Johann Hari and the cause of addiction

Here is an article that I want to talk about, but before you click over and read it, please be warned: I found this deeply, deeply triggering.   The author is effectively arguing that if you are happy and find community and happiness in your world, then you will no longer be an addict; that the root cause of addiction is loneliness, and once loneliness is removed, the addiction goes away.  If that’s not a perspective you feel like you can deal with today, don’t read it.  Otherwise, though, please do; it’s a fascinating article in its own right.  One of the things that really interests me is alternative approaches to drug and alcohol abuse, which legalises their use and concentrates on eradicating the pre-existing reasons why people abuse them.

The author, Johann Hari, has recently published a book about the American War on Drugs (‘Chasing the Scream’), from which this article comes, and a lot of his arguments are solid.  He’s a great investigative journalist.  In fact, his findings mirror a whole body of research done by, amongst others, Dr David Best, who has published widely on the findings that recovery is best achieved where the recovering addict has access to peer groups and a sense of community even when those are not specifically recovery focused.  That is, even joining a rowing club is more likely to bolster your recovery efforts than not doing so.

Hari talks about the fact that in the Vietnam War, up to 20% of American soldiers were using heroin.  Taken out of that environment and reunited with friends and family, most of them simply quit – as, of course, do the vast majority of people given medical heroin, or morphine, in hospital settings.    Also, rats.

Rat Park, a wonderland for heroin-addicted rats

Rat Park, a wonderland for heroin-addicted rats

So why then, at a time in my life when I am arguably the happiest I have ever been, did I read this article and feel a surge of hope that maybe I could drink normally?  If my addiction was caused by loneliness – and that rings partially true, in that it accelerated when I was an isolated new mother – surely I could moderate now?

But Hari isn’t talking about moderating.  He’s not relating experiments that allowed addicts to use their drug in a social fashion; he’s just saying that given enough support, community and other reasons to be happy, one stops being reliant on a drug.  Alcohol is the only drug about which we preserve this ridiculous illusion that the opposite of addiction is moderation.  Of course it isn’t.  I can get over an addiction, but I can’t drink.

Still, though.  My initial surge of hope tells me that my addiction is still there, waiting for me.  Because, really, there’s no reason for me to drink.  What is it that I’m hoping for, when I hope to be able to drink?

The same thing that drives the addiction to begin with.  Community.

party

Hari’s book may talk about this, I don’t know; his article doesn’t.  But he does say this;

If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find – the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding’. A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

Sure.  Probably.  But there’s something else.  The use of softer drugs, like alcohol and nicotine, have been sold to us explicitly as increasing our sense of community.  We haven’t turned to them because there’s nothing else; we have turned to them because they sell us the illusion that they will give us the friends that we want.  Happy shiny people clinking glasses in the sunlight; images of party crowds; romantic dates that create lifetime bonds.  Tobacco companies used to do the same thing, and then when they were banned from doing so, the smokers themselves banded together in solidarity.  Being a smoker became an identity, albeit a persecuted one.  A friend once said to me ‘I know I should give up smoking, but all the cool people at a party smoke, and I wouldn’t have an excuse to go outside with them anymore’.  I knew what she meant.

I have fulminated against alcohol marketing a few times on this blog, and every time I am misinterpreted as wanting to ban alcohol.  Let me be clear: I don’t want to ban alcohol.  I don’t want to ban any drug, in fact.  I am strongly in favour of decriminalisation.  Stop fighting a punitive war on addicts and start addressing root causes, and while you’re at it, how about funding some decent welfare programs and promoting equality and then let’s see who ends up under a bridge smoking crack.

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My issue is with marketing, and this article – with which I pretty much agree – only strengthens that view.  If the opposite of addiction is human connection, then the attempt to sell human connection as a lure to buying a drug is all the more dangerous.  Marketing preys on the lonely and the unhappy and the isolated.  So does addiction.

When I miss drinking, what I miss is the shared experience of drinking.  Of course, in the end drinking became deeply isolating for me, because I was hugging secrets, and living with shame, and choosing to stay home and drink instead of go out and painfully moderate.  That, too, is part of the nature of addiction.  Like an abusive partner, it creates an environment in which it can flourish.  It robs you of friendship, family, community, so that all that is left in your life is the drug itself.

But twenty years of associating alcohol with community don’t go away just because my logical brain knows better.  It is lonely to be the only person sipping cola in a room of twenty drinkers.  It feels like a loss, sometimes, that I can’t share a bottle of wine with LH, a bottle that we bought together on our honeymoon and saved for a special occasion.

I don’t miss drinking.  I miss bonding.  I know it’s an illusion, and that my authentic self is better at making authentic connections with people.  But this, you see, is where my issue with alcohol marketing comes from.  It isn’t enough to tell people that they should drink responsibility, when most marketing campaigns are aimed squarely at the people who won’t, because they can’t.

But in the meantime, sober friends, go join a club.  Make a new friend.  Take up a hobby.  You are loveable and worthy and valuable in your own right.  We all are.

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“I’m ruining your birthday and I can’t have a drink to fix it”

So, my weekend.  First of all, my in-laws were all very reasonable about the teetotal thing; my mother-in-law even asked LH what I did drink and brought along a bottle of soft drink especially for me.  No complaints there.

And yet, on Saturday night, while my mother-in-law exhorted everyone to get up and dance, I was sobbing in the corridor because I couldn’t have a drink.

The problem was over-commitment.  On Friday, I was a bridesmaid in the wedding of two very dear friends.  The ceremony was beautiful, the bride radiant and the groom suitably ecstatic at his luck.  But weddings are tiring at the best of times if you’re in the bridal party.  There are last-minutes dashes to replace lost flower girl shoes, late nights in honour of the bride and the inevitable standing in heels for hours on end. 

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In this case, matters were made worse by the fact that I had both my young children at the wedding, and was partially in charge of ensuring that the groom’s three children from a previous relationship didn’t ruin the festivities.  What that meant was that I was on high alert from the beginning, carefully managing other people’s behaviour so as not to ruin the special day for the newlyweds. 

And then the weekend with the in-laws meant further managing of my children’s behaviour.  My kids are good kids.  They’re excellently behaved and well mannered.  But it was a five hour drive, and then there was an adult party in a rented house with no toys, they were tired from the night before, the cake was left till well past their usual bedtime, and although there were presents for them there (as we hadn’t seen these relatives at Christmas), it was decided to postpone the unwrapping until the following day.  My kids are three and six years old.

Also, they were sharing a bedroom for the first time.

So the party progressed, and I was spending a lot of energy ensuring that my children didn’t melt down, and finally the cake came out and I could put them to bed, but bed was exciting and they popped up like little jacks-in-a-box as fast as I put them down, and I hadn’t eaten anything, and by the time I finally rejoined the party it was past ten pm.

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As soon as I walked into the party room, my mother-in-law called for me to dance.  My husband, glowing with a couple of red wines inside him, asked with a smile what music I’d like.  Someone else made a joke about are those children in bed finally.

To my horror, my lip started to wobble and I turned nd fled.  LH followed me into the corridor, all concern.  What’s wrong?, he asked. 

‘I’m ruining your party because you want me to dance and be happy and I’m tired and I can’t have a drink to fix it’, I blurted.  He looked at me in silence, because that is the first time I have come close to saying I wished I could drink but felt I couldn’t.

But the thing is, I didn’t want to drink.  What I wanted was some space.  What I wanted was to be left alone for a moment, to relax, to have a moment where I wasn’t feeling as if someone else’s enjoyment and happiness was on me to provide.

That, though, felt impossible to achieve.  It’s all very well to say, take care of your own needs first, and practice self-care, and put on your own oxygen mask.  But this was a milestone birthday, to which people had travelled for hours.  And the previous day was a wedding.  Two people in love who deserved a special day, and who needed the reassurance that their bridal party would run interference for them.

One of the (many!) things I love about sobriety is that it forces me to evaluate my own needs for self-care.  For space, and solitude, and peace.    The narrative of recovery affirms that it is okay for me to look after me. 

More and more, it seems to me that alcohol facilitates an overlooking of our own needs that goes past the simple fact that it’s bad for you.  It masks the true needs that we have underneath.  It makes us happy and euphoric when we would be better off honouring sad feelings.  It makes us want sex with people we otherwise would refuse – or with loved ones at times we would ordinarily say no – and sometimes I think we use it deliberately to make that decision because we feel that we should say yes. 

no

“Got energy back using Chardonnay” says Bridget Jones in her Diary, preparing for a dinner party she doesn’t want to host at the end of a long working day.  We do these things because we don’t feel like we can just say no.

And of course, alcohol makes us feel worse about ourselves.  So we think of ourselves as lazy or shallow or unmotivated or boring or stupid.  So we drink to mask those things, and we drink rather than examining them.  The more we hate ourselve, the more we feel that we can’t put ourselves first.  We’re too crap for that; why should we, lazy boring we, be able to turn down a party invitation or pass up a date with a stranger?  So we keep saying yes when we need to say no, and we drink to ease the conflict between that yes and that no.

I told LH that I was going to hide in the bedroom for ten minutes and read, and then I was going to come out, and I might dance but I might not, and that I loved him just as much either way.  And it was okay, in the end.  Not great, but okay.

And I didn’t have a drink to fix it.

In which our heroine is unabashedly bitchy about drinkers

So, I have this enormous party to go to this weekend, and I would like to be catty about it please. It’s being organised by my in-laws, so right off the bat you know there’s going to be some sort of eye rolling from me. And they’re drinkers. They’re not problem drinkers, per se – at least, I’ve never thought of them as such, except for my father-in-law, who was – but they’re the type who can’t possibly contemplate celebrating any occasion without copious food and alcohol.

Both my mother-in-law and husband hit milestone birthdays this year, and their birthdays being close together, it was decided that the whole family should rent a large holiday home and have a weekend away to celebrate. Saturday night is the actual party, for which invitations have been sent to a number of other people.

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This is what the invitation says that guests should bring, in addition to ‘dancing shoes’:

Healthy livers
Staying power
Paracetamol
Alcohol

It’s nice to have the angle of the event right out front, isn’t it?

Further emails are being sent to the extended family by my mother-in-law’s sister, who, a late invitee, has taken over the organising and delegated us all to cater a meal. Because goodness knows, if we have to make ourselves a piece of toast at any point during this four day extravaganza, it will be RUINED.

Here are some extracts from today:

‘Don’t forget, whoever is catering Sunday breakfast, to bring plenty of bacon and eggs – there’ll be some delicate stomachs!’
‘No entry without wine, and teetotallers are not invited!’

Teetotallers are not invited.

Oh, look. I know they’re just excited, and trying to set the scene for a wild party. But come the fuck on. LH is turning forty this year, and these invitations are being sent out by his parents’ generation. This is not a party for eighteen year olds, of whom I would forgive a little gaucheness.

Can we seriously not think of a way to indicate that this is a big party and everyone should have fun without hammering the alcohol references? For that matter, can we not contemplate the possibility that one can have fun at a party without alcohol? Especially given that the attendees include LH’s 85 year old grandmother, and five children under the age of seven?

Can we not be grateful that our daughter-in-law, being sober, has offered to cater Sunday breakfast on the grounds that she won’t be hungover, rather than making disparaging remarks about teetotallers?

It is just so damn juvenile, you guys. I don’t actually think that there will be any sort of big deal made on the night about me not drinking, and if there is I can more than hold my own. It’s just…it’s just so juvenile! SO. JUVENILE.

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I don’t care if people drink. I keep alcohol in my house, I pour it for guests. But how do you get to the age of sixty-odd and never move on from the idea that you can’t have fun without getting drunk?

But of course, I used to think that as well. I didn’t say it out loud, because I knew that not everybody thought that way, and I knew that it was a deviant way of thinking. I knew that I should be able to at least pretend to have fun without alcohol. My in-laws are a very insular mob; they are one another’s main social circle, so maybe they’ve just never stepped outside that paradigm. I should probably not be bitchy about it, and instead say something poignant about the insidious way in which alcohol marketing has ingrained this association between fun and drinking into our lives.

But I can’t be arsed. I have to go and spend three days with a bunch of sixty year olds who are carrying on like eighteen year olds at their first keg party, and by the way also my mother-in-law hates her son-in-law and has asked her brother-in-law (following this?) to Speak To Him because, I don’t know, maybe only men can speak to men or something. And oh my God it is going to be so bad, SO BAD. And also so drunken.

Will I update you? Of course I will!