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Michele Kirsch: Addiction, recovery and cleaning up

PUBLISHED: 10:35 14 March 2019

Author Michele Kirsch's new book is about cleaning up, in multiple senses of the word. Picture: Jozef Ondko.

Author Michele Kirsch's new book is about cleaning up, in multiple senses of the word. Picture: Jozef Ondko.

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"It's laugh-out-loud but it's also cry-out-loud too." Hackney resident Michele Kirsch is talking about her new book, titled Clean, which comes out today (March 14).

The front cover for Clean, which is published by Short Books and out now.The front cover for Clean, which is published by Short Books and out now.

Pegged as a ‘remarkable, powerful and often funny memoir,’ Clean recounts the story of Kirsch’s addiction to prescription drugs, the many challenges she faced on the road to recovery, and an ultimately happy ending.

Her short time spent working as a cleaner is a central theme of the story, too.

At the age of 50 – post rehab and living alone in Hackney – Kirsch found herself cleaning the homes of a vast spectrum of busy Londoners.

Taking cleaning jobs was useful because “first of all it’s very physically demanding work; just doing something like that takes you out of your own thoughts,” she explains.

“Because I was quite agoraphobic – which was why I took Valium in the first place – I didn’t really want to go out that much, so with cleaning I was doing a job but not around people, and I was inside. What a perfect job! You feel quite safe; you’re not in your home, but you are in a home.”

Originally from New York but a resident of Hackney since 1985, Kirsch was first prescribed Valium as a child to treat her anxiety and grief after her father died in a train accident.

From moving to college in Boston in the 1970s and on to London, where she raised a family and worked as a journalist for 30 years, Kirsch says she was “secretly addicted to Valium all this time.”

The 57-year-old says she realised she needed help in 2011, “when I started to get this paradoxical intention; instead of calming me down it (the drug) made me fiery and angry and quite nasty. And with the alcohol added in, my kids would say I was quick to switch; becoming angry and impatient.”

Kirsch speaks about the Hackney Drug and Alcohol Team (DAAT) in glowing terms. “It sounds dramatic,” she explains, “but Hackney’s DAAT on Mare Street saved my life. I’m pretty sure it did, because I wouldn’t have stopped (taking Valium) otherwise.

“I’m very grateful to Hackney, the drug services here were great. They were able to sponsor me, and sent me on a 12-week rehab programme in Bournemouth. It’s increasingly harder to get that over here due to enormous cuts, but if they felt you were redeemable, they would take a risk on you, and it paid off for me.”

Kirsch first got the idea for writing Clean after sharing funny anecdotes of her stories tidying houses on Facebook.

“Cleaning is often sorted through an agency, and you don’t speak to the people at the house at all. They’ll just leave notes saying what they want doing or that you missed the spat-out toothpaste stains on the mirror. It’s funny because there’s stuff that people leave on display which tell stories about their personalities.

“A lot of new builds are really cheap – really badly built – and they break very easily. I would open a shower door and it would completely come off, then I’d try to put it back and say it wasn’t me – then you realise that everyone in the house probably does the same thing!”

These days, she works at the brain injury charity Headway, which she says is the best job of her career so far.

“(Headway has) a happy, loving environment, where people hang out and have fun. It’s kind of like going to a party every day and getting paid for it.”

Kirsch says her book will resonate with cleaners, people who struggle with parenting and anyone who lives in Hackney, as “large chunks of the story happen here in identifiable places.”

She also has a reassuring message for those struggling with addiction: “There’s a ton of help out there, in Hackney in particular. If you’re really determined to get off of your poison, Hackney is a great place. It’s also a good place to buy drugs – it would be a lie to say that it wasn’t – but if you want it badly enough you can have a fantastic life.”

Clean by Michele Kirsch is out now; published by Short Books and costing £12.99. More details are here.

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