Tuesday, February 4, 2014

On Addiction

The shocking death of Philip Seymour Hoffman (covered on this blog yesterday) has once again brought the subject of addiction into sharp focus. Last night, Will Self gave an eloquent and personal insight into addiction and drugs, and heroin in particular, on Newsnight (a programme also worth watching for Richard Curtis’ description of the actor and his work), and what came across from his words was that the nature of addiction remains thoroughly mysterious.

At the end of last year, I wrote a rather angry piece attacking Peter Hitchens’ smug, sanctimonious and thoughtless approach to something he didn’t see as a problem so much as a crime against the self. What appals me most of all now, looking back on it, is his certainty. How can he possibly be so certain of his view of addiction, when even the most banal experience of it yields few truths and plenty of bewildering murkiness?

When I think of addiction, I first think of the extreme examples. I have never known someone who has been wrestling with an addiction to an illegal drug when I knew them. I know plenty of people who take illegal drugs. My instinctive response to a number of these individual cases is that they are playing with fire, but also that they know it. They are the lucky ones. As Self noted last night, it takes a number of decisions to get addicted to a substance.

I have known a few recovering drug addicts. The one I knew best was in fact a close family relative. After injuries in the Second World War, he was treated with an excessive amount of morphine – heroin – and became addicted. He was a private man and did not like to discuss it, but he made it clear that there was an intense agony in his recovery. This was no rehabilitation. The drug was simply and abruptly withdrawn. Given the circumstances of his exposure to the drug, he was fine once the withdrawal symptoms had passed, as he was unlikely to have any opportunity to procure anymore of the substance. Nevertheless, it was something that on some level left its scaring.

These are the extreme examples I personally know of, but they are the least of the cases of addiction of which I am aware. My family have always been heavy drinkers, my father is a heavy smoker. I know countless smokers, and have known many drinkers who can knock back a flood of the stuff in no time at all. I myself drink far too much, and my flirtations with tobacco have always led to moments of some difficulty when I decide to stop. Biochemically, I must surely be an addict. I have to think that I shouldn’t have a drink of an evening, rather than have the thought that I might like a drink occur to me on occasion. I can resist it, but there is no denying that there is a compulsion there.

The ease with which I have developed these responses means that I have no desire to toy with any further highly addictive and potentially dangerous drugs, but I like to think that it also means that I have some understanding of how easy it is to fall into such a condition. I rather hope that should Peter Hitchens’ have the clarity of mind for but a moment to see the addiction that may well be around him, he may admit that things are not as simple as his blinkered view appears to allow.

Addiction, much like that other great, human, biochemical obsession of romance, is something that we cannot escape or ignore, but also a phenomenon that we do not comprehend, despite centuries of experience, investigation and thought. Perhaps that is why there is such an extensive but utterly vague lexicon concerning it. We have competing ideas of what constitutes an “addict”, or what symptoms demonstrate that a person has a “problem” with a substance. Perhaps, like love, “you know it when you see it”, but that approach allows for numerous mistakes (in both phenomena).

We cannot sit in judgement of others on this. We must not condescend or elevate ourselves to some higher place above those who vigorously wrestle with the illness of addiction. We must educate using the rare facts that are available to us. Certain people like to think of addiction as a scourge that only afflicts the poor and the downtrodden. Even if that were the case, which it resoundingly is not, it would be no excuse for ignoring or resenting their plight. Addiction has been with us since the dawn of humankind, and it isn’t going anywhere. We are built with this vulnerability inherent within us. A crucial step must be to have the humility to acknowledge that.

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