The drug and alcohol service that I attend is currently restructuring. Until now alcohol and drug users have been dealt with by different teams, keyworkers and groups. Now, for whatever reasons, they are being brought together. People addicted to drugs will be supported by the same staff dealing with alcoholics, and invited to attend the same group sessions. This has led to much discussion in groups with staff and service users. Is the addiction to alcohol and drugs different? Should the treatment of alcohol users and drug users differ?
All of the addicts I have met in my personal life or in the groups I attend started using heavily due to anxiety, stress, unhappiness and depression, or due to boredom, loneliness, poverty or a feeling of disconnection to the rest of humanity and society. Because of this I can relate to and empathise with every addict, whatever road has led them to addiction or whatever substance or behaviour they abuse. The easy, quick and initially fail-safe answer is self-medication. In my opinion the substance is irrelevant; addiction and the paths to addiction are all too similar. Nor is it always a case of ‘either/or’. Many addicts, myself included, have been addicted to alcohol and also a variety of narcotics, although not necessarily concurrently.
Mental health issues and addiction do not occur overnight. They creep up on you. If you have not suffered before, the signs are almost impossible to recognise and before you know it you can find yourself using a substance to alleviate the symptoms. Whatever the substance this escape is not and can never be a cure, but it successfully numbs and anesthetises what lies on the surface. At the beginning, a quick drink or line of coke gives you the confidence to socialise or work. In the counterculture, using an illegal narcotic with others gives you a shared experience. You are connected with other humans and the universe. Bingo! Unfortunately the slope is invariably very slippery. Patterns of behaviour are established – neural pathways grow. Your brain now tells you that you need the substance to be confident and socialise or to numb your emotional pain. It is reliable. In the beginning it works every time but it is an inescapable fact that tolerance will always grow. It will always lead to using ever increasing amounts. You are an addict and this addiction will come before everything. The only difference between alcohol and drug addiction is how and where you source your substance.
This is where the experience of an alcoholic and drug addict differs drastically. Alcohol is readily available. Shops and supermarkets, petrol stations, cinemas, theatres and the media survive on the revenue received from its sale. Drinking is accepted and encouraged by family, friends, society and the media. If there is something to celebrate or to commiserate alcohol is still accepted and expected. It is the opium of the masses.
It is a generalisation, but people who do not have an affinity with a drinking culture or mainstream society are more likely to come into contact with illegal drugs. DRUGS ARE COOL. This inescapable fact is true for many people including writers, artists, musicians, counter-culture activists and the majority of teenagers on the planet. If you use drugs it is commonplace for your circle of friends to either accept drug use or use drugs themselves. There are many intellectual and philosophical schools of thought that encourage the pursuit of altered (higher) states of consciousness through drug use. The problem is that to purchase drugs you have to break the law and delve into ever murkier circles of users, dealers and substances. To ‘use’ you put your relationships, employment and even your liberty at risk.
For many lucky people alcohol or drug use is an infrequent luxury, which has no impact on health, employment or place in society. Does society and the media look upon a ‘safe’ drinking and occasional cannabis or cocaine use as correspondingly acceptable? And how is the difference between an alcoholic and a heroin or crack addict viewed? There is deep set prejudice about addiction and substance abuse from everywhere, even from the users and addicts. It is human nature. Apparently the group sessions at Inclusion held for drug users have historically not been as well attended as the groups for alcoholics. I heard a professional in one group session state that drug users did not attend their service to pursue recovery, but to get their methadone ‘scripts’ signed off. This is surely a sweeping generalisation. I truly hope there is a widening of group attendance. It will be interesting and extremely beneficial if recovering drug users attend the group sessions. Every different perspective on addiction is valuable. I have often heard it said in groups that it is rare to leave a session without at least one thing someone says staying in your head; whether a recognition or something useful to take to your own recovery. We learn from shared experience. I know that when the alcohol recovery groups I attend are open to narcotic users, everyone will be welcomed with the same openness and honesty. In recovery there are undoubtedly more similarities in the experience of addiction than there are differences.
If anyone missed Louis Theroux’s documentary “Drinking to Oblivion” I recommend watching. I would also be interested in your views and experience of the program. You can view it on iPlayer: