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.

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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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The ugliest infant you ever did see

The first three months of a newborn baby’s life are known as the ‘fourth trimester’.  The idea is that the baby is not yet really ready to be born; he or she is delivered early because of the disproportionate size of the human head, which would mean that delivery was impossible if the baby stayed in for any longer.

The practical result of this is that newborn babies are incredibly needy.  Their vision is myopic, their limbs are weak and shaky, and they require intensive, round the clock care.

It is completely overwhelming, as a parent.  You think you’re prepared for the work involved, but you never are, because it’s so much more work than it seems like it conceivably could be.  Newborn babies don’t have a bedtime; you spend all evening in the same grind as the day.  They don’t have a sense of self; if you leave them alone for a moment, they cry.

And something happens to you, mired in the mud of hormones and fatigue; you lose your perspective.  It seems like it is going to go on forever.  You know, logically, that you won’t spend the rest of your life burping and cleaning and feeding and wiping and rocking, but it seems like it.    And you start to think that maybe you should be doing something else with your days, because surely this can’t be it, and should you be achieving more?  It’s only afterwards that you realise that you were doing just what you needed to: surrendering yourself to this tiny baby and its incessant need.  It wasn’t for long, in retrospect.

Of course, this is a metaphor for sobriety, that ugly, squawking, greedy infant.  In those early weeks, it swallows up your life, and you have to find a new way to do everything.  Your social life is abruptly curtailed, because it was based around alcohol and evenings out.  Your relationships are strained.  You are so, so tired.  The fatigue weights you down and no matter how much sleep you get – in the first days you get very little, as your body adjusts to falling asleep without your soporific of choice – you wake up exhausted.  And you protest against it, because if this is your new life, you want the old one back, and quickly.

uglybaby

But it’s not.  It’s just a transition period.  Give in to it.  Yield.  It will pass.

Why was I thinking about this now?  Because I was lying in bed the other day, having trouble getting to sleep, and feeling all sorts of cross about the fact that I can’t drink.  I thought this bit had passed, I grumbled to myself.  I have done the hard bit, and here at nine months things should be easier.  Damn it all, it isn’t fair, I thought to myself.

And then I remembered that I have felt like this before.  With my babies.  Other mothers reading will recognise this: the dreaded nine month sleep regression.

For the uninitiated, the nine month sleep regression – which occurs anywhere between 8 and 11 months old, broadly speaking – is what happens when your darling infant decides that she is going to learn to crawl, attempt to stand up, and usually sprout a few teeth into the bargain.   Quite understandably, these enterprises take a lot of energy (a lot of babies lose weight at this age) and also require a lot of practice.  Which means that sleeping goes out of the window, and any incremental gains you have made towards becoming a semi-functional human being once more are comprehensively lost.

exhausted

It’s not as bad as the infant phase, in a lot of ways.  But it feels worse, because it feels like you’re right back where you started, and you just can’t go through that again, not yet.

My sobriety is nine months old.  It is learning to crawl.  It is pulling up on objects.  It is starting to want things beyond its grasp, things that aren’t as simple as its mere continued existence.  It is ambitious, and determined.

Both of my children were awful sleepers in that first year.  And both of them are growing up to be incredible people.  When I complained about the colic and the sleeplessness, the strong wills and stubbornness, people said ‘just you wait.  Those characteristics are going to make for great, strong young women one day’.  When I was walking the corridors at night holding a wailing, furious baby, that seemed like scant consolation.

My youngest daughter is about to turn three.  She speaks in full, complex, clear sentences, and interacts with her peers, and has ambitions and dreams about what she wants to be when she grows up.  She picks out her own clothes in the morning and pours her own breakfast at the table.  She is kind and loving, even as she fiercely guards her independence and possessions from well-meaning intervention.  My eldest breaks my heart with her beauty and grace, and her teachers stop me in the corridors to tell me what a pleasure she is to teach.

Some days, the best parent is the one who gets out of the way, stops trying to control things, and has faith that their children will grow and thrive under the sunshine of loving kindness.  Sometimes, the best thing to do is to surrender to the hard bits and have faith that they will pass.

running happy

I got my sobriety through its newborn phase, and now I have to live through a regression, and as long as I don’t get in its way, it will grow and thrive just like my daughters.  Even if it does throw the odd toddler tantrum along the way.

Parenting is hard enough. Drinking makes it harder.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a parent. Lovely Husband and I had many, many conversations on the subject; he was clear that he wanted kids some day, but not as early in our marriage as I did. Being a sensible chap, often to a fault, he wanted to wait until I had finished my law degree and we had made a dent in our mortgage. I just wanted babies. In the end, I acquiesced to his timeline, because I knew that he’d be an excellent father when he was ready, and I was right. We had an easier time of early parenthood than a lot of people, because of the years of preparation that had gone before.

That’s the media sound byte version of how we negotiated the baby question. The uglier version is that for six long years, from the day of our wedding to the day we conceived Big Girl, I thought about babies. Even when I had other challenges in my life; law school, working long hours in a big firm, buying a new house, I still thought about babies. A friend bought me a parenting book, and I read it over and over again, trying to imagine what it would be like to have a child.  I planned the nursery, the books, the routines of my imaginary day.

Every month I would hope, against reason, for an accident to have happened.  I seriously considered pricking holes in the condoms, and what stopped me was not my own moral compass but fear at being caught. Every time one of our friends had a child, I felt a pang of such envy and loss that I started reading infertility forums, because those were the women whose experiences most closely described the way I felt. And yes, I realise that might seem like a selfish and disproportionate thing to say, if you’re reading this and you have actually had infertility struggles. I know that. I even knew that then. But the feelings didn’t go away, for all that.  It wasn’t pretty. It left such a deep wound, in fact, that even after Big Girl was born, and we started to discuss the timing of a second child, the scar was ripped open as soon as he wanted to discuss waiting longer than I thought was reasonable. For a long time, it was the most important thing in my life, and the thing that I wanted more than anything else.

sleepingbaby

And then, of course, I ruined it by drinking.

Before I go on I want to make something clear. This isn’t a post about the disservice we do to our children if we drink heavily. It’s about the disservice we do to ourselves, as parents. There is enough shame and guilt around parenting as it is without me adding more. What I want to say is that having children is as wondrous, as beautiful, as it is hard and frustrating, and it is that wonder and beauty that keeps us going.  But drinking changes that balance, and makes it much, much harder to enjoy parenting.

By the time Big Girl was about eighteen months old, I was drinking quite heavily. Wine had stopped being a nice thing to have in the evenings, in generous quantities or otherwise, and had started being the reason why I put one foot in front of another during the long parenting day. I would wake up, realise it wasn’t an office day, and my heart would sink. The time would stretch out in front of me. Reading books, playing blocks, cuddling: if I had the energy I’d bundle her up and we’d brave the steep hills and walk to the park, where I’d push her on a swing for eternity. It felt like I was in a desert, with nothing but flat, dry sand in front of me, and nothing to do but to put one foot in front of the other, trudging through the hours of unrelenting sameness.  And the thing that got me through was the knowledge that at 5pm there would be an oasis, because then I could pour a glass of wine while I fed her her dinner. I loved her, and she was cute and adorable, but I didn’t enjoy being home with her at all. In my darkest months, which I can’t talk about without feeling hot shame, I was pouring a glass of wine in the early afternoon, with lunch, on the grounds that then I could float lightly through my day with my child and shut off the part of my brain that was screaming out for intellectual stimulation and adult company. I’d switch on children’s TV and steal an hour to read a book with a glass next to me, so desperate was I for relief from the tedium.

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This is a difficult post to write, because writing about the joys of parenthood is almost impossible. Perhaps that’s why, despite the thousands of words printed about modern motherhood, I still didn’t realise that the way I felt wasn’t alright. I knew that some women find parenthood excruciatingly dull, and everyone finds it hard, but when they said ‘but the overwhelming love makes up for it, doesn’t it?’ I nodded and smiled and thought to myself  ‘Well, no. No, it doesn’t.’ Because although I loved my daughters more than anything else I’d ever loved, I was rarely flooded with joy when I was caring for them. There was nothing transformative about it. I loved them, I thought about them, constantly, I would lay down my life for them, but also I was just me, going through the motions and wondering when I got some of my life back.

And I made peace with that.  With the fact that I found them boring sometimes, and frustrating, and that I was happier at the office, and that although I adored them, I longed for a glass of wine at the end of the day.  I’m smart, and well educated, and driven: of course the pace of toddlers made me feel shackled.  It didn’t make me a bad parent,  I reassured myself, although it did, sometimes, make me an unhappy one.

I don’t think I really believed that, though.  My friend Rachel, talking to me about social media and alcohol last week, said something that struck a deep chord.  She said, about the fact that she used photo-sharing sites far more as an active drinker: ‘Uploading pictures helped me compose a sort of false-reality, of a reasonably functional person with interesting hobbies and an apparent fascination with cooking. All that said “this life is okay.”‘  When I look back on how I parented, as a drinker, it is obvious to me that I was desperately compensating for my lack of authenticity.  I posted pictures on Facebook of wholesome activities like finger painting and baking.  I carefully monitored TV time, knowing that I had to limit it most of the time because sometimes my willpower would crumble and it’d be on all day.  All the time that I was parenting, I was looking over my own shoulder: am I behaving as I ought?  Should I take them to the park more often?  Am I too strict or too lax or too inconsistent?  Is it imperative that they eat their vegetables?  Am I doing this right, am I playing this role, the role of parent, correctly?

I’m a much, much happier parent now.  There’s a saying I love, which is that sobriety delivers all the things that alcohol promises.  I have more energy.  I have more patience.  I have more enthusiasm.  But mostly, I have more love.

Newly sober, we feel everything far more strongly than we did before, realising for the first time how numbed we have been. I had no idea before I stopped drinking that I didn’t love my girls as much as I was capable of.  None.  But it’s true.  Sober, my love for them is turned up to top volume. It’s as if I have been on an aeroplane, counting the hours while the pressure builds in my ears and sound is muted, and now I am finally back on solid ground. My ears ‘pop’ and sounds come rushing back in, clear and crisp and distinct.  There is so much love now, and it is so loud and so joyful.  I laugh so often at my funny girls.  I rough house with them.  I swoop them up and cover them in kisses.  And of course I also snap at them when it’s T-minus-5 minutes to the school run and they’re still wearing pyjamas, or get cross when Little Girl breaks my favourite mug because she’s running too fast around a corner.

calvin

More than that, I have my self esteem back.  Just as switching a nightlight on banishes my daughter’s monsters, sobriety has banished mine back to the shadows.  I trust myself.  If I shout sometimes, that’s okay.  If I let them watch TV sometimes, that’s okay too.  If I spend an hour racing around the back garden shouting ROAWR at them while they shriek in delighted glee, it’s no longer because I’m saying to the universe look, look, I’m being a good parent. It’s just because I want to, and because it’s fun.

I’m not perfect.  But I am, for the first time in my years of parenthood, living the life that I dreamt of throughout my painful, yearning, baby-obsessed twenties.  Now to convince Lovely Husband that another baby is a good idea.