Sunday, 15 August 2021

Who are these blinking drug addicts

Hand of an addict. Charcole on paper.

One of the most difficult parts of being alongside addiction for me, is remembering that these crazy addicts are also people.  Dealing with someone who is intoxicated can be very challenging.  If you don't need to engage, that is fine.  If you do, then anything can happen and it is frustrating, chaotic and sometimes frightening.  If someone kicks off in your presence while having taken something (or many things) and you are faced with an irrational, disinhibited, paranoid and angry melt down, it is unlikely that you will say, "Oh, that is just the drugs.  The person themselves is actually very nice."  If you are sensible, you get the hell out of the way or if you are feeling threatened, call the police. 

Many of us have tried to reason with someone who has drunk too much at one time or another.  Many of us have experienced how quickly they can become angry, unreasonable and aggressive. When they are sober, they have no recollection of how badly they behaved. How about someone acting out on crystal meth?  Or cocaine?  Or someone causing enormous chaos while coming down from something or at a critical point because of needing another fix?  These are not people we can chat to or reason with or discuss how their behaviour is making us feel.  How, we ask ourselves, can they possibly allow themselves to get so bad? Where is their sense of shame, where is their self control?  We cannot understand why they do not get help.

Yes to all that.  And also, addiction is not rational.  An addict may defend their addiction to the death, literally, and blame you, me, everyone else, especially loved ones, all the way down. Addiction, to an addict, is reality.  The need (and it really is a need, an absolute catastrophic need the like of which we who are not addicted can have no idea) to keep using makes them manipulative, amoral, paranoid, psychotic, clever, dangerous and without conscience, boundaries or responsibility. And yet.  It is not always like that. There is always someone in there.  There are times when the person lost inside is visible, often it is very poignant.  Sometimes it is astonishing - how can that person who ranted and raved at the bus stop all last night be so interested in and interesting about music?  Or politics? Or whatever?  I have seen someone very addicted to alcohol and opiods sit with a frightened young addict who was hearing terrible voices, talking gently to calm him down and help him feel safe.

The thing is, at some point that person was not an addict.  When they first took something to make the pain go away, or perhaps because it was just what their family or peers did, it seemed a magical answer. It really worked.  It allowed them to self medicate and forget how bad life was, it allowed them to feel in control, it gave them confidence and helped them fit in when they felt isolated and alone, when dealing with abuse and violence at home and around them, when frightened by an undiagnosed mental health condition, when living itself was intolerable.  Checking out of pain and abandonment through substances is a powerful relief.  The person entering addiction feels as if they are in control.  Even when it is patently obvious further down the line that they are not in control, they can insist that they are.  This is denial, and addicts can be great at denial.  

I spoke to an addict recently who dismisses the idea that he is addicted.  Let's call him Bob.  I have a dependency, Bob said, I am not an addict.  Everything about Bob's life and choices points to a deep and long lasting addiction.  No! He said, I am able to stop at any time and I have a dependency.  It seems obvious that Bob cannot stop, regulate nor manage his substances.  How can he not see it?  I thought.  One of the reasons for dependency not addiction, I learned, was that once his medical records had Addict on them he was, according to Bob, discriminated against by the medical profession.  He would not receive proper treatment and would always be seen as a problem.  I do not know if this is true, but I have seen how badly addiction is treated by many (not all) medical professionals.  I must add here that I do not blame them, they are acting in accordance with what they have been told.  I think that addiction is vastly misunderstood, judged, untreated and dismissed.  It is at present, almost impossible to find reasonably effective treatment that is not private. Addicts are the modern day lepers with knobs on.

As we talked, Bob explained how wonderful the drugs are that he takes.  How good they make him feel, how so much of his time is spent looking forward to preparing and taking them.  Bob could describe how all the different drugs he takes affects him, how to inject certain ones to increase the effect, and how to experiment with mixing them all up.  "I love my life," Bob says.  He drinks heavily too, but mostly will not admit to it.  "I used to drink," he says, "but not recently."  I see empty spirits bottles all over the flat, under the bed, in the bins, and some by the bed still half full.  That is not true, and I think, denial.  More denial.  

I have seen Bob in powerful rages in public places because he could not get what he needed.  I have seen Bob in pain in between using, longing to feel a part of the world and to get better, I have heard him talk about loneliness and self hatred.  I have seen how he rejects help, sabotages kindness, chooses chaos and danger time and time again, and I think - are you in denial about all this too?  When you say you love your life?  But I see that whatever substances he is taking are succeeding in obliterating the terrible pain of real life.  It is a vicious circle and it feels like an insurmountable problem.

It is a problem.  I will never forget an addiction counsellor once telling an angry, distressed wife at the end of her tether, that she did not have to rescue her husband but that she could still be kind.  When her drunken husband fell out of bed onto the cold stone floor, she wanted to leave him there all night and make him suffer.  The counsellor understood her anger, understood her feelings of powerlessness and the fact that she had tried everything to help him.  "You cannot help him," the counsellor said, "but you can be kind.  You can put a blanket on him and leave him there."  

When dealing with addiction we try not to rescue, we try not to enter into the madness and we know we have to establish very firm boundaries to keep ourselves safe.  But, we can be very judgemental and unkind to both our addicts and ourselves.  We can want to punish our addicts for their awfulness and madness, and we cannot rid ourselves of that fear that perhaps the addict is right, it is our fault.  Kindness does not mean weakness, compassion does not mean we condone addiction.  We know we have to keep ourselves safe with firm boundaries which can feel counter intuitive at the beginning but are not.  We practice detachment with love and, at least for me, keep hoping for that miracle. And most important of all, if we cannot change our addict or deal with the fall out, we can try, really try, to be absolutely loving and forgiving of ourselves.  A wise man once said that when all else does not work, all we can be is a good example.

I have had to call for help many times.

Who are these blinking drug addicts then?  Without being sentimental or foolish because addiction is an absolute bugger, they are our children, our parents, our partners, our friends, our family.  They are Everyman and Everywoman. And, they could be us too. 

I have just been a guest on the Zestful Aging podcast hosted by Nicole Christina in New York.  We talk about addiction in my family, and how as a mother and of the hope, despair, troubleshooting and lessons I have to keep learning.  We touch on the Addicts and Those Who Love Them exhibition too.  Nicole is a wonderful interviewer.  She is a practicing psychotherapist as well as a successful podcaster.  You can listen to it here.  

Young addict, detail, oil on wood.

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