Stranger in My Own Skin: Pete Doherty documentary reviewed by a mental health and addiction expert
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Stranger in My Own Skin is a documentary about the life of musician Pete Doherty, who is as well known for his drug use and spells in prison as he is for forming The Libertines and later Babyshambles. From recreational beginnings, through first realising he had a drug problem, Doherty finally ended up consumed by full-blown addiction. As he explains it: “Hard drugs entered my life and slowly, slowly, quickly took control.”
In the film, Doherty’s life seems to play out many of the characteristics experts know increases vulnerability for drug use. He had an authoritarian childhood growing up on army bases, surrounded by metaphorical and actual barbed wire. He experienced feelings of not belonging, unless at one with a football crowd. He was a young adult in a subculture where drug use was not only part of the escape, it was also accepted, normalised – even expected.
However, this film captures something else. Doherty was, and still is, superstar famous – The Libertines were once feted as the coolest band on the planet. Yet he has never hidden his heroin use.
As his relationship with heroin develops from habit to dependence, it’s accompanied by the erratic behaviour and chaotic surroundings that are often seen in addiction. Doherty embraces the “havoc”. When he’s not careering about or agitated about something, he’s flat out on his back, seemingly only finding stillness in heroin.
Alongside this, the camera reveals his physical disintegration from a beautiful young man into someone with scabs, poor personal hygiene and a stumbling gait.
Doherty’s havoc is coupled with a romantic notion of opium and laudanum use. He smokes heroin expecting revelatory dreams, looking to writers like Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and Fyodor Dostoyevsky for inspiration.
He’s obsessed with Paris and uses a fountain pen and a typewriter. He creates a romanticised interpretation of his roots, adopting the Union Jack as a backdrop in his homes as well as on stage. He longs for some mythical Albion, his trademark red military frock coats perhaps mocking his army upbringing while revealing an inability to break free from it.
Then there’s his relationship with Carl Barât, co-founder of The Libertines. Barât plays a small supporting role in the film, but the little he says is revealing, describing their relationship as “two one-legged men strapped to each other to learn to walk”. Ricocheting between intense love and deep antagonism, Doherty burgled Barât’s flat, was arrested for it and ended up in prison.
Fast forward through the Babyshambles years, and finally Doherty accepts that he has to quit, if only to stay alive. There’s no great epiphany, more a dawning realisation. To paraphrase writer Samuel Johnson’s words on habits, the chains of addiction are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken. There is plenty of evidence that addiction does indeed develop over a period of time and may sneak up unawares, but some drugs are known to be more habit forming than others, heroin being one of the most addictive.
Doherty is ambivalent. “I want to make it to the other side, I do, I do”, he says, before shooting up. Doherty is in the rare position that he can afford residential treatment, even if he has to sell some of his possessions to fund it. Only one in 100 people dependent on heroin in the UK have this option.
After a couple of false starts, musing about hiding heroin in his dressing gown cord, he heads to Thailand for detox and rehab. This part of the film is more familiar, we’ve seen portrayals of rehab and recovery before.
Memory is a constant theme in the documentary – what happened, what is remembered and what is not. The film amplifies this uncertainty as it flits in and out of archive footage of Doherty’s musings. There is a ghost which doesn’t appear – Mark Blanco. His tragic death at a party attended by Doherty and Doherty’s reaction (he was filmed running past Blanco’s body), have never been satisfactorily explained. Why didn’t that feature?
Perhaps the answer lies with the filmmaker. The documentary makes use of a decade of off-camera interviews by Katia DeVidas. Spoiler alert: reader, she married him. This perhaps explains some of the film’s extraordinary intimacy, but also why some questions aren’t asked and answered in the film. DeVidas did not reply to requests for comment by the time of publication.
A wealth of pre-existing footage, coupled with DeVidas’ access, goes beyond tabloid portrayals and moralising judgments and bears witness to the paradoxes in a life which is both real and performative, visceral and intellectual.
Towards the end, Doherty says he’s interested in working with people in the thick of addiction, but he seems always to have a bottle of Jim Beam in his hand, acknowledging that clean refers to heroin, not alcohol.
He’s making music again, with DeVidas now in the band, and it is his music and the centrality of creativity to his existence which underpin the whole film. “The talent is the man, not the drugs”, he explains. “In spite of being a drug addict or in spite of being clean, I will create”.
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Sally Marlow currently receives funding from the ESRC, the AHRC and NIHR and in the past has received funding from the Society for the Study of Addiction, the British Council and the Nuffield Foundation.