Friday 28 January 2022

What if we changed our minds about the badness of drug taking?

Once a ho - from the Addicts exhibition 2018

I have the ghost of an idea which is not yet clear.  It involves drug taking, and drug behaviour.  I am speaking to loads of people about their drug use for my Addicts exhibition, keeping in mind my own family member with addiction difficulties, and there is a rebellious thought forming.

What if it was OK to take drugs.  What if there was a way to accommodate drug taking and change our approach to it? I am talking, as I say, to a good few people, some of whom suffer difficult and crazy addictions, others who did not become addicted but who took drugs and alcohol to such an extreme that they were utterly out of control.  But when these latter people decided to stop, they found a way to do so without rehab or AA.  Stopping was not easy, and the way of doing it was possibly unorthodox but they did it and knew that they could - but I am discovering that the whole drug taking and drinking to excess world is utterly unorthodox.  I remember one such person telling me that there is addiction and there is dependency.  At the time I thought they were the same thing, and this fellow was just using words to deny his problem, but actually, I wonder if he has a point. It is beyond my experience and understanding, mostly because I am teetotal and do not take drugs and until I started work on the Addicts And Those Who Love Them exhibition, I had not come across people who are in this other universe.  Damn, it is complicated.  I wonder, how has all this addiction and hellish behaviour, hellish outlook and lack of interest in providing solutions got so bad.  How has it? Is what we think about drugs correct?  Is our response to drug taking working?  Are we all part of the problem?  And it is a bloody awful problem.  Really it is.

 Crack pipe.  A fairly dreadful substance.

 Here is my rebellious thought.  What if we have caused the crisis of addiction and mental health and associated crime by our response to it?  I am wondering if the fears we have and the stories we think we know about each drug is wildly out of balance.  The more I look into it, the more I talk to people, the less I know.  What I think I know is that all drugs are bad.  Addiction happens instantly and cannabis is a gateway to other addictions.  I know that addicts are dreadful people, their addictions make them manipulative, cruel, without conscience and borderline psychopaths.  They commit crimes to fund their habits and much senseless violence is the result of the drugs trade.  All drugs need to be banned. And much of this may be true.  The amount of manipulation, lies, stealing and bad behaviour I have experienced from addicts I have known is very hard to deal with.  The way some of these characters casually commit crime is shocking to a law abiding nice person like me.  I watched them do it and laugh about it, and I thought - they do not belong in my world nor I in theirs. 

And this is where I am beginning a thought experiment with myself where we turn everything on its head. Millions of people take drugs and millions of people drink alcohol, they always have.  According to research done by Professor David Nutt at Drug Science, only 10% of people become addicted.  That means 90% don't.  Do drugs make the users anti social?  Sometimes, yes.  And sometimes, no.  Are all drugs absolutely lethal? No.  What is the one drug that causes the most harm both to the user and those around them?  Alcohol.  Is cannabis a gateway drug?  Not necessarily.  On its own, it is pretty harmless to most people, as are psychedelics including MDMA, magic mushrooms and LSD.  The harms that may occur from all these drugs are possibly less than the harm caused by alcohol, which is legal.  Is alcohol a gateway drug?  Well, yes, I think it is.  It seems to go very well too (from a drug takers point of view) with all manner of more serious and harmful drugs like cocaine, opiates, benzodiazepines and all manner of legal and illegal substances.  And there is no doubt that anyone taking all this kind of stuff is going to be pretty difficult to deal with.

Then I think, why do people take drugs?  There are so many reasons, one of which is because they work.  My friend Ian, a true success story if ever there was one, sober and clean now for ten years after forty years of insane drug and alcohol abuse, said that if your life is so bad, so difficult and bleak, and something you took put rose tinted spectacles on for you, then why would you not take it?  That is what he did. People self medicate through drugs, they take away pain and hopelessness.  They make you feel you can cope.  One man I spoke to started drinking at thirteen.  It gave him a sense of who he was, he lost his shyness and felt that only alcohol could help him with feeling so powerless as a child. And here is another revolutionary thought, people take drugs because they like to get high.  People love to get high. 

My friend Ian.  From the Addicts exhibition 2021

 My thought experiment made me wonder, what if we asked drug users what they want?  How would their lives be better?  I used to think abstinence was the only goal to have in recovery.  I don't think that now.  Many many addicts cannot come off their drugs.  The cycle of trying to get clean and sober, and relapsing, and trying to get clean again is impossible and maybe, they should be allowed to take their drug.  Our culture hates addicts. We punish them, we think they chose this life, they don't deserve our help.  Or time.  Or money.  We don't give to addicts on the streets because we know they will spend it on dope or drink.  We are pleased with ourselves, we were not fooled and they need to learn.  I say, have you ever seen someone withdrawing?  They don't need a lesson from us, they need their substance.  Nothing we have will be as bad as that.  Give the money and don't judge.   Addicts do not give up their drugs because we ask them to.   Alcoholics do not stop drinking because we make life difficult for them.  An alcoholic I spoke to told me each time he went to prison he worked in the kitchen because he knew how to make alcohol from the scraps of vegetable peelings.  Prison didn't work for him, it was irrelevant.  But here I have to say that though alcoholics are addicted to their alcohol, I don't suppose my thoughts on drug reform is relevant to them.  It is a whole different subject but I hear that research into using therapeutic psychedelics under a licensed practitioner for alcoholic recovery is very exciting and successful.  Watch that space. 

If drugs laws were changed and drugs were decriminalised, everything would turn on its head.  Imagine, the reason the dealers and gangs are so appalling is because there is no legal control over their stuff and their business models.  They do what they want - who is to stop them?  Who do you complain to if your supplier puts rat poison in your dope?  Who regulates the prices you pay?  Who do you go to when it all goes belly up?  So if your supplier was the government, and instead of back alley transactions there was help available and offered, the whole concept of drug taking would change.  The dealers and drugs gangs would be out of work.  I believe that at one point fifty or so years ago, doctors were able to prescribe heroin and there were a fraction of addicts then.  With the prescription under control, people were able to work, to carry on as normal, under the safe eye of the doctor.  When that was made illegal, and those poor people needed their heroin as normal, the only way to get it was to break the law.  And a downward spiral of illegal supply and demand took over.  Of course, if drugs are illegal, then anyone can step in and create the supply with any amount of dangerous adulteration, and no one can do a thing about it.  In America, during prohibition, when alcohol was illegal, more people died of alcohol poisoning because of the substances added to the drink to make more money, than when it was legal.  What if all drugs were made legal and taken over by the government, what would happen to all the dealers and gangs?  All the resources in place to fight drugs and drugs crime - which makes such a tiny and temporary dent in the trade - could go to treatment, to research into what actually works, and to safe, clean, monitored spaces in which to take the drugs.

Addicts are not like us.  They don't respond to instructions.  They are chaotic and unreliable.  Their world is made up of the search to find their fix and everything they do is illegal. The buying, the taking, the acquisition.  They can't give up because we tell them to.  The law makes no difference to their need to use except that it makes them live outside the law and against it.  Many addicts can't stay clean.  Hence methadone. And even then users top up their methadone with other stuff.  And even then, there is shame, judgement and punishment.

So my rebellious idea which is shared by many, many others, is that what if we asked our addicts what they wanted, and what if we ended the war and make it a peace on drugs with help not punishment, and what if we understood that those who are addicted, need patient, kind, consistent help to take their stuff if they cannot stop?  What if we shone a light on drug addiction and changed our minds, to find sensible, practical and humane ways to bring addicts and addiction back into the fold?  What a thought. 

Safe injection sites are popping up.  Controversial, but successful for harm reduction.

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Sunday 16 January 2022

Art, Addiction and Vegan Sausage Rolls.

The artist in the garden in the rain.  A busy bee.

I finished a portrait for the Addicts exhibition this week, and made several videos about portrait painting in the studio for my Patreon page, had an online book launch for my book As Mother Lay Dying with my friend and colleague Mandy Preece (her book is Being Rock ) and I completed a seven mile walk along the Downs as I have signed up to do another marathon walk of twenty six miles for Macmillan Cancer, in June.

Do you want to be sick yet?  I sound very cheesy.

I did do all of those things, and all within a week, and it was a lot, but it was the result of hours and hours of struggling to even start, and huge amounts of time going into the kitchen to have more tea and my absolute (current) favourite thing, bread and butter.  And of course, most of those things above were finished off this week, begun quite a long time ago, so it is not as if I created and produced and organised an entire portrait, lots of studio videos and a book launch all in one week from scratch while training for my marathon walk.  However, it has been a good week and I am feeling strong and pleased with the portrait, and it did my ego a great deal of good to start this blog with that list, even though it did need explaining.

We all know I spent the Christmas period in bed feeling rotten with the flu (see Not Just Any Illness ). New Year came in over my sleeping head as I was still in bed feeling rotten, and don't remember any of it.  It took a while for my energy to come back and for a couple of weeks I thought I had aged prematurely and would never leap out of bed like a lambkin in the morning ever again.  But here we are, and I don't remember the day when everything shifted back to normal, but it seems I am back on the treadmill of work and creativity and feeling full of beans again.  Though I stopped leaping out of bed like a lambkin a good decade ago so that was never going to be a measure of how ill I felt.  It sounds good, but a more accurate take on feeling I had aged prematurely is to say I thought I would never get myself out of a chair again without a hoist.

My Addicts And Those Who Love Them exhibition opens in five months time.  This exhibition is about addiction, about the craziness of it, the madness, hopelessness and the lack of treatments for it.  The whole title includes the words "behind every addict is someone traumatised by loving them" and as there is addiction in my family, I am that person traumatised by loving an addict.  But, the key word is love, and though it is so hard to cope with a relationship with an addict, those of us who do have relationships with addiction, still love, and despite all the trauma and insanity, we hope.  And there is hope, addicts recover, and miracles do happen.  And so for this exhibition, I am working with addiction in whatever form I can, and asking questions, telling stories and painting portraits. Because I don't know what else I can do.

I am starting to pull all the strings of the exhibition together and not only create all the paintings, but find people with stories to tell through painting and words.  I have done that, I have some very powerful people to work with.  I have children of alcoholic parents to paint.  I have people who work with drugs and addiction through charities, research organisations, and the police involved in the exhibition, and I have addicts who take their drugs and drinkers who drink their alcohol and all of them have much to say.  In my studio, here in Bognor Regis, I make lists on large whiteboards of all the people I am painting and what they say to go onto each painting.  At the beginning of this mega week of getting things done I went into a local store to buy art materials only to find they had hardly any paints.  Obviously I need paints, and was not too impressed with an art supply shop that had hardly any paints, so am now considering a trip to Brighton, a good hour away at least, to Lawrence Art Supplies which I know from old has everything in the world that I want and need.  But, also in Brighton, is a brilliant shop that sells hot flaky vegan sausage rolls, so I think that makes it all OK, for art's sake etc, as it is a bit of a haul to get to Brighton and back.  Also in Brighton is the Fishing Quarter Gallery along the seafront, the venue for the Addicts exhibition later this year, which I may just pop into to remind myself of the space and ambience of the place.  It is such a good gallery, it will be perfect when we open in May and the weather is getting warmer and the light stronger.  I think a trip to Brighton for paints, vegan sausage rolls and checking in with the gallery is becoming more and more important the more I think about it.  I will have a bit of a jolly.

Profess or David Nutt.  I have yet to add his words.

The portrait I have just completed is of the Neuropsychopharmacologist Professor David Nutt.  He is a neuroscientist, a psychiatrist and a pharmacologist, researching with his colleagues at the Drug Science Organisation into the harms and benefits of drugs both legal and illegal, with a view to helping with addiction, alcoholism, depression, PTSD and other conditions of the mind and brain.  I am very glad he has agreed to be in Addicts And Those Who Love Them.  He has much experience of treating addictions and has a great desire to find a way to treat all mental illness and conditions with compassion and the best science and medicine can offer.

I am talking to and painting the portrait of  Fiona Measham, Professor of Criminology, Sociology and Social Policy at Liverpool University and founder of The Loop, a charity that sets itself up at festivals and raves to test the drugs that are in circulation during the events.  The Loop works with events organisers and the police to make sure any contaminated and dangerous drugs that are sold there under the guise of something else are highlighted and information circulated.  Drugs can be taken to the Loop tent and tested, information and help given, and lives saved.  The Loop is interested in harm reduction and education, and there are branches of the Loop opening in various countries in Europe which is a huge success.  What I love about The Loop is that Fiona Measham puts her money where her mouth is, and actually does something to make the insane world of drugs and addiction better, despite all her other commitments.  I am really glad to have her join us for the exhibition.  Another fascinating prospective member of the Addicts exhibition is an ex police man who worked for years undercover infiltrating drugs gangs.  His story is very powerful, and moving, and once he confirms he is happy to be a part of the Addicts exhibition, I will name him.  I am hoping to meet him here in Bognor this week, and am really looking forward to it.  

In May last year at the first showing of the Addicts exhibition I met two amazing young people. Both aged 18, and both dealing with alcoholic and addicted parents.  I am really glad to be painting these two articulate and far too wise young people.  They will add something of a world of which I have no idea nor experience.  And there are other excellent people that I am working with, not least a young Australian nurse, Mae, now a mother herself and the eldest of six children of addicted and alcoholic parents.  Mae was the oldest child, and raised her siblings as best she could in a destructive, dangerous and damaging household until she could leave, taking as many of her siblings with her as could come.  She is very worth listening to, and I have started her portrait today.

In the past, I have used crowd funding to pay for my exhibitions.  Instead of managing a new Go Fund Me campaign each time I host an exhibition (which I have done for two exhibitions on Addiction, and for all my A Graceful Death exhibitions over the last ten or so years) I have decided to ask for more permanent contributions.  Many of you know I have created a Patreon page and am looking for people to subscribe monthly to support the work I am doing.  It goes without saying that I do not charge for anything I do, and I rely on the generosity of the general public to keep it all going.  Patreon, for those who are not familiar with it, is an online subscription platform where creatives of all sorts - art, writing, performance, podcasts, crafts, journalism, music, comedy and so on - ask for monthly donations of about five or ten pounds to support the artist, and in return the artist offers small benefits to the Patrons as a thank you.  This is a safe, effective and ongoing way to support all the work I do on Addiction and, when I host the A Graceful Death exhibition, on the end of life. 

In the video above I explain what the exhibition and my Patreon page is about, and hope that you may consider helping me and this project (and all the projects that I do, including the end of life exhibitions) by becoming a Patron.  Having a look at my page does not commit you, only you signing up commits you and you can cancel at any time though of course, I hope you won't want to because it will be so much fun on my page watching behind the scenes videos, interviews, and updates.  And other small benefits that each Patron receives depending on the tier (amount you pledge).  

Well.  Tomorrow is Monday and a new week ahead.  Will it include flaky vegan sausage rolls?  For the sake of art, yes.  


In the name of art.

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Saturday 1 January 2022

Not just any illness


I wish I had looked this pretty while sneezing like a warthog

Over Christmas, I began to feel unwell. Uh oh, I thought, I have been here before, it doesn't feel good.  Usually I shake off bugs and lurgies but now and again, I don't.  My throat started to hurt, right at the back, and so I dared it to do its worst.  Do your worst! I thought, I am stronger than you! But I wasn't, I just about got through Christmas and on Christmas night I had crazy dreams and woke up with no voice. Damn, I croaked, I was going to record a video today, and now I can't. I was beginning to feel absolutely awful.  And, the day after Boxing Day, I was to have my two oldest grandboys aged four and six, to stay for three days.  Best buck up for that I thought, have an early night and get myself in gear for two little boys who absolutely love to stay with Grandma and who have been champing at the bit to come.  It will be fine! I said to myself, ignoring all the signs that it was not really fine, and carried on.  The boys arrived, my cold developed, and for the next three days I spluttered, sneezed and blew my nose while they had the time of their lives.  I took cold remedies which did wonders and for most of the time I could pass for normal and thank goodness for that.  We went out for walks, for runs (they ran) and bought lego with their Christmas money.  We had fifteen meals a day because they like to eat, and we had late nights till 8pm watching films on the sofa.  They froze little kiddie yogurts with spoons in them to make what they called popsicles, and they woke up long before dawn to get on with another exciting day. 

George, 6, decorating a gingerbread man

I remember the thrill of being with my own beloved grandparents.  My grandad worked at Cadbury's chocolate factory in Birmingham and had pockets full of sweets and chocolates that had failed the high quality standards to be allowed out for sale.  He would bring them home for his grandchildren when they, we, were staying and as he had 24 grandchildren, that was a lot of square cream eggs and odd shaped bar sixes. Our grandmother made us chips all day long as we would eat nothing else while with her, she made the best chips in the whole world and none of us were allowed chips at home so Grandma had to do it.  And she made us sweet tea in little glass cups and saucers.  She did all this with delight because she was perfect.  And that is my role model for my two little boys here, despite my cold making me feel as if I had been run over by a freight train. There would be an end date for this stay, the boys would be collected and taken home, and I would then dig my own grave and lie in it.  Not really, but that is how I felt. 

The meds worked brilliantly.  I got away with it.  Mostly I looked a bit under the weather but even though I had moments when I thought I would have to call in the army, all went to plan and everyone had a lovely time.  When the darlings did go home, I went up to bed and let my cold out of its cage and struggled with what seemed like a life and death flu dragon.  I felt so awful but oh it was lovely to be in bed.   I think it was the flu, proper flu, because I began to go a bit potty and dream I was trying to get into a medieval village with a gang of paupers and cripples in order to have a good Christmas.  I coughed and spluttered, my eyes and nose ran, my head ached and I thought, what have I done to you, God, that I should have to have this?  Now, I was able to give in to the lurgy, and fight it out in the comfort of my bed, a battle between good and evil, between life and death, between having flu and not having flu.

Trying all night to get into here with my band of cripples and paupers

I am a healthy person.  Mostly, I shake off any twinges very quickly and I regularly rest and take time out.  I don't usually get as far as manifesting any symptoms.  As I lay in my bed though this time, a few days ago, when not trying to get into a medieval castle in my head, I remembered how we used to get the flu in the old days, and how it was just one of those things.  My step grandmother would get what she called a "bally stinking cold".  At my boarding school, I would dry my big cotton hankies on the radiators in the classrooms during lessons so I could keep on using them when I had a bally stinking cold.  It never occurred to me to do otherwise, I thought I was being extremely practical.  My mother occasionally got flu and when she did, it was bed, warmth, rest and lots of cups of tea till she felt better.  My father, my three brothers and I and anyone who was visiting (20 first cousins and 12 uncles and aunts just on my mother's side of the family, plus the old great aunts from Ireland) would go and see her and smooth her furrowed brow, bring her more hankies, and go about our business.  No one panicked, no one left food outside her door, no one gave a monkeys, and mum got better and life went on.  At school, if we became ill enough, we went to the infirmary where the wonderful Sister Francoise had a small kitchen full of little brown teapots with hand knitted cosies on, which she would use to make tea four times a day for any lucky girl that got to stay in the infirmary with her.  That was bliss, that may be where I picked up my teapot and teacosy habit. 

So back now to my sick bed here.  I am, for your information, still in it.  Day three now of giving into the demons, and I feel much better.  But these days it is not good to be ill and not good to be displaying the symptoms I had.  Headache, runny nose, cough, tiredness all sound like the current no no virus, and it is impossible to tell unless one tests for it.  And the tests are not reliable, and so we all assume the worst and go a bit mad. 

The boys just gone home, about to do battle with the life and death flu dragon, still in my lipstick.

I do not assume for a moment that you go mad, I am sure you don't, people who read my blog do not go mad - but the general accepted way to proceed is to advise the ill person to test themselves, over and over again because it must be that illness, which when at last you do test positive for it, means we rush to all the new protocols for a biohazard.  Except you are now the biohazard.  No Christmas or New Year for you matey.  Hide in that there bed and do not come out for two weeks and we will throw your food in thought the window from a safe distance and may God have mercy on your soul.  Again, I do not say you do that, but it is the kind of thing that does pass for sane and practical and that, as you can tell, does not sit well with me.  

Kind and good people suggested to me day and night that I should test myself for our new variant of this no no virus.  But I have had flu before, I know what flu is, and this is flu, I said.  Well, they said, just to be sure.  Of course they suggested it, it is the latest craze, and it frightens a good many people.  If I tested and it said Yes! I would have to stay in bed and keep away from people and everyone who knew would run a mile and wash their clothes if they walked too close to my door.  If I tested and it said No!  I would stay in bed for the same amount of time as a Yes! result, and people would go about their business and leave lucozade at my door to make me feel better.  Either way, I would stay in bed for the same amount of time and come out when I felt better.  The difference to my mind is the amount of fuss involved.  So I have not tested myself, and have thanked my kind friends who are suggesting what they think is the right thing to do, and had none of the fuss.  My flu is getting better, and no one else got it.  

It seemed to me that once I became ill, it was expected of me to not just have any old illness, I needed to have this one special illness.  All the symptoms were the same, I was told, in which case, perhaps the other illness is flu.  I don't know. But I had just the same old winter illness we have all had for years, the flu.  I thank you.

I understand that what I think may annoy the hell out of you, and I am sorry about that.  The thing is, I feel very strongly that when we are ill, we need each other and not stigma and a shut down.  If what we have is as bad as the bubonic plague, then yes all bets are off and I am with you.  I will happily throw your food in through your open window and run. In the case of bubonic plague, the bodies would be visibly piling up and no one can mistake it for anything else.  Perhaps this is not a sensible comparison, our no no virus is not the plague, and though it is horrible for anyone who suffers from it - and many do not - it is not likely to scythe you down in your tracks and kill all your family in a weekend. 

Common sense tells us that anyone who is vulnerable needs to stay away from illnesses they can catch, and common courtesy makes us respect that vulnerability.   Wild horses would not drag me to see my friends, like Marie or Claire who are compromised with chemotherapy and other difficulties, and anyone recovering from surgery should not need to worry that I will turn up shouting Flesh Wound!  I won't, until it is safe for them and they are happy to see me. 

But enough now, I am through the worst of my flu and it has not affected a single other friend or family member, and all of us have lived to another day.  

Happy new year and thank you for sticking with me, and for reading my blogs. You are wonderful!


I'm cured!

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