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Home > Culture and Society

The Sorted, Thwarted - An Ecstasy Survivor Writes

7 November 2005

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Leah Betts. Betts was the sort of happy, well-adjusted, ordinary middle-class teenager whose image has become front-page catnip. At a house party for her 18th birthday, she took a single ecstasy pill. Later that night, she collapsed complaining of pains in her head and legs, and was taken to hospital where she fell into a coma; five days later, the life support machines were switched off. And so began an unprecedented media campaign, bolstered by her grieving parents, aimed at frightening the shit - and the curiosity - out of young people.

I was about ten when I became aware of some unusual, disturbing sights and sounds on the TV; the government was running its 'AIDS - Don't Die of Ignorance' campaign. The adverts were abstract and slightly surreal - showing what looked like grave slabs under water, accompanied by 'Jaws'-esque cellos of doom - and while I hadn't got a clue what AIDS was and didn't understand any of the references in the stern voiceover, I was nonetheless suddenly worried. I had a vague sense of this deathly element being out there in the world somewhere, wafting around with all the other germs; I was overtaken by a powerful awareness without an inkling of understanding. I was just about Leah Betts' age when she died, and was on a coach one evening when I looked out of the window and saw an enormous billboard with her tragic smiling face on it. The grainy shot took up about a third of it, to the right - the rest was flat black, with one huge word in white title-case letters: 'Sorted.' The full stop made it seem at once like the casual shrug of a drug-taking twit, and the final pronouncement of an authority that wanted to thrust death in your complacent face. Underneath: 'Just one ecstasy tablet killed Leah Betts.' I had a better grasp of the context this time - I knew people whose friends had taken it, I'd had a dab of speed myself and felt like Beelzebub's punchbag for two days - but the same sense of abstract fear that I'd felt a few years before came surging back.

This was the precise intent of the campaign, to instil an unquestioning, humbled terror into people who were just getting their first whiff of adulthood, eager to try themselves out but wary, wanting to have a good job and/or healthy children in the future. Awareness was the thing, just as with any sort of advertising - understanding lagged a long and wheezing way behind. Knowledge was superfluous in the calculated rush to carefully scare. All you needed to know was that if you took ecstasy once, you could die. It was Russian roulette by any other name. The implication was that dying was more likely than not, suppressing the rationale that might have told you that if one death makes big news, it is because it is *out of the ordinary*. Beyond that, you just needed to know that ecstasy was an illegal 'designer' drug, and that one way or another you'd be punished if you took it. That was the sum total of the information that you required, and even that was distilled down into a single six-foot-high word that cocked a sour snook at club parlance. In fact, the less you knew, the better; they were telling us it was dark out there and there was danger, why would we need specifics? We only had to trust what they said, knowing that they had our own best interests at heart, and we'd be safe.

Therefore we didn't need to know that, contrary to reports, Leah had taken ecstasy before; nor did we need to know that Leah's friend Sarah Cargill (now 27) - and doubtless others at her party - took a pill from the same batch the same night; and we certainly wouldn't have any use for the interesting information that Leah had drunk a vast amount of water in a short time, taking the advice about keeping well-lubricated to something of an extreme. This led to her body's salt levels dropping - something to which women are particularly vulnerable - and eventually to the swelling of her brain, damaging it irreparably. A few months later I took ecstasy for the first time, and although I knew that the chance of death was small, I was still somehow convinced I was going to die when the nausea started. I was too frightened to do much but sit it out, try and ignore my rudely bouncing cells. The second time I took it was much the same, but at some stage I tried it again and it was different. It was like the inverse of being drunk; glorious, fluid control of the whole self, movement happening like it was choreographed, thoughts perfectly framed in speech with every 'um' and 'er' shaven off to make beautifully smooth sentences, feeling totally open and bold and giddy with the simple truth of life. It seemed, in fact, to be the polar opposite of being dead.

After getting through a couple of days of gruesome mental and physical hangover and contemplating the experience, I found myself furious. I had had fear and upset and bother induced in me to what seemed like no end at all, and through that I had almost missed out on a genuinely life-altering experience. It was a gobsmacking violation on a level that I couldn't even pinpoint. However, the fact that I had been led to believe that drug-taking was entirely perverse only intensified the actual pleasure for me - it was revelatory in more ways than one. Also, it segued perfectly with my studies; just as I was being taught to question the received critical line on literary and film classics which were now fair game, so I was perceiving that a government's message was not always the whole truth. It's corny, yes, but however you get there, you need to realise that you have a duty to question the way things are.

Ten years on and maybe a couple of pills per year, I appear to still be fine. Others have followed Betts, but in small numbers and apparently dubious circumstances, involving pre-existing medical conditions or the awful mundanity of too much or too little water. I still take ecstasy from time to time, and I do still feel a certain trepidation as I swallow, a flash of foolishness. The squirmy sensation of coming up still brings anxiety with it. Out of the junk-shop melee of the muddled, conflicting and compromised research which is still all we get, I gather that I could be storing up problems for the future - knackering my liver or kidneys or serotonin receptors. But I wouldn't blame anyone but myself for that if it transpired. The government, meanwhile, are slowly becoming resigned to the idea that flat-out scare tactics don't really work - even if they're never going to consider the actual morality of that approach, its negation of the inquiring minds of people who deserve unfettered honesty and information. They're still flailing around and squabbling, and if they can't agree on how to regulate consumption of legal drugs, it's unlikely their policy on illegal ones will come into real focus any time soon. But efforts are being made, charities and foundations are talking sense. We get morsels of permission to take responsibility for ourselves. A chink of realism is emerging from the blackout.

It's just rather troubling that now no one knows whether to spell it with a 'c' or an 's'. Oh well.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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