Volume 13 Number 1
Peer Pressure With a Friendly Face
01 February 2000

When she was 16, Natalie Porter's stereotypes let her down. Drugs came to her in the hand of a friend, not some dodgy dealer.

Before I was 16, the words 'peer pressure' mustered visions of playground bullies surrounding their victim and forcing them to do something they didn't want to do. Peer pressure seemed so forceful, that I was sure I would see it coming. In my fantasies I would stand up to the bullies, confidently tell them, 'No I will not do what you tell me to do,' and stick to my guns.

If only it had been that simple, I might not have lost a good five years of my life. But peer pressure came to me in the shape of my friend, someone I trusted and respected.

My friend gave me a call out of the blue one day. We hadn't spoken for some years. I was 16, had just left school, was two weeks away from starting college and was feeling emotional, heart-broken and at a loose end after splitting up with my 'summer boyfriend'. She asked me what my plans for Saturday night were. I told her not much and she invited me to stay.

On Saturday night she said that we were going to her boyfriend's house and then on to a nightclub. 'Nightclub? My mother will kill me,' I said. She laughed and said, 'Your mother need not know.' That was the beginning of what was to become a follow-the-leader friendship.

Her boyfriend and his friends turned out to be quite a lot older. I felt a little intimidated by them, but as the night progressed I seemed to fit into their group and it felt good to belong and be accepted.

After about an hour at the nightclub, I noticed they were all taking ecstasy tablets. When they saw I had seen them, they smiled over at me and gestured did I want one. I shook my head. I felt sick all of a sudden, scared and alone and alienated. As I turned away, there was my friend. She smiled and said, 'Here, take this if you like. It's half an ecstasy. You don't have to worry about paying for it.'

I shook my head again. But I felt embarrassed and not so confident. I didn't want to be different, I wanted to fit in. 'It's OK, you know,' she said, 'nothing will happen to you. We're all here to look after you, you're our friend now.' A couple of them walked over casually and said, 'Yeah, we think you're cool, Nat.'

So much for the bullies surrounding their victim and being forceful. This was far more subtle. I felt obliged to share the tablet with my friend, because I didn't want to be the odd one out. As a teenager I was riddled with insecurities of non-belonging and loneliness. I only saw two possibilities, do this tablet and be accepted, or don't and be rejected.

And that was it. Every weekend we all went out together and used drugs. Over the next five years my friends offered me harder and harder drugs with higher and higher prices. I was as dependent on them as they were on me. We were a gang and needed each other in a very dangerous way. I left college, my relations with my parents failed, and I couldn't hold a job for longer than a month.

The drug dealer turned out not to be the dodgy looking guy on the street corner with the tatty clothes and unshaven face that my mother had told me about. He came in the shape of my friend, well-dressed, full of smiles and confidence.

Not once did these new friends look after me as they had promised that night. Quite the contrary. Many times they abandoned me and left me in unfamiliar places with unknown people. Often they would take my last pound for drugs, leaving me with no money to get home safely. We all have standards about what we believe to be true friendship, but somewhere along the line I settled for less.

How did I get out of it? I was lucky: I had the chance of a lifetime, to go to Australia to take part in a course run by MRA.

By then I had reached such a level of desperation that I was looking for ways out. But after years of drug and alcohol abuse I felt extremely weak in my will power, and didn't have the support network around me to help me break free.

When the chance came to go to Australia, it was a big decision to make. I had to take a harsh look at my life, which hurt, and decide to leave all that I had come to know--friends, lifestyle, habits, behavioural patterns. I had to start my life again, without my old peer group.

I felt very alone but I knew that what I was doing was the right thing, long term. I needed time to go back to basics and to find what I had been lacking for the past five years--direction for my life and a faith, something to hold me through moments of aloneness. The first three months were the worst, because there was this uncertainty about whether I really wanted to leave the old life behind--wasn't there some way I could have the best of both worlds? There were times when I felt very homesick, but I soon realized that complete cut-off was the only way I could succeed.

During my time in Australia I learnt an alternative lifestyle, which was far more rewarding and fulfilling and which enabled me to repair the broken relations with my family. Now I have returned home, and have not returned to my old friends.

Do I regret my choices? No, not even the bad ones. They led me to a journey of self-discovery, of who I am and what my needs are. Breaking with the old peer group was hard at the time, but I spare them little thought now. It was time to move on. The past is the past and tomorrow is the future. But today is a gift, that's why it's called the present.
Natalie Porter