Drugs? You must be joking

Cynics will sneer at a story that sees a heroin addict escape the abyss to become a stand-up comedian, husband and father. Others will celebrate this tale of triumph.

Cynics will sneer at a story that sees a heroin addict escape the abyss to become a stand-up comedian, husband and father. Others will celebrate this tale of triumph. STEVEN RUSSELL invites you to make your own judgement about a man who now tells children about what drugs can do

MIKE Gunn isn't at home. Our appointment has slipped his mind. But, thanks to the omnipresence of mobile phones, he's run to ground near the swimming pool lockers. He's about to enjoy a dip with one-year-old William - the baby son he feared he'd never be “together” enough to have.

This image of a doting dad and his little tot dipping their toes in the shallow end is a bit of a surprise: Mike's a self-confessed pessimist known for his lugubrious humour and a reputation - so his management company spins it - for being a tad unfriendly and a touch dark. He used to dress like an undertaker on stage. Is he really about to tenderly bob up and down with a blond and curly-haired - voluntarily? Not making it up, is he?

“No, I'm not,” he assures, as a new date to chat is set. “I can't be that creative on demand!”

It's not surprising he forgot the initial appointment. Life as an in-demand comedian is a whirl of dates, venues and faces. In the past he's supported Jo Brand and Alan Davies, has appeared at the Edinburgh Festival, and has performed in countries such as Hong Kong, Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia and Australia.

Mike's television CV includes The Comedy Store, Live At Jongleurs and Time Gentlemen Please. He has regularly contributed to The Guardian, and written for Time Out, Channel 4's The 11 O'Clock Show and even Match of The Day Magazine.

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He's only just back from a stint at Meribel in the French Alps, providing a diversion for the ski instructors and chalet girls. Next month he's off to Tokyo.

Inked in for spring and summer are visits to Colchester, Braintree and Chelmsford, where Mike appears as part of the 2 Smart 4 Drugs roadshow that tours Essex schools with a range of thought-provoking messages for 12-year-olds and upwards about drugs, alcohol and staying safe.

He is convinced his strategy is more effective in raising drug awareness than the traditional anti-drug lecture. Mike's approach is simply to tell it how it was for him, from the time he started smoking cannabis as schoolboy and went on to take any drug he could get his hands on. Before long he was a heroin addict: shoplifting to fund his habit, and at one time existing solely on Crunchies for two months. Mike's been known to show the children a picture of him suffering from hepatitis and weighing only 9st. (He's about 15st today.)

His non-preachy warning about losing your friends, alienating your family and almost losing your life would - you'd have thought - prove powerful motivation not to get involved with drugs. But isn't there a danger teenagers will look at him now - clean for more than 17 years, Mr Family Man and a successful comedian - and think you can do drugs for a while, pull yourself off them, and then enjoy a lovely life? By heck, Mike's even going to pick up his new motor - a BMW - following this interview.

He's heard the criticisms before. “I might be doing OK, but most of the people I used drugs with are dead or are in prison.

“I met someone the other day who used to live in the same road in Surrey when I was young. We both got involved in drugs. When I met him, he was lying in the gutter outside Earls Court tube.

“I said 'How are things going?' and he said 'Fine.' He was doing great and had a lovely girlfriend, he said. Things were really on the up. But, basically, he was a tramp. When you're on drugs, you delude yourself things are fine.

“I don't think”, Mike adds wryly, “that his life would be glamorous.”

His roadshow stint doesn't lay down the law. Instead, he's more likely to tell the audience it's up to them if they take drugs. It's their problem, not his. “Which immediately gets their attention.”

Preaching is simply counter-productive, he insists. “When I was at school, a local copper came in and said 'Just say no.' It wasn't a brilliant campaign. Most of us had already tried drugs and we thought he was talking rubbish. The fact is he was probably right, but we didn't think so at the time.”

There are lots of double standards about drugs, argues Mike, with sections of the media condemning the orgies of drug-using celebrities yet at the same time imbuing their activities with aspirational glamour.

Legalising drugs would, he reckons, remove overnight both the excitement that comes with doing something illegal and the black market.

It's addiction that's the problem, he says, rather than drugs per se - and drugs are generally used as a way to mask or forget problems. In most cases, though, they serve only to make the user's difficulties worse.

Mike, 47, had a middle-class upbringing in leafy Camberley; dad was the managing director of an office equipment company. He was a miserable and shy child. “I'm not sure if it's nature or nurture; probably a bit of both.”

His parents had something of a messy divorce when Mike was about 16. Around that time he was smoking cannabis, largely as a means to belong to a group. “I didn't feel very much like I fitted into society. It seemed the weight of the world was on my shoulders. I didn't know what I wanted to do when I left school; all I really wanted was to have a bit of fun and chase girls,” he laughs. (In real life, he's friendly and disarmingly open.) He started taking speed - amphetamines - to boost his confidence.

Mike and a friend decided to travel, visiting countries such as Morocco. He spent a long time in Holland, working in a pickled gherkin factory and, bizarrely, in another job where he emptied gone-off milk powder down a hole so it could be used for animal feed.

He first took heroin at 17, actually finding it disappointing “and not the nirvana I'd been led to believe. But when you've broken that first taboo, and injected something into your body, taking it again doesn't seem a big deal”.

Drug-taking, which had started off as a weekend activity, became a Thursday event, too - and before he knew it he was on a descent that would steal 10 years of his life: shoplifting . . . chequebook fraud . . . doing a flit from rented homes when the arrears grew too high. There was heroin, shots of Jack Daniel's whiskey, Valium, Special Brew lager - anything to blot out bad feelings.

With the benefit of hindsight, Mike recognises he was probably in hock to drugs from an early stage. “I have always been prone to be addicted to stuff: smoking a bit of dope, taking a bit of speed, gambling.”

Halfway through his dark period, his mother died. “She left me quite a lot of money, and that was probably my downfall. What motivates you as a drug addict is the illusion that if you can only get enough money and drugs you will probably be OK. That's probably why so many rock stars look to religion or gurus; they (the rock stars) have the wealth and the drugs, but they don't provide the answers.

“Drug addiction is a way of avoiding an unsatisfactory past or some sort of dysfunction, and covering up uncomfortable feelings and unhappiness. But the more drugs you use, the more people you rip off; and the more horrible things you do, the more you go against your moral code and the more uncomfortable your feelings become. It's a vicious circle.”

Everything's not fine, but taking drugs means you're not often conscious enough to take stock and sort out the mess that is your life. “Everything goes on the backburner - even visiting your dying mother.”

There was a fruitless spell in a psychiatric hospital, and then, at 28, his criminal activities brought an ultimatum: prison or rehabilitation at Clouds House clinic in Salisbury (where singer Robbie Williams would later be treated). He chose the latter. “I thought it would be all tennis courts and Jacuzzis, and it wasn't like that at all. It was full of 'normal' people.”

Normal people with problems - like a doctor who prescribed morphine to patients and then took it himself, and a nun who robbed people of their jewellery. “I realised I wasn't the embodiment of all evil, and that addiction affects anybody. They (the specialists) also said it was about us, and not about drugs.”

Treatment involved “looking at yourself in excruciating detail and uncovering what you were unhappy about, and dealing with the emotions you had been pushing down for years”. In a nutshell, his issues revolved around “a whole series of misunderstandings; a whole series of rules I'd got for living that were slightly skewed”.

Raw and challenging, rehab worked for Mike. He says he hasn't taken drugs or alcohol since.

Emotionally, leaving the clinic “was like going out into the world naked and with sore skin”. Doing drugs stunts your emotional development, he says, because you don't have the life experiences that help you grow. “You can come out of rehabilitation at 30 and have an emotional age of 13.”

He was advised to begin again in a new area, and home became a bedsit in Weston-super-Mare. He started to build a more stable life. For some time he worked in office equipment, repairing photocopiers and selling computers. Then comedy called. Why?

“Part of what made me an addict was an inability to stand up and say what I thought. I withdrew, and didn't want to draw attention to myself. OK, I thought 'How am I going to deal with that? Right, I'll do stand-up comedy. That will deal with confidence issues!'

“Stand-up is very much 'judge me.' Most stand-up comedians are desperate for love and attention. People think you need to be highly confident, but in fact it is virtually the opposite.”

Mike says it's not too simplistic to think that audience reaction gives him the positive feedback - the acceptance of himself for who he is - he didn't get enough of as a child.

Never in his wildest dreams did he envisage comedy becoming a job, but he's been doing it successfully, full-time, for a decade.

Mike's been married for three years - something else he thought might never happen.

The comedian who once dwelt on the melancholic seems to have become considerably more positive.

He says of rehab and the subsequent work to put his life in order: “All that work to recover from that dark place has been worthwhile. I never thought I could ever be married, have a baby, and be happy about it all. But I am. I think I must have mellowed a bit. . .”

Web link: www.mikegunn.co.uk

Civic Theatre, Chelmsford: 01245 606 505, www.chelmsford.gov.uk/theatres

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