Any ex-addict will tell you that the power of deception is almost as great as the physical craving, allowing the person to fool themselves that they are still in control while hurtling towards the abyss. For musician Tamara Gabriel (pictured, left) it took years to finally admit that he had a problem that was destroying his life. After all, he was turning up to crack houses swigging Bollinger and dressed in Saville Row suits thanks to a lucrative line in drug dealing, robbery and fraud and a string of businesses set up from the proceeds.
“But it was all an illusion,” he says. “Some people can be functioning addicts – but functioning is different from living. In reality, you are living in the land of the dead. It is like a putting a lid on a pressure cooker that can explode at any time. ”
His chaotic life stalled his burgeoning singer career and saw him do things he was deeply ashamed of, like stealing his beloved grandmother’s pension money. But the glass pipe and bottle were always beckoning, always saying this would be the last time.
When rock bottom came many years later, Tamara was suicidal, broke and homeless. How he managed to turn his life around to eventually run his own rehab charity and be invited to address MPs at the House of Commons about his experiences is told in From Rehab to Life, a memoir with the message – if I can do it, so can you.
Tamara, aka Vander Peter Pierre, told me his extraordinary story over a long cup of tea in a cafe in Crouch End, where he’s lived for more than a decade. Clear-eyed and calm, the man is on a mission to help those who have fallen by the wayside, seeing the book as an adjunct to the eponymous charity that he set up three years ago.
Born 67 years ago in Dominica, he believes his addiction had its roots in the trauma he felt when his parents left for the UK while he was a young boy, placing him in the care of his grandmother. When he joined them in Hackney a few years later, it was not the happy reunion of storybooks. “Them leaving me behind triggered a fear of abandonment that I carried throughout my life. When I arrived here I felt a great sense of rejection, getting beatings from my father and being made to do numerous chores by my mother.”
He did well at school and the family itself was relatively well off, with good jobs and property they rented out. At 16, he looked as though he was on his way, too, as a trainee at a patents company in Chancery Lane. But it quickly fell apart. What began as one theft to sustain a lifestyle of smart clothes and partying became a way of life and he had his first taste of prison when he was remanded for seven months for robbery. He got off with a fine but carried on regardless and was soon behind bars again for his part in a factory wages haul.
And so it went on. Prison became an occupational hazard as he built up his reputation as a king pin drug dealer. A talented singer and songwriter, he was also trying to make it in the music world, mixing with big names in reggae and once even being part of a support act for the Rolling Stones. As the money flowed in, he graduated from ganja to crack and began to enter the twilight zone.
During what would be his final stretch in prison, he was directed to an AA meeting. “I was impressed by the honesty I heard and I began to awaken to the love of God, getting in touch with my feelings without drugs or alcohol to hinder the process.” He went into rehab but relapsed before being lucky enough to be accepted into another unit, in St Augustine’s Rd, Camden Town.
“Camden Town was like a war zone and I walked through it in fear. It was full of shooters sniping at you from doorways, pubs, bus stops, kebab shops and the tube. Recovery was a gradual process. I attended NA [Narcotics Anonymous] and AA meetings to strengthen my resolve and be with likeminded people. I prayed and meditated and dedicated my life to God. In time, my spirituality took over and I no longer felt a sense of bereavement for the life I was leaving behind.”
Tamara became a leading light of AA and was regularly back in prison – this time to talk about his experiences of addiction and recovery. Pre-lockdown, his charity was running workshops in schools and community centres as well as nutrition, yoga and meditation classes. Meanwhile, he began writing and recording his albums, X Gangsters Odyssey and From Rehab to Life.
“I have been to hell and back and the more time goes on, the more I realise how miraculous my recovery was,” he declares with a quiet smile. “Without honesty, without discipline, without forgiveness, you cannot recover. At the end of the day, ‘to thine own self be true’.”
This article first appeared in The Review on October 7, 2020
From Rehab to Life by Tamara Gabriel is published by Austin Macauley Publishers, £9.99. For details of forthcoming online workshops or to get a copy of the book, email firstname.lastname@example.org