For four years in my early 20s, I was a crack cocaine and heroin addict. I was arrested multiple times for stealing to feed my addiction, frequently shared needles with homeless people, and spent time as an inpatient at a mental hospital.
Having tried various treatments with no success, I eventually came off heroin by having the drug naloxone surgically implanted in my abdomen – a treatment made illegal shortly after my operation.
Even without using heroin, for the next 15 years addiction continued to be a destructive force in almost every aspect of my life. I ruined relationships, bankrupted businesses, and binged on cocaine, alcohol and prescription pills whenever I was put under pressure.
Eighteen months ago, I finally accepted that I’m an addict regardless of whether or not I take heroin, and have since undergone intensive addiction therapy. The experience has transformed my life and radically altered my understanding of what addiction actually is.
Contrary to what certain elements of the media report, and what government policy seems to suggest, drug addiction is not primarily a criminal issue, or even an issue of physical dependency – it’s a mental health issue. It’s almost always rooted in psychological distress, and the addictive substance is used as means of soothing that distress. As the Canadian physician and addiction specialist Gabor Mate succinctly put it, if we are to successfully treat the current epidemic of addiction, we need to change our thinking and ask “not why the addiction, but why the pain?”
This idea was made all the more clear to me recently when I was talking to Jimmy, a homeless guy I’ve known for almost 10 years. It’s been painful to watch Jimmy’s physical deterioration over this period of time, and his seeming inability to address his problems.
For a long time Jimmy denied being an addict, even though his glassy stare, unpredictable behaviour and general demeanour betrayed him, and it wasn’t until I told him my own background that he opened up. With considerable self-awareness, he told me that most people living on the streets have experienced horrendous childhood trauma, often sexual abuse, and that the emotional distress these events created was so great that without heroin to soothe the pain, many of them, himself included, would have taken their own lives.
Trauma is a major contributing factor to mental health problems, and addiction is often an attempt to self-medicate those problems. A well-known experiment known as “Rat Park” from 1979 underlines this connection. Bruce Alexander, a researcher at Simon Fraser University, separated a group of rats, putting some in barren isolated cages, and others in stimulating rat “theme parks”. Both groups had access to morphine and water. The isolated rats were deprived of any stimuli, in effect being traumatised, while the others had plentiful social connections and a haven-like environment. The isolated rats were seven times as likely to choose the morphine over the water.
It is important to recognise that trauma comes in many forms, and it’s not always the result of abuse. Oftentimes it’s simply an inability, for whatever reason, to develop the mechanisms to cope with the environment we find ourselves in, making seemingly innocuous environments traumatic. Recognising this is essential to understanding the roots of addiction, and to not alienate addicts who feel confused and guilty because they cannot identify with the more obvious traumatic events of others.
Our society’s current approach to drug addiction is woefully inadequate and largely ineffective. Essentially it boils down to a mixture of the criminalisation of drug addiction, and the maintenance of drug addicts using methadone and other substitutes. If either approach worked we would be seeing a reduction in the numbers of addicts. In fact we are seeing the opposite. According to the European monitoring centre for drugs and drug addiction, the UK is now the drug overdose capital of the continent.
Prescribing methadone does nothing to address addiction. To replace one highly addictive substance with another (heroin addicts often end up taking both in tandem) does not decrease dependency. And the criminalisation of drug use has not proven a successful deterrent. I know from experience that the need for the relief offered by drugs far outweighs the fear of the legal or health consequences. I was fully aware of the threat of prison, the potential for overdose and the dangers of sharing needles, but none proved even the slightest deterrent.
It was only through addiction therapy, and seeing the links between trauma, mental health and addiction, that I could unravel the reasons for my behaviour, and begin to change them.
As a society, if we are to treat the epidemic of addiction in this country, we need to do the same. It requires a shift in mindset, and a radical change in approach – a move from maintenance and punishment to therapy, understanding and compassion. We need to treat the causes of addiction and not only the symptoms, and only then will we see a reduction in addiction and overdoses. As Jimmy once said to me, “Everyone thinks we’re bad people, but most of us are people who’ve had bad things happen to us.”
James Golding is an artist who is one half of The Connor Brothers. On Wednesday 16th May The Connor Brothers will be teaming up with Professor Green to auction an oil painting at Maddox Gallery to raise money for mental health charity CALM. For more information or to leave a bid contact email@example.com.
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