the connection: MISSING PERSON; POTENTIAL SUICIDE RISK. I was registered at my parent’s home so they took me there – from there I went straight to rehab. It all happened so quick. I was on the verge of completing the process of disappearing and the next thing I know: PHOOOM! The flash went on a camera held by a nurse, whose name/face I cannot remember on the morning of my arrival at Pierpoint House Rehabilitation Centre – I reappeared.
He told me that in this Polaroid, or rather in the memory of this image, he now saw himself re-emerge from a state of nothingness into something that was once again verifiable.
He said that the answer was there all along – in the rapid materialisation of colour, form and then a person, him, within the framed void of the Polaroid, but that until he linked it with these other images of himself he’d never been able to grasp the relationship between addiction and photography. He told me that when people ask him about his addiction, about his disappearance, he still finds it hard to articulate what happened, or to order it or to explain it; all he can do is to tell them about the images. He told me that for some people photographs speak of death and loss and he understood this, but for him they could now only ever speak tenderly of life. Finally, he told me of other images that he has since added to this narrative, the ones taken since 1996, the ones that he says both confirm and consolidate his existence and the ones that tell a much different story than that of addiction and disappearance but which will, for him, forever echo it: in his hat and gown on his graduation day; with his father at his fiftieth birthday party; eating Sauerkraut with friends at a German restaurant somewhere in Spain – Marbella, he thinks, or possibly Fuengirola?