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One of the hottest topics relating to addiction is the concept of personal responsibility.

Do addicts bring it on themselves? Are addicts morally weak? Do addicts repeatedly fail in recovery because they refuse to take on responsibility?

On the other hand, it can be rightly claimed that all this emphasis on the individual is distorting an understanding of addiction. If, as some claim, addiction is a ‘disease’ how can people be responsible for it? Why is there virtually no alcohol addiction in Saudi Arabia (where alcohol is prohibited by law)? What social factors play a part in addiction? Do some commercial products – tobacco is an example – ‘hook’ some people in the right circumstances?

There is no such thing as an addict; there are only individuals suffering with addiction. Everybody is different, but some groups seem more prone to addiction to others. In the professions journalists, the police, doctors, entertainers, sportspeople and politicians have high rates of addiction. So too do people with multiple and complex disadvantages such as homelessness, poverty, lack of educational and cultural capital, mental illness, criminal background, adverse childhood experiences, trauma – or just one of these.

And people from different social backgrounds seem to be treated very differently when their addictions come to light. Newspaper readers will weep over the death of a pop idol through drugs; a politician will be praised for his ‘brave struggle’ against alcohol. In popular culture – films, books and television – we have come to expect our flawed heroes often to have an addiction problem as one of their flaws, a lonewolf cop bucking the rules and knocking back malt whisky while meditating on a case, a singer in rehab, a public figure making public penance.

Less favourably are seen the ‘scagheads’, the ‘junkies’,  the street addicts, the working class addicts. Although victims all their lives of unequal and unjust social conditions, turning to drugs or drink or gambling to escape if only for a moment, it is they who are most harshly blamed and despised for their lack of responsibility – while those with a lifetime of advantages are treated with adulation and sympathy.

In his remarkable book, Good Cop Bad War, former undercover cop Neil Woods charts his journey of increasing knowledge through the ‘low life’ of desperate addicts (in contrast to the venomous gangster business cartels that bring drugs to market). He grow increasingly sympathetic to the friends he makes while pretending to be himself an addict. Apart from their addiction, most are essentially decent, often intelligent, kind and caring. One such friend , Cammy, tells him his heart-felt news that he has heard a good friend has died. Neil asks whether he will go to the funeral to say goodbye and Cammy replies, ‘I’m not going to the funeral. I wouldn’t do that to the family. The last thing they want is some dirty junkie turning up and ruining everything.’ As Woods observes, ‘No matter how society may condemn and look down on the addict, it is never, ever as low a view as he has of himself.’

That internalisation of social attitudes and stigma is something all addicts have to deal with. Part of them remains ‘clean’ and is a constant accusing voice; the addict hates themself. Guilt and shame alone can maintain an addiction – that belief of such utter worthlessness that there is no point in trying to stop, instead seeking that absurd temporary negation of inner torment with a fix.

Of course, those with a lot going for them tend to do better. Not everybody, of course: the nature of every individual addiction, while having common attributes, is unique in the complexities of an individual. It’s probably easier on the whole if you’re, say, a teacher to have three months leave on full pay to attend rehab, or just to get your life together, than if you are without any money, any support, any care, any love, surviving in brutal conditions. Though yes, many who seem to have well insulated lives with all the support in place do succumb, grow sick and die. And yes, too, some at the very bottom recover and flourish.

There are as many as 40% of addicts who recover spontaneously, relatively painlessly, without any intervention by ‘experts’ or support organisations. A well known example of this is ‘maturing out’ whereby young people who have addictive or risky tendencies literally grow out of them when they settle into employment, get married, start a family. Another famous example is how 80% of American soldiers deemed heroin addicted in Vietnam lost their addiction when they returned to the States and their families. Against this, many others in recovery are certain that addiction is a disease for life and that the only way to manage it is by faithfully following a programme such as a 12-steps one.

A word is needed here too about dependence versus addiction. Through force of habit, culture, lifestyle, many drinkers, for instance consume not only health-damaging amounts but quantities which make them physically dependent. The withdrawl from physical dependency can be life threatening and ideally requires medical supervision. Yet many heavy drinkers then go onto just stop or greatly limit consumption: they were heavy drinkers, not alcohol addicts. There is an additional dependence which is separate from addiction – psychological dependence. Partly this is just the force of habit, neural correlates in the brain ‘speaking’ loudly to perform an action when certain triggers arise. Usually one can become psychologically dependent on a substance or activity to avoid stress, negative feelings or often an undiagnosed mental disorder such as anxiety and depression. Dependence can, and often does, lead to addiction but it’s still possible to recognise a dependence and take responsibility for halting it with acceptance of necessary effort and suffering which will vary greatly in terms of time and intensity according to unique individuals in unique circumstances.

Addiction by its very nature, the heart of addiction, disowns the individual’s core self. It disowns the possibility of being responsible for one’s destiny, for making deep choices. No addict will be able to understand what is going on. They are fully aware of the misery they leave in their wake, of their loss of pride, reputation, money, health, relationships, status, children. They desperately want to stop. But they can’t. In the old days people spoke of a demon inside that controlled them. The demon took them over. This degree of inner torment varies from individual to individual. It’s certainly true that there are many ‘highly functioning addicts’ in all walks of life, folk nobody begins to suspect as being an addict, and, of, course, another core attribute of addiction is the addict’s propensity to deny their addiction. It’s for this reason that common wisdom has it that people must ‘hit rock bottom’ before they can start to recover. This is, fortunately, a myth. It may be true that a secret gambler’s addiction only comes to light when the bailiffs arrive to take the family home and he or she spirals into heavy debt, bankruptcy, prison or failed suicide attempts. But in many cases – often in consort with worried others – many are lucky enough to address their addiction before absolute calamity.

The foregoing suggests just a few of the strands in the complexity of an individual’s addiction. If there is a common attribute of addiction it is that to take responsibility for recovery one must already have made a vital move. This vital move, this perception that one is not only the addicted self, is the precursor of recovery. For some, this vital move is totally unconscious and involves little pain and effort, for others it is a lifelong process.

To conclude, to return to the topic of addiction and responsibility. All of us are a product of our environments, probably more so than products of our genes. Children have been sold drugs from icecream vans (dealers do not ask for age verification or advise responsible use of their products) so 12 year olds have become heroin addicts. The vans are part of the environment, behind the vans are networks of the drugs business, also part of the environment. People continue to smoke cigarettes but on the packets is written ‘smoking kills’, and tobacco is more and more restricted by government policies: it’s recognised that tobacco addiction is not the result of weak responsibility in individuals. Campaigns to restrict and limit junk food (itself  addictive), sugar, salt, fat are not controversial. People argue about minimum pricing for alcohol, but the argument is not see as being around any bizarre claims. In short, government and industry are seen as having a major role in addressing the damage that harmful products may do to individuals and society, including addictive products.

Current debate about addiction is skewed towards a focus on individual responsibility. Just as a parent is deemed responsisible for feeding their children high doses of sugar and fat (these being by far the cheapest foods to buy for those in poverty), so the addict is held reponsible for choosing their addiction (even if this was motivated by a need to escape misery and despair into 20 minutes of artificial paradise). There are no jackpots, magic fixes that will ever beat the scourge of addiction but government and industry have to stop denying their role and play their part in attenuating it.

(An academic, nuanced discussion of responsibility and addiction is in The Journal of Gambling Issues)