Most documentary projects about addiction expose someone else’s self-destructive behavior, but Graham MacIndoe took a very different approach: He photographed himself during the years he was addicted to drugs. He’d place a cheap digital camera on a table or bookshelf, set the self-timer to take a photo every so often, then turn his attention to the rituals of his habit: filling a crack pipe, cooking heroin, shooting up. Over time, he became more deliberate about lighting and composition, but the point was not to glamorize what had become a solitary existence, the monotonous repetition of an addict’s daily life.
I’m not a casual observer of these images; after Graham and I broke up because of his drug use, I found 342 self-portraits—images that he had not meant for me to see.
“In some way, this is exactly what I’d been curious to see,” I wrote at the time. “All those close-ups of the needle going into a vein, his expression during and after, the rooms and stairwells I never saw … Maybe the point is, ‘So you wanted to see? Here it all is.’ And then we’re supposed to feel sick over our voyeurism, because maybe we didn’t need to see that after all.”
Now I think we do need to see it, and try to understand addiction from the inside, as Graham describes what he wanted to show. Not the view of an outsider, but a first-person account of the isolating, all-consuming nature of addiction.
No one else is in the pictures; drugs have replaced everyone and everything that used to matter.
Beating the odds, Graham has been clean since 2010, and we’ve been back together for most of that time—a road to recovery that included four months at Rikers Island and five months in immigration detention, after he was ordered deported from the U.S. (Born in Scotland, he moved here legally and has a green card, but even a minor conviction can lead to permanent exile these days.)
A rare prison rehab program and a compassionate judge set him free, but Graham did the hard work to rebuild his life. To anyone who knows him, these photographs are a painful reminder of a dark, difficult era, but they also exhibit signs of hope: that Graham wanted to live to show them someday. —Susan Stellin
Graham MacIndoe: “I walked into someone’s bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror, and I looked so bad. I looked so gray and so tired, I hadn’t slept for days. I looked so—just not me. I had a cell phone with a camera in it, and I took a picture of myself. I looked at it later, and that’s what sort of inspired me to take more pictures of myself, just to document my fall into addiction.”
“Even in that haziness of addiction I was thinking like a photographer. I was thinking how these pictures would be perceived. And they got stronger as time went on. I’d lost my house, I was living in different people’s apartments, I was in an environment that was so far removed from where I had been that it was important for me to document that.”
“I decided not to photograph other addicts because people on drugs can’t really give you true consent to use their picture—their minds are not there. When you’re an addict, you’ll say yes to a lot of things because you’re not thinking straight. But once you get clean you would never do any of those things. So when you say to someone in that situation, ‘Is it all right if I take pictures?,’ it becomes a fraught issue for me, having been that person in that addictive state.”
“It’s a very, very difficult thing for me to bare my soul to people that I don’t know, and try to explain what I went through and that I let this happen to me. But I want to take this thing out of the shadows and take away the stigma as much as I can. I’m not going to be ashamed about it because I’m really proud of the fact that I got clean. Yeah, you’ve got to take personal responsibility for letting yourself go down that way, but if you can pull yourself out, you should be the proudest person in this world. Because it is an affliction that is so powerful it destroys not only the lives of the addicts and the dealers, it destroys the lives of the people that love you—the collateral damage is huge. And there’s a whole bunch of guilt and denial and shame surrounding that, and I think that has to be taken away.”
A Conversation With Graham MacIndoe, by Susan Stellin
Graham and I dated years ago, broke up because of his drug use, and got back together after he got clean in 2010. In this interview, we talk about the complexities of addiction—and what we learned about escaping its grip.
Susan Stellin: Tell me about the time you first used heroin.
Graham Macindoe: The very first time, I smoked it. I was in my apartment in New York with a couple of friends. We’d been doing cocaine and I was coming down really badly, and somebody said you should smoke a little bit of this. So we put it in a cigarette and smoked it, and I got really dizzy. It wasn’t really pleasant, to be honest with you, but it did take the edge off the cocaine.
Did you do it again soon after that?
Yeah, I did it a few other times to combat the comedown from the cocaine. I liked the high, but the comedown was really devastating. It would make you just want to cry and stay in for days on end. And then being in that addictive frame of mind, I wanted to see what it was like just on its own. I went straight to injecting pretty soon after that because it seemed like a quicker, more efficient method of delivery, like crack is a much more efficient delivery of cocaine. I knew a couple of active intravenous heroin users and I asked them and they quite willingly enabled me.
Did you have a moment where you thought, This drug has a bad reputation?
I’ve gotta be honest and say I wasn’t concerned, because I was so far down that path with crack cocaine at that point that it didn’t seem to make that much of a difference to me. It was just throwing something else into the mix that I thought could enhance it and make the experience better — which is a crazy way of thinking about it. But I thought, I’m keeping myself level. It’s like people who drink and get all slurry and do a line of coke to straighten themselves up. It was a counter of that. I needed something to level me out, and alcohol is never going to do that because you’d have to drink too much. Heroin did that efficiently, but it leads to heroin addiction — or it leads to a dual addiction, crack and heroin.
Did you consider yourself an addict at the time?
Oh, yeah. When I first really started doing drugs, I felt it was enhancing my life — it just made everything sort of great. But I knew that I was an addict when I started having to do it in the morning when I woke up. That’s when you know.
Do you remember when that was?
It was before the heroin — it was the cocaine. And that’s when I should’ve known to stop, but I didn’t. I remember that feeling of waking up one morning after getting about an hour and a half of sleep and having to be somewhere. And my eyes were red and I was so tired and I just didn’t want to move. It was worse than any hangover — I was so depressed. And I had some cocaine left from the night before, when some friends had been around. And I did that line and I was just like boompf — I’m ready to go, I can take on the world now. Later on, I realized that, wow, I’m using first thing in the morning.
That is different. When you’re using at night, you can call it partying, you can call it all sorts of things to get away with living a lifestyle, but when you start using in the morning to get yourself through the day, to get to the night, to keep going, then you’ve got a problem. Then it becomes part of life. It’s not just a party thing; you need it to exist. And that’s when it struck me.
In retrospect, I should’ve known better and I should’ve seen all these signs, but it’s a powerful thing and it’s messed up the chemicals in your brain by that point. And you’re still trying to hide it from people, so you’re using to try and mask that you’re fucked up. And that’s how you get drawn further and further into it.
And what about when you started lying and covering up?
I didn’t have to really lie in the beginning, because the people around me were doing it all the time. These were people in similar situations as me — you know, working, creative, for want of a better expression, “high living,” had money. Unfortunately, I was one of the ones who — because of the makeup of my mind, my psychology, whatever it is — went down the addiction path. Some people went down the party path and got fed up with it. I went down the addiction path and had to see it to its end. So there was a bit of that hiding and sneaking around — there always is with drugs. There’s a lot of disappearing for periods of time and reappearing and different mood swings. You think that people are not noticing, but really they are noticing but they’re not quite able to put their finger on what it is because they have never really been around someone who has been in that situation. So you think you’re pulling the wool over people’s eyes, but in reality you’re just giving all these little clues as to something being wrong that makes them much more questioning of your behavior.
Did you ever feel guilty about trying to deceive people?
I think it was more shame than guilt. Because in my opinion a lot of people are judgmental when you’ve got a drug problem. And you never want to admit it to yourself, so you certainly don’t want to admit to anyone else that you’ve got a drug problem. Because always in the back of your mind you’re thinking, Well, I know I’m using a wee bit much, but I think I can clean up whenever I want, so I don’t really want to let anybody know because I think I can just bounce out of this, and then people will think, Oh, I must’ve been mistaken. But the more extreme your behavior gets, the less those excuses work, and people are just like, This is bullshit — this is not what’s going on. This behavior is way too extreme for certain excuses. These disappearing hours, days, nights, don’t seem to gel with, “Oh, I lost my keys” or “This train stopped” or any of these bizarre excuses that you’ve been using forever. Because you got away with them once, you think that you can get away with them a million times. So it’s not so much guilt; it’s denial and shame and self-esteem.
Apart from the people you used with, do you think you surrounded yourself with people who were maybe a little more naïve about drug use?
No. It’s just there’s a lot of people that are not very knowledgeable about someone who’s gone into that deep addiction. So you can sort of pull the wool over their eyes for a bit, but at the same time they’re not stupid and they start to put two and two together and they get four. And four is not the answer you’re giving them, you’re giving them 7 and 13 and 1 and 6. But they still don’t know how to confront you. Because nobody wants to turn around and say, “I think you are a drug addict” or “I think you’re lying.” That’s a hard thing to throw at someone when you’re not 100 percent sure. Are you 100 percent sure that he is really doing what you think he’s doing? And are you prepared to lay that on the line and maybe destroy a friendship, relationship, work situation, whatever it may be? So people tend to stand back from it and just watch and see it develop. And then before you know it, it’s developed into something that’s way more than you ever thought it was. It’s not just a suspicion, it’s a reality, and it’s a big reality. People don’t know how to deal with that. The difference between knowing somebody’s got that big problem and being able to deal with that big problem is massive.
When we first started dating, did you think that I wasn’t going to catch on?
In the beginning, I didn’t think you were going to catch on. I was a much edgier person than you, and there was a slight attraction to that. I liked that sort of recklessness in me, and that sort of composed way that you are. You’ve got your routines, and you do things in a set order. Yours is building Legos — you build it to construct something sensible — and mine is like Ping-Pong — the ball goes everywhere and I’m flailing like mad trying to get it all back together. And I liked that. Because I thought that’s what I needed in my life. And I was really hoping that some of that would rub off. That if I get in this good relationship with somebody who’s really solid I can overturn my addiction, because it’ll be stronger than this. And in reality it wasn’t, which is really a shame. Because drugs are so powerful—they destroy relationships, they destroy friendships, they destroy jobs, they destroy lives—and I didn’t realize that at the time.
What did it feel like when you would lie or get confronted about something?
Panic-stricken. Because you’re being outed for being an addict and for lying and for all those things that you said you’re weren’t doing. You feel sort of gutted. But your mind goes into overdrive, trying to find an escape route. That’s what an addict is always trying to do, find an escape route for being put on the spot — I’ve got to get out of this, I’ve got to deny it. There’s no way I can face up to this ’cause it’s just the hardest thing in the world — it exposes all your weaknesses, all your failings. And any strength you might have to deal with those emotional sorts of things has been eaten away by drugs. So you’ve got no defense mechanism, no way of even comprehending what’s going on. So it becomes an attack on you, and you go into a reverse attack mode. You’ll get really aggressive and defensive and you’ll find any way to get out of it, even if that comes to hurting somebody’s feelings and putting them down and walking away from them and saying you don’t fucking know.
And there wasn’t a moment of rationality or clarity where you thought, Maybe I have to give this up?
Yeah, I thought that, but I couldn’t. Because your mind is flooded with chemicals that are changing your thought process completely. There’s nothing rational about the way you think when you’re on drugs. There’s nothing sensible. There’s nothing like where you can sit down and be objective—it doesn’t work like that. Once you’re on an addictive path and you’re putting all these things into your body—whether it’s alcohol or whatever—that changes your way of thinking. How many people sleep with people they would never have slept with because they were drinking? Or they go and drink and drive. It’s the same principle, it’s just that drugs are much more extreme.
When you talk about wanting to quit, was it just a moment and then it would go away? Because I think that’s what people don’t understand: Why doesn’t this person want to quit, or if they do want to quit, why can’t they?
I wanted to quit a lot. I really wished I could’ve quit. And there’s nothing in my heart that I feel so bad about — not being able to quit when I first met you. ’Cause I would’ve saved myself and my family a lot of stress and pain and anger and money and humiliation.
But in a lot of cases with addiction you’re never ready to quit until you really hit rock bottom. They say that all the time in meetings. And it isn’t necessarily the case all the time — I see people who have quit, they’ve managed to nip it in the bud. And I don’t know how that happens. I don’t know how some people manage to drag themselves away from the cusp of going into that really dark place and some people don’t. I quit a bunch of times, but I always slipped back into it because it’s not the quitting — it’s the long-term thing. You don’t know how to function, because you’ve been so dysfunctional for so long that you find yourself going back to your comfort zone, and your comfort zone is being around people who enabled you and people who are in the same boat as you. You go to somebody’s house where other people are using, and it’s like you’re with your family again. They tell you it’s going to be all right, then you take a hit, then you think, Fuck it, I feel good. Cause it’s really hard to get your shit together when you don’t feel good. And when the reality of where you’ve been and how much you’ve done and the lies you’ve told all dawns on you, it’s really hard to face. It’s a really big emotional crisis that is very hard to face up to. And that’s why people say they want to get clean but just can’t do it.
Did the pressure of starting to run out of money really compound things?
Yeah, it did. Because I wasn’t working — I didn’t know how to work at that point — so I was running out of money, I couldn’t pay my bills, I was spending my savings, I was borrowing money from people. And I was going down that really clichéd path of someone who falls into deep addiction. You start losing everything. You start losing your friends, your savings, the place you live. You lose sight of reality, your morals — everything goes down the drain at a certain point. You sort of give in to it.
What are the key factors to helping someone — or were key to helping you?
I think rehabilitation is really important. Jail doesn’t work. Jailing somebody for being a drug addict is not going to help them because it doesn’t teach them anything. You need to teach people different thought processes and different ways of running their life. You might have started taking drugs just to party, but at the end of the day what they do to your mind is they bring out every insecurity, every piece of pain, every piece of anger that you’ve ever had in your life and bring them to the top of the pile. And those are the things that you dwell on when you’re an addict. So you have to address those things. You have to address how can I stop being angry, how can I stop being jealous, how can I get my self-esteem up, how can I feel more comfortable within my own skin. It’s a complex situation. And I don’t think there’s a one-route way to recovery. Because you come into addiction from all these different backgrounds, different ages, different emotional states of mind, but you end up a heroin addict, an alcoholic, a cocaine fiend, whatever. And to recover from that, it’s not like we all converged here and there’s only that one way forward. I think there’s a multitude of different ways to recover.
What can people who know and love an addict do to help?
People need to be nurtured out of addiction. That tough-love thing of turning a blind eye because you think you can do nothing is really destructive. Because you’re getting somebody at the lowest ebb of their life who just needs something, and they don’t know how to do it. But you have to stand up to them, too, because addicts are really manipulative and they lie all the time. It’s hard. You have to go and get professional help, or you have to get together as a bunch of people and find out how to do this. There should be much more help — government-funded help or city-funded help, to stop this never ending pile of people going in and out of jail for drug possession. To send counselors to families who are trying to get their kids or their husbands or their wives off of drugs and to counsel them. And they need to be put in programs — mandate people to programs — because if you give an addict a choice, they’re going to choose drugs.
Is there anything your friends or family could have done earlier for you that would’ve made a difference?
I pushed a lot of people away because I was so ashamed. But I was far enough away from a lot of close friends and a lot of close family that it was hard for people to really get to me. I didn’t have that many people I was really close to at that time. I had friends I worked with and friends I saw once in a blue moon, but I didn’t have a real close core of people around me who could’ve gathered round and said, “We love you, we care for you, we are right here for you.” People do that, but they need professional help. There needs to be a bigger network of readily available, affordable addiction counselors that families can go to. Money is a big factor as well. People cannot afford these phenomenally expensive rehabilitation places — $30,000 a month, who can afford that? You want to save your kid’s life, but 30 days isn’t enough, and anything beyond that you’re talking massive amounts of money and your medical doesn’t cover it. I really think that rehabilitation should be on a massive scale. It’s the only way to reduce the prison population and to reduce addiction.
Do you ever worry that you’ll relapse?
No, I don’t. I mean, I think the reality is that there’s a slight chance everybody could relapse, but I don’t worry about it. It doesn’t even cross my mind. It was such a deep, dark destructive journey for me, and recovery — the whole process of being where I am now — has been so enlightening that I can’t even think what would push me back down that line.
Do you think there is an assumption in society that someone who’s been a serious addict does have a likelihood of relapsing?
Yeah, I think people talk about relapse all the time. And people do relapse — people give up smoking and they start again, people lose weight and put weight back on. That’s relapse. Anything where you go back to your former way of living is a relapse. It’s just that with drugs, it’s much more destructive and much more looked at under a microscope. But what I’m trying to say is that the rewards are so big that it far outweighs anything that drugs ever gave you. Because when you’re on drugs, you never think you’re going to be able to get back to where you were or anywhere close to living a normal life. And you can — not real easy, but you can. Things are never going to be the same depending on the extent of your addiction and what you went through. But it can be doubly fulfilling and it can be totally enlightening and it can be life-changing. It has been for me. I mean, my priorities are all different now. Not that I was a bad or selfish person, but I think more of other people and I see humanity in a different way. I understand what people go through much more now. I feel more for people, I’m much more passionate about life. And much more understanding of people’s trials and tribulations.