May 17, 2010 Leave a comment
I recently read Wasted by Mark Johnson (2007), a shocking but vital text and one of the most affecting books ever written. It is an autobiographical piece about Johnson’s childhood and early years, which were marred by domestic abuse, alcoholism, drug abuse, crime and homelessness. It is honest and crucial, and an account every person should read. No matter what age or background – the issues in this book affect us all.
Adults should read this book so that attitudes to the some 100,000 homeless people on our streets can change*. Since reading Wasted, I cannot look at a homeless person in the same way. I have volunteered at homeless shelters before as part of Crisis Christmas, so I have already heard a lot about what life on the streets is like, but Johnson’s book enforces that people should not stare and judge, but communicate an understand. Volunteering at a Crisis shelter, I was taken aback when one of the service users told me: “I’ve seen poor go to rich and rich go to poor.” I realised that none of us are far from the pavements, and the moment when Johnson realises he’s homeless is strikingly simple and possible:
“I know I’m not going back anywhere because there’s no where to go…I remember all the people who have shown me kindness or offered accommodation. Their doors are all closed now. I’ve abused their trust. I’ve taken all they can give me and more. I’ve been on this railway all my life and this is the end of the line…I’m homeless. I am sick with fear. I’m homeless.”
We all think we would never get to the end of the line – that there will always be someone that will put up with us. But we are all capable of losing everything. I think of that every time I pass a homeless person now. We should never look down at them.
Equally, Johnson’s account should make us ashamed of the way we refer to drug addicts. I don’t understand why it’s fine to blame ‘junkies’, when these days alcoholics are usually pitied. No one laughed at Charles Kennedy, for example. No one blamed him for his problems. But I suppose it’s because if you’re taking drugs you’re meant to be enjoying yourself. How Johnson describes drug use and abuse couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s the first time I’ve read a book that gives such graphic detail of the pain and suffering caused by drugs. Why isn’t this shown on television? Why, when drug addiction does feature on the average television drama, isn’t it portrayed in such pitiable clarity?
The hardest part of the book for me was exactly this – the addiction that Johnson could not escape, no matter how much shame and resentment he felt towards himself. He describes the birth of his son, Jack, and how he wants to treat him entirely unlike the way his abusive father treated him. But the drugs mean it is out of his control:
“It’s too much. I can’t stand it. I can’t suffer this attention, demanding love, wanting, asking, needing. It hurts too much. It hurts because I can’t give him anything. My own needs are too great. My own needs consume me.”
At this point in the book, I had to stop reading for some weeks. I found his trapped state at this point too much to accept. Not being able to care or love another being more than your dependency is purely tragic. So why doesn’t society respond in the way we usually respond, and help victims such as Johnson? Of course, we try, but as Johnson argues often in his regular columns in the Guardian Society, we don’t do it the right way. Johnson wasn’t helped until he met people who tried to understand the reasons for his behaviour. And often we’re too scared or lazy to look.
I don’t know if this book would ever get through the censors, but it would make a brilliant edition to the curriculum. Warning young people about the dangers of addiction by reading Johnson’s organic account would be much more effective than teaching about chemicals or trying to deter with shock stories, such as the recent Methadrone scares. Johnson’s journey is one people can relate to – how one event can lead to another, and how easy situations can escalate. It’s helpful to have another person’s worst-case experience in mind when you’re young and faced with decisions to have an idea of where you don’t want to end up.
The beginning of the book also describes in detail the abuse Johnson suffered from his father, bullies and the lack of love his mother provided. He was never asked the right questions or encouraged to appreciate what was hurting him, so his unhappiness manifested in more violent forms. But if school children read Wasted, they might see themselves in some of the moments and identify where they are being treated unfairly. This book could help young people speak up and be open when things are going wrong.
Equally, adults reading this book should learn some perspective: there is no such thing as an ‘evil’ child. Yes, many children behave badly, but as Johnson shows, the conditions under which he was living forced him to behave in a certain manner. Once he was removed from this stress and was as his neighbours painting or working up in trees, his anger left him. I want people to remember that when such sad cases as the Edlington brothers occur. We are all capable of such behaviour if manipulated in the right way.
The relief of getting to the end of Wasted and seeing Johnson survive and thrive moved me to tears. I cried for him and all the others on the same journey, who have to fight so hard simply to live a manageable life. It was such a shock to discover Johnson’s age at the end of the book. Only in his thirties, his account is the story of a long life and should end with an old man. But instead, there is a true rebirth, and Johnson has now dedicated his life to helping others with similar situations. His body has been ravaged – but he rises strong and healthy.
The actions in Wasted truly speak for themselves and have no agenda, other than to tell the truth. We really owe Johnson a huge debt of thanks for teaching us his lesson.
*Figure from 2007, Crisis