EVERYWHERE Darren McGarvey goes in this city, there’s something that reminds him of his drinking days. We’re sitting outside a café in Finnieston in Glasgow, half-way down Argyle Street. Darren’s in a cap and T-shirt, sunglasses hooked on the collar. It’s sunny and warm. But a little further up the street, he says, is a place where one of the old, dark memories comes out to greet him.

He points back up the road. “I’m walking past a flat there,” he says, “I’d been up drinking all night. I’m just out and about looking for who’s up. I see my mate’s window’s open. I climb in. There’s a lassie sitting on her own drinking in the living room, looking at a TV that’s all smashed, right, and there’s another guy in the room sleeping.” This is about 15 years ago, he says. He was in his 20s.

Both of those friends are dead now, he tells me: the girl who was watching the telly and the sleeping boy. Darren was at their funerals. Like him, they had periods of sobriety, and, like him, they had periods where they relapsed, but their stories ended differently to his. One of them died through alcohol-related issues, the other through drugs, and, here on a bright, busy street, in the sun, Darren acknowledges that it could have been him.

“There’s many times I could have died, in various ways,” he says. “I could have died by suicide – I certainly was in that head space at different points. I’ve definitely consumed enough drugs in a night to kill a mule and somehow just woke up with a bad sense of regret. Sometimes what kills us is totally random. A dodgy pill. You know, you take something to help you sleep and you don’t realise that you’re slowing your respiratory system down to the point of just suffocating.”

The fact that – 15 years on and now 38 years old – Darren is still alive and his friends are dead, he sees as random – nothing more. “I just see it as being lucky,” he says. “I don’t really see it as I must have some innate capacity to survive. There’s nothing that really explains it apart from they just didn’t get out of the addiction quick enough.”

What’s different about Darren though is that he, as a now-well-known addict in recovery, has become a kind of focus for our attempts at explanation, because of his experience and his story and his talent. Famously, Darren grew up on the Pollok housing estate in Glasgow. He knew poverty and he knew what it was like to have an alcoholic mother and then, in due course, he knew what it was like to be an addict himself.

The thing that separates him from many other addicts is that his route out was unusual: first music – he became known as the rapper Loki. Then writing – he wrote an extraordinary and successful book Poverty Safari which explored with honesty and humour the explanations and possible solutions for deprivation. And now television – he started making documentaries which explore more about himself and people who have been through something similar.

His latest work for TV is Darren McGarvey’s Addictions, which starts on Tuesday with an episode focusing on alcohol – later episodes look at drugs, gambling and food – and it’s typical of how Darren works. He’s looking at the big issues – the causes of addiction, the human cost, and the possible solutions as well as Scotland’s particularly poisonous relationship with alcohol, drugs and food. But he’s also doing it as someone who’s lived and nearly died in the reality of it. It means he’s in a position to shine some light on the subject and has the scars to prove it.

We start by talking about the causes – why some people become addicted to alcohol as well as why Scotland has a damaging relationship with it and Darren talks about his own first experience. His first proper bevvy, he says, was in a swing park in Pollok – he was 16 and the alcohol was Buckfast. Long before that, he'd also seen his mum get drunk at home which did a lot of damage. “My mum was a nice person,” he says, “she wasn’t physically violent a lot of the time but I developed a fear of an event, something happening, an outburst of some sort, and it was hard to relax.”

However, Darren doesn’t believe the causes for his own addiction necessarily lie with his early childhood or the first taste of Buckfast. Some people, he says, will describe themselves as drinking alcoholically from the very first sip, but for Darren it was different. “I was messing around with the idea of peer pressure,” he says, “Should I be one of the lads? And it turned out I was more interested in getting home and working on my music and being creative. But I think the more you drink, the more frequently you drink and the more you associate things in your life with drink, that’s when you start to create the conditions to become addicted. And that’s what happened to me.”

The turning point was moving out and living on his own, which was when the drinking became heavy and addictive. “I was dealing with isolation really,” he says, “and I was dealing with low self-esteem, I was estranged from family, I was moving around in a music community where there was a lot of tough, dominant characters and I wanted to make my way in that and drink made that easier for me.”

Darren acknowledges the fact that, in many ways, as a young Scottish man, particularly a young Scottish man who grew up in poverty, his drinking story is not unusual. Striding towards the camera in the first episode of his new documentary, he reels off the stats: in 2020, there were over 1000 alcohol-related deaths in Scotland and we have the highest drug death rate in Europe. Darren also speaks to a doctor who tells him that the alcohol death rate in Scotland is twice as high as England and Wales and in the west of Scotland it’s twice as high as the rest of Scotland. In other words, Glasgow is the deep end, so what chance did a poor boy from Glasgow like Darren have?

I ask him why he thinks Scotland has this particular problem and we talk about some clips that appear in the programme of young Scots boasting and laughing about their drinking – “I was smashed”, “I was sick in a field”, “I fell asleep on a bench” and so on. Boasting about our drinking is something most of us have done to be fair but I wonder if it’s this kind of stuff that’s the underlying problem: our acceptance and celebration of booze.

“I think that’s quite a uniquely British thing and compounded in Scotland,” says Daren. “There’s something that we do when we’re resigned to some force in our lives that we don’t feel that we can change and what we do is we make a joke about it and we laugh about it. You see a lot of the trends that you see across the UK taken to extremes in Scotland.”

Darren also wonders about the effects in Scotland of deindustrialisation and Thatcherism, which he saw for himself growing up on a council estate in the 80s and 90s. “We’ve got entire areas and communities where the population expanded from 20 people to 10,000 in 15 years,” he says “all built around forges and mills. Then these places collapsed and all that was left were off-sales and bookies. So naturally you can see where the roots of it are.” And the roots are buried deep, he says: drink and society are the same thing in Scotland.

We also need to talk about the particular effects of poverty, but it’s complicated. Look at the cold stats and the middle class drink more than the working class but most of the hospital admissions and deaths from alcohol happen in the most deprived parts of the population. Darren has seen why this happens: go through a tough upbringing, trauma, slip out of education, get involved with the police and then prison and it's difficult to go along that trajectory without picking up a drink or drug problem. But equally Darren says that poverty on its own is not an explanation for Scotland’s alcohol problem.

“I’d be a fool to say that poverty is the sole root cause of it because that doesn’t explain why rock stars kill themselves on alcohol binges,” he says. “And I’m not denying that people of all social classes are affected. Look at all these Tories who were all out getting bevvied during the pandemic – there’s a part of you that’s like ‘Tory c****’ and there’s a part of you that thinks, I wonder how many of them have a drink problem.”

However, Darren’s bigger point is that the poor and the well-off have very different experiences of alcohol. Those rule-breaking Tories for example, are protected from accountability for their behaviour. “You don’t see a lot of middle class alcoholics in the prison system,” he says. People from poorer backgrounds can also find it harder to get treatment – in the programme, Darren visits an alcohol rehab centre in Dumfries before telling us that it’s the only NHS centre of its kind in Scotland – the only one.

The other problem, says Darren, is the way we judge certain people with an alcohol problem harsher than others. He says we can look out our window and see someone in the street drenched in urine and think ‘they’ve got the problem, not me’. He also calls for us to be more sympathetic to drug addicts we might see visiting a chemist for methadone. “When you see someone who is visibly drug dependent in a chemist,” he says, “see instead of judging them, think ‘goodness me, they’re trying to get better’.”

However, Darren also believes all of us need to change the way we think about alcoholism in general. We must never excuse people’s behaviour if they’re causing problems for others or causing mayhem, he says, but we need to see alcohol dependency as a multi-faceted health issue – not a choice – and to prove his point Darren tells me about a patient he visited in Dumfries during the making of the programme. We see him coming out of the ward, visibly affected and shocked by what he saw.

“She looked like she was starving to death,” he says, “Her bones were all flattened in, she was completely emaciated, she looked like she would struggle to hold a packet of crisps and yet the penny still wasn’t dropping that her drinking days are over. That’s when this idea that it’s a choice really runs into problems and you begin to see it as an absence of choice – you begin to see it almost like the brain has been hacked. People call alcohol the demon or Jekyll and Hyde and all that, and these metaphors are instructive because there is an aspect of possession of your decision-making processes, how you prioritise things and even how you perceive what’s going on and the level of risk to yourself.”

Darren says it’s not always easy to work out what will work for patients in such critical circumstances, but he is a big supporter of rehab. It offers something no other treatment can, he says: it takes the person out of the social, personal and economic circumstances that may be underscoring a lot of their using and places them in a safe environment that’s drug free and surrounds them with other people who can be a practical example of what it’s like to be sober for a week, or two, or three. It creates hope, he says.

So was rehab the thing that “clicked” for him? “ I’m apprehensive to say that anything is the click for me,” he says, “Different things have worked at different times so I’ve been through the harm reduction pathways before and that certainly helped me get an understanding of how much I was drinking, how I was underestimating how much I was drinking – they give you a drinking diary and the first thing you think is, how is this going to help me? And then you start noting it down, what you’re drinking, when you’re drinking, then you start noticing that even though you’re the only one who’s going to see it, you’re lying about what you’re drinking.”

Darren is also aware that the challenges go on. He’s been continually sober now for two years but came out of rehab into a pandemic and says the “malign force” is still within him trying to separate him from what keeps him sober – friends, support groups etc – and create the circumstances that will get him drinking again – agitation, stress, argy-bargy. He also knows about the myth of “just one” or dipping in and out. “I’ve got friends who thought when I stopped drinking that I could still take magic mushrooms and I can say I conducted that experiment and it did not go well.”

I ask Darren how he feels then about the idea of not having drink or drugs ever again. “I think I probably wrestle with that more than a lot of people in recovery,” he says, “A lot of people in recovery are weller than I am. I’ve had periods of sobriety and then slips so I’ve never really got further than two years.” His point is that rehab has helped him hugely but it is not a silver bullet – when you look at the countries that have had more success at treating alcohol and drug issues than Scotland, he says, the key is diversity in the treatments on offer

Darren also believes that investment and help needs to be better targeted at where it’s needed most, which means he’s not the biggest fan of universal benefits that give well-off middle class people free prescriptions when the money could be targeted at deprived communities. He also thinks decades of distant centralised government hasn’t helped and that, rather than have drug and alcohol policies that are created centrally and applied universally across the United Kingdom, decisions should be made much closer to the ground. Just to be clear though, this doesn’t mean he believes Scotland’s drug and alcohol problem could be solved by independence.

Darren also believes and hopes the documentaries he’s just made might help change attitudes, because that’s part of it. Too often, he says, when TV tackles the subject of drugs, it’s all about the carnage and nothing else – ‘needles and here’s Tom with the weather’ – whereas Darren’s programmes show people in recovery. He hopes this strategy will help reduce the stigma and change the conversation from condemnation to support and away from the idea of a “war on drugs”. “What’s required to help someone move beyond an addiction is the opposite of war,” he says, “People actually need love.”

Darren McGarvey’s Addictions is on BBC Scotland on Tuesday [10 May] at 10pm