Society’s reaction to addiction sometimes feels like a bizarre dystopia. We recognise the vulnerability of those facing it. We acknowledge the devastating impact it has on the lives of addicts and their loved ones. We appreciate that a compassionate support network is an essential component to recovery. We know all of this, yet many of us willfully look the other way.
On average, 20 people die here per week as a direct result of alcohol. Indeed, we drink nearly a fifth more alcohol than our counterparts in England and Wales. And our problem does not stop with alcohol. An international survey by the United Nations that includes results from 200 countries showed greater use of heroin and cocaine in this country per-head than almost any other.
We are in the grip of addiction. Despite major progress to promote awareness and understanding through various campaigns and policies, there remains an eerie silence at a grassroots level around what constitutes as addiction and, more specifically, how individuals and communities should deal with it.
Often our jokes fall flat and we are left speechless. Silence surrounds the realities of addiction as we perpetuate the problem and spread isolation and fear. Jokes are replaced by wordless condemnation of addicts – seen as abnormal, the ‘other’ – and often their loved ones are blamed rather than helped. Our silence condemns and deters those around addicts from raising concerns and crying out for help. In the misplaced silence, in the lack of words, we are encouraged to see older people with a problem as folk ‘who like a dram’ and our youngsters spiraling out of control as party animals, young and daft. This dehumanizing silence leads to scornful labels like ‘jakies’ and ‘junkies’ being banded about as we wash our hands and shake our heads and look away.
It is a silence that ultimately allows stigma-fuelled stereotypes to flourish without questioning. Unless someone ‘looks’ and ‘acts’ like an addict, many of us will either presume that they are not one, or gawk in bafflement as to how they have fallen into such a state.
The inability to talk about addiction leaves those not immediately affected by it with so little insight into what people are going through that addiction itself becomes an abstract concept. Interpretations of it are thus seen solely through the pigeonholed lenses of damaging stereotypes. Consequently, supporting people impacted by drink and drugs becomes somewhat daunting. We lack the words; we simply do not seem to know what to say.
When asked about the damaging impact of the stigma surrounding addiction, Adfam, a national charity working to improve support for families affected by drug and alcohol use, stated:”We have spoken to older carers, parents who are victims of abuse from their substance using children, those who have been bereaved through drug and alcohol use and many others and they all say the same thing: that society’s views on drug and alcohol use has meant they haven’t been able to hold their heads up and look for support from friends, family and services in the way that most of us are able to.”
There is, by and large, little understanding into how people can reach the stage where they drink themselves to death or inject a lethal dosage of heroin. But there should be. Addiction is not something that suddenly manifests because somebody wakes up one day and decides that this is what they want their future to look like.
Addiction can be a form of self-medication, a coping mechanism, or a numbing agent. Addiction can be a means of dealing with depression, trauma, redundancy, stress, debt – the list could go on – when nothing else seems to work or help is out of reach. Increased pressures tip many of us into behaviours that place us at risk of addiction. The subconscious presumption that this could not possibly happen to any of us is profoundly misplaced.
In an interview with Nick Barton, Chief Executive of Action on Addiction, he reiterated this point: “Shame and guilt tend to increase isolation. It is harder to reach out for help and say what’s wrong if you feel so ashamed and feel people will reject you or be unsympathetic… We still want to distance ourselves from people who lose control and appear dependent, probably because we are closer to that than we’d care to admit.”
Our culture, embedded in individualism, arrogantly stipulates that addiction begins and ends with a personal choice. This outlook naively bypasses the structural forces driving our shockingly high rates of addiction, the underlying causes of which are rooted in the very fabric of our culture and market forces.
In response to a question about whether addiction boils down to an individual choice, Nick Barton simply stated, “In 30 years working in the addiction field I have not once met anyone who chose to be an addict. Why on earth would anyone choose misery, degradation, suffering and possibly death?”
But so long as our culture lays the foundations for addiction to take grip, so too can it hold the answers to alleviate it. Cultural change is happening on so many levels, inspiring us to critically analyse engrained norms and perceived conventional wisdoms. But this is merely an encouraging start on a long road. We need to galvanize that momentum and channel that critical thought to challenge our widely held prejudices and fears, and indeed the prejudices and fears of others. We need a societal wide response to gather around those at risk of addiction as well as those in the throes of life threatening substance abuse.
Continuing down the scorned path of passively accepting dehumanizing typecasts and keeping our heads down in the hope that addiction subsides can only culminate to more fear and isolation. Surely it’s about time that we stopped looking the other way?