By Owen Amos
When Lee Butler was a cocaine addict, he would start on a Friday night, keep going into Saturday and Sunday, and still be awake on Monday or Tuesday, still snorting, still drinking, still "paranoid and weird and wired".
When Lee Butler was a cocaine addict, he would be thrown out of the family house, stumble to his mother's, and take drugs there, too – locked in a bathroom, worried that people were watching, paranoid that police would smash down the door.
When Lee Butler was a cocaine addict, he would finally come down by Wednesday or Thursday, and tell himself – sobbing – that it was the last time, that it was over, but then Friday would come, and "just two pints" would start the booze-and-coke cycle again.
When Lee Butler was a cocaine addict… he hated himself. He needed to change and he did. Lee hasn't had a drink or taken drugs for four years – and insists he never will again.
Now, instead of using, he helps hundreds of others kick their "cocaine beasts" too. And this – from lost weekends, to a counsellor called Chris, to a technique from an American ex-alcoholic – is how he did it.
Lee, who is 50 and from Huyton in Liverpool, did not have a traumatic childhood.
His dad, Billy Butler, was, and still is, a well-known DJ in Liverpool and the North West, playing the Cavern Club and the city's stations. "As a kid, I would flick through the seven-inch promos, sort his playlist," he says.
Lee wanted to be a footballer but, when that didn't happen, began an electrical installation apprenticeship. He had his own business aged 19 but then, he says, he was "swept away by the music".
"It was the rave scene, the early acid house scene," he says. "I was travelling up and down the country in my works van to these illegal raves, illegal parties."
He started taking drugs – acid and ecstasy – and couldn't hold his job down. Once, he drove his van to a rave in Blackburn, forgot he took it, and got a lift home, leaving his van stranded. Soon afterwards, he did it again, and the van was stolen.
"My business partner had enough," remembers Lee. "He was a grown man. He didn't really understand what was going on."
After befriending the DJs at Bootle's Quadrant Park nightclub, Lee knew he wanted to join them. He got his first decks, and was soon DJing on the bottom rung – "social clubs, Labour clubs, wedding anniversaries".
"I was playing Jimmy Mac and Come on Eileen, telling people the buffet was open, splitting up fights," he says. "But I was doing it to earn money to buy vinyl."
By 1993, he was DJing in proper clubs, and by the late 1990s, a 2am show on Radio City turned into prime-time Friday and Saturday night slots.
As a DJ, he was making it. As a drug user, his problems were just beginning.
"I started taking cocaine in 1998, 1999, 2000," he says. "I was still taking ecstasy, but the buzz had gone, because I was snorting cocaine."
At first, Lee enjoyed the rush, the confidence, the turbo-charged nights. "But with cocaine, I just did not have the ability to stop," he says. "It was causing me absolute carnage at home, at work. My use became abuse. There was literally no enjoyment."
Before his gigs, people had to come to his house to pick him up. "Because they knew if they didn't, I wouldn't come," he says. "Once they got me to the gig, I wouldn't want to look at anyone. I'd go in the back door, DJ, go home again, and continue to use."
Around 2008, he remortgaged his house to buy a bar in Liverpool. He couldn't run it properly, so the police closed it down, and he lost "a lot" of money.
"But even then," he says, "I just couldn't stop drinking and using."
10.5%Proportion of 16 to 59-year-olds reporting powder cocaine use in their lifetime in 2020
873,000Number of 16 to 59-year-olds reporting powder cocaine use in 2019-2020
708Number of cocaine poisoning deaths in 2019 – more than double the 2015 total
290%Increase of weight of cocaine consumed in England, Wales, and Scotland from 2011 to 2019, according to NCA
By getting into cocaine in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Lee followed the national trend.
In 1995, just 3% of 16 to 59-year-olds in England and Wales had tried powder cocaine. By last year, the figure was above 10%. Likewise, powder cocaine was four times more prevalent last year than it was in 1995, according to the Office for National Statistics.
At the Euro 2020 final at Wembley, countless football fans reported cocaine being snorted on trains, outside the ground, and even in the seats. The national football lead for policing said the drug was "prevalent at football", reflecting "increased use in wider society".
"Cocaine use happens everywhere," says Lee. "In the pub, in a restaurant, at a wedding, at a funeral, at a football ground, at home. I'd be hard pushed to tell you where people don't use it."
After losing his bar, Lee tried to kick his drink and drug habits. He managed 18 months, and nine months, and shorter periods, but each time, a voice inside his head convinced him to start. "Just have a drink," Lee remembers. "You deserve it."
Lee tried Alcoholics Anonymous – which has helped millions of people around the world – but didn't like their 12-step approach. He wanted to feel powerful, not – as the first step states – powerless. He wanted to beat his addiction, not battle it every day.
"I just couldn't buy into this 'addiction is a disease, you're powerless, you have to surrender'. [They say] you have to take one day at a time, for the rest of your life, and every day you wake up you're an addict. I just thought – I don't want that future."
It was while visiting one recovery service that Lee met Chris Farrell, a counsellor who introduced him to Addictive Voice Recognition Technique. AVRT was coined by an American ex-alcoholic, Jack Trimpey, who calls it a "very simple thinking skill that permits anyone to recover immediately and completely from alcohol or drugs".
In effect, says Lee, AVRT recognises that "two parts of you are at war" – the rational voice and the addictive voice; the real you and, as Trimpey dubs it, the beast.
The technique is not that well known in rehabilitation circles. Some experts contacted by the BBC had not heard of it; one charity – while not dismissing it – said it was not "evidence-based". "As I understand it there isn't an evidence base to support it – but that may be because no-one has researched it," said one professor from a different organisation.
But for Lee, AVRT "just clicked immediately".
"It's all about recognising the addictive voice, separating the real you from it, and learning the tools to fight back," he says "Realise the real place that voice wants to take you, and take back control from the beast."
Lee did not quit drink and drugs as soon as he learned about AVRT. It is not a magic wand. "I failed a few times," he admits.
But in 2019, he was confident enough to reveal his recovery, setting out the details on social media. His honesty, plus his high profile in Liverpool, meant other addicts were soon asking for help. He never planned it – and he doesn't really have the time – but he has become a real-life role model; a counsellor for the common man. And all free of charge.
"I was passionate about this technique, because no one knew about it and it saved me," says Lee.
"I wanted to talk about the technique, and the support, and the rewards – which are amazing. And it grew and grew and grew until eventually I started offering my email address to people, to send them starter packs on AVRT."
Lee now helps around 50 people a week on social media, some of whom use the hashtag #recoveryposse on social media to share tips, experiences, and even relapses. He also organises "walk and talks" in Liverpool on Saturdays, and meetings on Wednesdays.
At those in-person events, he is helped by a man whose addictions were so bad he twice tried to kill himself.
"Funnily enough, the darkest point came at my dining room table, where I'm talking to you now," says Marcus Nicholas, 39, from his home in Liverpool.
"I was just crying – teardrops were hitting the table. I'd been there for days [using drink and drugs]. And I just thought: 'It's gone too far now – you'll have to kill yourself.'
"You've lost your girlfriend, your job, you've got no money, you owe £30,000. You can't come back from this, so you'll have to kill yourself. That was my mentality, and I went and did it."
At the last minute, he panicked and was able to break free. But even a near-death experience didn't stop him taking cocaine. Four days later, he was using again. Another suicide attempt followed.
Marcus had tried to quit cocaine before. Like Lee, he used 12 Steps programmes, but found they didn't work for him. Also like Lee, Marcus insists he isn't telling people not to use the 12 Steps, or other services. The somewhat "no-nonsense" approach of AVRT is not for everyone. But it did work for Lee and Marcus, and many others like them.
"I'm not slagging other organisations off – certain things work for certain people," says Marcus.
"But what I found in 12 Steps, you'd sit in a circle, I'd tell them all my troubles, then no-one would give me advice. You just got it off your chest – and I was like: 'Well what's the answer?'
"They say you're powerless to it, and I didn't want to believe it. I tried and tried and tried. I got to 30 days, 60 days, but there's a difference between not taking drugs and being free from an addiction."
Marcus knew Lee from previous recovery groups, and had also worked with the counsellor Chris Farrell. He knew the principle of AVRT, but had not been able to tame the beast – the addictive voice – in his head. "Lee got free quicker than me," he admits.
But after the suicide attempts two years ago, Marcus used AVRT to begin his recovery. By March this year, he was clean and confident enough to speak publicly.
"Two people I know committed suicide because of their addiction, and I thought: 'This is just people I know. This is obviously a massive, massive problem.'
"So I did a video and uploaded it [on his social media] – this is my story, if you need any help, just message me. And it went all over. It went massive. It got shared and shared and shared. Lee was doing his stuff, I was doing mine, then we came together."
The walk and talks, which began in Liverpool with just Lee and Marcus, now attract up to 50 people. At the Wednesday meetings, people have to sit on the floor because the 40 seats are full. On top of that, Marcus does a Monday gym session for people in recovery, and speaks to people on social media. Like Lee, he does not take a penny from any of it.
"I've got people who are in China, Finland, Scotland, Wales," says Marcus. "There's a lad in Nottingham who drove to the walk and talk recently."
Marcus – who got counselling qualifications as a young adult – also helps run two Whatsapp groups for people who need support. One is a starter group, and one is more advanced, for people feeling more confident. The members of the group do not conform to any booze-and-coke stereotypes.
"It's a total total mix of people, from 18 years old to 50 and 60, male and female," says Marcus. "Wealthy businessmen, to people really struggling – unemployed, everything. We even have kids, 18 years old. Because drugs are so normalised these days, they're getting into it at 14, 15 and by the time they're 18, addictive substances have got hold of them."
Like Lee, Marcus did not have a bad childhood. "I have a really, really, really amazing family," he says. His addiction stemmed from his own choices, rather than trauma.
He has a full-time job – "Two engineering companies, that's what pays the bills" – but says he helps people on his phone "from the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed".
"It's a passion. I would rather be sitting there on my phone helping people than sitting there watching The Chase on TV."
Lee, Marcus – and a third person who helps, a life coach called Wal – self-deprecatingly sum up their service as "three lads with three phones". But now, having seen the demand, they want to make it more formal.
They have formed a community interest company called Break Free. Lee dreams of building a "safe house" in Liverpool with "a dry bar, somewhere people can feel comfortable, other people to give great advice, a nice café, pool table, a stage, live music, and let people realise the support is there".
But before they can apply for grants, they must raise their own funding – something they have begun doing on Just Giving. "We have been doing it for free," says Lee. "But it's not fair to ask other people, counsellors, people like that, to work for free."
Marcus says 91% of people who they help with AVRT stay clean. The technique is so under-utilised, he says, that two drugs counsellors have approached him for help with their own addictions.
"In that moment [when he attempted suicide] I remember thinking: 'I wish someone would come round this door now and just help me.' I remember having that thought. So the thought of other people getting to that point is horrendous. That's why I do it."
For Lee, his bright-eyed and busy life – back with his wife and children, a successful breakfast show on a start-up radio station, returning to nightclubs, and his own dance fitness brand – is proof that living clean beats the paranoid and weird and wired weekends on cocaine.
"People who lost their jobs are working again," says Lee. "People who lost relationships are fixing them. Me and Marcus are getting letters from their partners, saying thank you so much for giving me my husband back.
"The one message I want to get out there is one of hope. We talk about the pain, and that's important, but it's important for people to see that's not all of it. There's a way to break free from it for good."
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