Is it really 'foolishness' that makes someone take heroin?

Paula Yates was not a foolish woman. She was bright, talented and profoundly unhappy
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The coroner used the word "foolish" and, in literal terms, it would be hard to argue with him. Yes, sticking a needle in your arm and taking a dose of heroin to obliterate your worldly pain seems a "foolish" thing to do. Earlier this week an acquaintance of mine died of liver failure brought on by alcoholism. I don't doubt that people would also see that death as "foolish". Who needs to drink that much? For the longest time I was inclined to view addiction in pretty much the same light. And then I learnt some deeper lessons. "Foolish" is a word that belongs in the world of the settled and secure; it is wasted breath in the country of addiction.

The coroner used the word "foolish" and, in literal terms, it would be hard to argue with him. Yes, sticking a needle in your arm and taking a dose of heroin to obliterate your worldly pain seems a "foolish" thing to do. Earlier this week an acquaintance of mine died of liver failure brought on by alcoholism. I don't doubt that people would also see that death as "foolish". Who needs to drink that much? For the longest time I was inclined to view addiction in pretty much the same light. And then I learnt some deeper lessons. "Foolish" is a word that belongs in the world of the settled and secure; it is wasted breath in the country of addiction.

Whatever you may say about Paula Yates, she was not a "foolish" woman. Paula Yates was bright and talented, a woman capable of great love and kindness, and she was profoundly unhappy.

In all the coverage of Yates's case, I have searched for the word "illness" and failed to find it. There is a wise old maxim in the treatment of addiction: "We are not bad people trying to be good, but sick people trying to be well." It is hard to accept that proposition when you are on the receiving end of addictive behaviour, if you are the partner who must put up with the lies and evasions or the violence. But ask yourself if choking on your own vomit after a drugs-and-drink binge, or lying in your own urine in a police cell, or losing partner, children, home and work represents the choice of the rational and healthy mind, and the answer is clear.

And yet we persist in seeing Paula Yates's life - the life of all the publicly sacrificed - as a morality play in which the safe audience can gasp with horror at the mad choices of the leading actor. The real story happens in what F Scott Fitzgerald so memorably described as the real dark night of the soul where "it is always three o'clock in the morning". It is the loneliest place on this planet.

For the most part, the media see it differently. They indulge the myth of the doomed heroine, somehow suggesting that Paula Yates's decline was an inevitable consequence of the death of her true love, Michael Hutchence. It is the psychology of sentimental pop songs, the "I Can't Live if Living is Without You" school of relationships. It has fostered the most dangerous myth of the post-war generation: that our happiness is the responsibility of another.

The other night I heard one friend say that Hutchence was responsible for introducing Paula to the world of drink and drugs. In doing so, he attempted to blame her death on the behaviour of others. That isn't how it works. It was in a council flat in Leeds that I heard the most accurate description of addiction from a 25-year-old woman junkie. "Why can't you give it up?" I asked. "Because I'm scared of the pain," she answered.

And that was her pain. She wasn't blaming it on the father who walked out when she was six years old, nor on the grim streets on which she'd grown up. Her pain, her addiction. Whatever demons Paula battled with, they were not placed there by Hutchence or any of the other men in her life. They belonged to her and her alone. It is perhaps more accurate to say that at least part of her crisis was her dependence on people and substances that provided an escape from unhappiness.

Linking up with Hutchence, a lonely and dependent figure himself, might look insane to the rational observer; in Paula Yates's case it made perfect sense. He was a mirror image of her, they had pain in common and must surely have recognised that in each other at an early stage.

Heroin may not have been her primary drug of choice (the coroner said she was an occasional user) but her numerous stays in clinics suggested a highly dependent personality. She loved fame and was crucified by it. The newspapers followed her progress, from rehab to new lover to rehab to new lover, through the appalling battles with Hutchence's family, without once asking if the woman might be truly ill. There was a prim subtext to all of it: let that be a lesson to you all. Oh but if only it were. And a real lesson, one which is not about easily defined rights and wrongs, but about being sick and lost and, to quote Dylan, "with no direction home".

I've seen more than a few friends die from addiction, and I lost a parent to the disease. It is closer to me in my daily life as both legacy and living issue than anything else. When I write about it, I struggle to step back and see things in anything like a cold light. So forgive me if it reads like I'm losing the plot here. I don't have an ounce of distance in me when it comes to this stuff.

And so I feel a quiet rage when I see how so much of the media distorts the truth of addiction. I watch the replays of Oliver Reed and George Best disintegrating drunk on television and feel sick in my stomach. Here are men killing themselves while we are urged to celebrate their wildness. Would we stick cancer victims on prime time and then replay the tapes endlessly for our enjoyment? It is as if there is no connection whatsoever between the wild man antics - "magnificent" I heard one chat show host call Reed - and the shivering figures pissing blood in the dawn as their livers disintegrate.

In life they are the wild ones who provide headlines or hilarious moments on television; in death they are doomed icons, fit subjects for posters and bad poetry. It is an old story. Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Michael Hutchence.... It is a longer list than this page has room for, all of them deified in death and for what? For dying lonely miserable pointless deaths?

There is a strange paradox in all of this. We revel in the antics of the public drunk and sentimentalise the drug-induced deaths of the famous. The use of Class A drugs is widely deemed acceptable among the chattering classes, and yet our laws continue to regard addiction as a criminal matter. Get lifted for heroin use or drunk driving and the first response is criminal sanction, not medical treatment for a disease. Interestingly enough, the voters of California have this week been brave enough to approve a radical proposal that would see drug offenders sent to rehab instead of prison. I have known people who've been shocked into sobriety by their experience of prison, but I've known plenty of others who travelled deeper into addiction as a result of their exposure to drugs inside.

The Paula Yates story is about a sickness that takes thousands of lives every year. Most of those lives are people you will never read about in the newspapers. They die in alcoholic wards or in desolate flats or on the streets. It is a catastrophe of indescribable proportions but we refuse to face it. There are answers. The media could get honest and stop mythologising the victims of addiction; the Government might look at the good news from America this week and think about a network of rehabilitation units across the country. Neither will happen, of course.

Now that Paula Yates is gone, the search will begin for another tragic figure to satisfy the circus crowds. But in the longer term I am not a pessimist. I have seen people turn addiction around; while the broader culture refuses to accept that we are dealing with an illness, not evil or moral laxity, the individual addict can seek the comfort of recovering fellow sufferers. And that is one direction home.

 

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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