Monday, 16 September 2019

Addicts and Those Who Love Them. A new project.

The helplessness of a hand after passing out.  Charcoal and pastel on paper.
 I took a risk.  I created an exhibition of paintings and words about my experience of addiction and showed it in August.  I am not an addict, but someone close to me is, and I used their story to describe how it looked and felt to witness a downhill journey, to be helpless and hopeless and unable to intervene.  The exhibition looked excellent when hung, the paintings told the story of this one person's journey and though I say so myself, the artwork was very good.  Two friends, Marie and Michael, both of whom had experienced their own addictions, added their own artwork to mine, and I was grateful to have something from the horse's mouth, so to speak. 

Creating the artwork, writing the words, was hard to do.  It felt as if nothing could ever describe the bleakness of the world of addiction that I had seen.  I began to feel the same hopelessness in my studio while painting these images, as I had felt when actually there and watching the madness happen.  But my friends and I went ahead and showed our exhibition.  People were very interested and came along with their own stories, experiences and opinions.  There were many discussions and sometimes, I felt as if I were justifying myself for opening this subject up to scrutiny.  Of course it is unpleasant, and of course it is shocking, and I have no answers.  During the exhibition, I just wanted to say - Look!  This is what I saw, this is how it is, it is really like this.  The words I used to describe how I felt, they are real. 

And now, the exhibition is over and packed away and I am left wondering what to do next.  I have barely scratched the surface, there is so much to say and do.  As an artist, what is my response now? 

What I have not found a way to describe is the bleakness of an addict's life.  I am talking of the addict who has stopped being able to get by and fool people.  The addict who has lost family, friends, help, a place to live and all sense of perspective outside their drug use.  I saw how the addict has no reason to exist except to find the next hit to feel normal and if they don't get the hit, the suffering is indescribable.  In between the hits, the need to eat, sleep, wash, communicate is almost lost.  I watched the crazy mood swings from the agitated sometimes hysterical lows before the hit, to the stumbling semi conscious disconnection as the highs hit home.  I saw a brief stabilisation of the mood swings before the drug wore off and the agitation began again. 

Words from the first exhibition
Mostly, I had to accept that the person I knew had checked out a long time ago.  What had taken their place was a monster who would do anything, say anything, to get what they needed.  Sometimes the person I knew would be there underneath it all, and sometimes that person would ask for help.  It soon became clear that the monster was in control though, and any help offered would only be accepted if it could be used to get the drugs. 

The loneliness of this life, the degradation of this life, the squalor and dirt and crazy lack of self care, of hygiene, of self respect, the catastrophic lack of connection to reality and isolation from any love, kindness or consequence is difficult to describe.  Sometimes I visited this addict in their flat.  If they were able to answer the door, I'd go in.  If not, I'd go away.  Inside, every window was covered with filthy material, the darkness and gloom lit only by the television constantly on in the corner.  Underfoot, old food, cigarette buts, broken crockery, rubbish, detritus and medicine packets scrunched as we walked over them.  The grime and mould growing on the old food and washing up in the kitchen smelt almost as bad as the powerfully reeking rubbish bins overflowing onto the floor and walked around the room.  In the darkness, in the corner, sitting on a sofa covered by a blanket with dirt and burn holes from forgotten cigarettes, this addict would go over and over how bad their life was, and how no one would help and how they could not get their drug, how they needed it, how badly they were being treated, how it wasn't their fault and how everyone was conspiring to close off all avenues to get this drug.  Listening to this addict become more and more angry and agitated I knew from bitter experience that if I stayed too long, it would become my fault and I would become the focus of ways to accompany my addict and make people give them the drugs they needed to stay alive.  Once, though, before the agitation became manic and confrontational, I had to go and the addict started to cry quietly saying, don't go.  I'm so lonely.  It was heartbreaking to leave this traumatised and possessed person in such a state but I went, I knew how it would end, and the monster that lived in this addict would crash back into their brain, and I would be a target again.  The ranting about the unfairness of everything would lead into a wild and demented search for someone to give them the stuff they needed.

Detail from first exhibition. 
From a painting of  an overdose
Here is what else I need to find a way to describe in paint for the exhibition.  All the ranting, the unfairness, the paranoia, all the madness was true.  It was unfair, all avenues to help were being shut, it wasn't their fault, and there was a conspiracy to prevent them finding their fix. 

This was an addiction to prescription drugs, prescribed for years without anyone checking, the dosage increased when this addict said the current dose was no longer working.  When finally the addiction was noticed, the shutters came down, the dose was lowered and the medical profession withdrew support and eventually, withdrew the drug entirely.  Here is another thing I have learned.  You cannot reason with an addict, and you cannot punish an addict.  This is the point at which this addicts behaviour became extreme, out of control and distressing.  It was now total survival.  Whatever worked to get the drugs, worked.  There were no consequences, there was only what got the drugs.  The addict was barred from surgery after surgery.  Hospital after hospital refused to help, and written on this addicts records were notes not to believe them, not to help, not to get involved. 

I saw something of how we treat addiction.  I saw that there is nothing much in place for them, there is almost nowhere for them to go, there is not much understanding not much care and very little interest.  Addicts are today's equivalents of lepers of  times past. Monstrous, insane lepers that we cannot have in our midst.  And watching this catastrophic journey into a crazed, nightmarish stalemate, I am left with the question - what are we to do?  What on earth are we to do?  If an addict is on the streets, living a nightmare until they die and perhaps they want help but have no money to pay for anything, what do they do?  What is there then and there to help at that moment, what is in place?  I saw nothing at all to help the addict I knew.  This addict could not attend a meeting.  This addict could not think beyond the paranoid panic that his next fix could not be found.  This addict could not agree to anything, this addict would sell their mother's kidneys to get a fix.  This addict could not make a phone call to a helpline and wait for their call to be answered, if this addict had a phone it would be sold to get drugs.  If, however, you can pay for it, there is help.  There is rehab.  If you cannot pay for help, like so many who have no one and who hustle for money to keep their habit going, there seems to be a large black hole of nothing.  There seemed to be a complete societal and political lack of will to deal with the dirt and mental illness of out of control addiction.

Words from the August exhibition
It is all of the above that I want to describe in my next exhibition.  You see how hard it will be, but I am sure that I will do it.  One thing that I have decided, is to call the exhibition Addicts And Those Who Love Them.  I am taking time out now to work on this new exhibition.  The old one, that I showed in August this year, is too personal to the person whose story it tells. I don't think I want to do that now.  I want to open it up to other addicts and those that love them, and tell their stories.  But before that, before I start to paint, I want to understand more about addiction and what help is available.  I know nothing except what I observed during the journey of the addict that is close to me.  I want to know because another thing about addiction is, that it can happen to anyone.  You and me included.  Anyone.

Love is important, it is true.  Loving the lovable is easy.  Loving the unlovable is a nightmare.  What little experience I have of addiction tests this loving business to the limit.   

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