Addiction and Personal Responsibility

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)

 

Anxiety and Time

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Anxiety is a normal and essential part of life. It acts as a motivator. It is a function of the ancient need for vigilance, an evolutionary ‘must have’. As a part of the full spectrum of our lives we feel anxious much of the time. We worry about our children, about having to gave a talk in public, about a job interview. Wemay have lef the house then worry that we have not locked doors and windows, or that we have left the oven on.

However, anxiety goes beyond the normal range for millions of people. Anxiety is one of the commonest mental health conditions. Depression often accompanies anxiety. Anxiety is not simply a ‘mental’ state: it affects, and is affected by, the body and all its organs. . A hangover – which is a temporary illness – often brings severe anxiety to join its unwelcome symptoms. Severe anxiety, apprehension of doom or death, accompanies some heart attacks.

Among clinical anxiety orders is included a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder, a chronic unease and state of worry. Anxiety can directly affect the body with digestive disorders, ‘butterflies in the stomach’, irregular heart beat. A very intense and unpleasant experience of anxiety is in panic attacks. In panic disorders one may feel that one is about to die, that something dreadful is about to happen, even that one is abou to die. Obsessive compulsive disorder is classed as a severe anxiety disorder.

There is no neat line between ‘ordinary’ and ‘clinical’ anxiety. Mental ‘disorders’ are best seen as extremes on a spectrum of normal human experience, exremes which have a significant impact upon quality of life and funcioning. Such extremes are treated by medication, counselling and ‘talking therapies’ such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

Some people are more anxious than others because of their constitution, the genetic factors: they are in higher states of arousal, classically the condition of introverts who are uncomfortable with too much social interaction; shyness is a form of anxiety. Others are made anxious by experience. Adverse childhood experience is a key factor: abuse, inadequate parenting, trauma in a young child who lacks all the adult defences may scar permanently. Such childhood experiences can lead to a range of other problems later in life including addiction.

One of the commonest reasons for addiction taking root is given by the self-medication hypothesis. This essential states that a mood of distress such as anxiety is found to be relieved by a substance or behaviour such as gambling. Not all addiction follows this course, but where it does, recovery must take account of the underlying factors.

There are other ways of looking at anxiety than through  medical or therapeutic perspectives. For instance, it’s interesting to note that the word itself has its roots in the same Latin word which means anger, and that Latin root itself came from a meaning of choking or strangling. Anger itself is one of our basic emotions, a response to danger which is often immediate and without thought. It’s not hard to feel how some forms of anxiety are experienced as an angry turmoil. Anger is strongly related to fear. Anxiety has been likened to fear ‘without an object’, a vague but very uneasy feeling of fear that something very dangerous but ubknown is very near. When a person is anxious, having no object to be fearful of, they may ease their anxiety by turning it into fear of a specific object. Hatred and social evils such as racism are related to this process wherein a deeply anxious, fearful person projects anger towards an object.

In those many parts of the world where chronic absolute poverty, starvation, war and other horrors exist, everyday life is largely fearful of specifics. Where is the next mouthful of food coming from? Will the soldiers come tonight? But in rich nations here basic material needs are largely satisfied, for many who have everything there remains a deep underlying unease. hen all the material needs are satisfied what is the person left with? Many people prosper and live satisfying lives; many with similar material security do not. A chronic anxiety fills the days. The poet W.H.Auden coined the term ‘The Age of Anxiety’ for a long poem in the 1930s.

The sense of this sort of anxiety – unexplained fear – is accompanied by a sense of emptiness. The experience can be one of racing thoughts all going nowhere, restlessness, inability to be at peace with oneself and the world. One reason that such unease occurs in rich countries is that we have the luxury or horror of facing fundamental human problems. We spend a lot of mental energy, for instance, pushing down the fact that not only are we going to die but e may die in the next moment. We learn to block feelings of dread when people close to us suffer and die. Alone, we seek distractions to stop thinking deeply. Much – much more! – has been written around such cheerful points by philosophers and others, but the essential point is that everyone faces these questions or, more commonly, refuses to face them.

Addicts are no different. When you label someone an addict you often disguise the fact that they are as much a human being as anyone else. If you label someone a doctor, you can forget that more importantly they are a human being. In some ways people who are addicts are extreme examples of individuals who have sought and found a means of escaping a world that is ultimately meaningless. The world escaped from is full of anxiety, suffering, death – and the hard, hard work of getting along with other people (‘Hell is other people,’ the philosopher Sartre wrote). The addictive moment, when an addict engages with the drink or the gambling machine, is also an escape from time. Time is the demon at the heart of anxiety. It is the fear that the future, the next hour, the next minute, the next second will bring something overwhelmingly dreadful. The worst anxiety is Dread.

Starting in the United States, the phrase ‘the machine zone’ was employed to refer to the unique state of being between gambling machine and user. The zone is a time one more than a place one, or rather a timeless zone. All the Dread and anxiety associated with time dissolves. The ‘zone’ is a double whammy. It removes the deep negative anxiety of time and provides a positive experience of intense power, independence from the flow of time, and something akin to those ecstatic moments produced by drugs and some religious rites. The latter themselves may be deemed a form of addiction. To a lesser extent, the ‘ordinary punter’ may escape anxiety by shopping, bargain hunting, social media, internet addiction, hoarding, proud housekeeping, fooball, reading, climbing, exercise, over-eating… Addiction seen this way is an extreme example, a very harmful one, of ordinary human behaviour. Most people have a range of distractions, some healthy and some not, but addicts centre their lives around one major objec of desire.

The wealth of modern rich economies is built less on coal and steel than on consumer products. Businesses that provide these products to a large extent reach the need of customers to chase distractions from the pressures of life, and to fill what would otherwise be a terrible emptiness. Business practice is as much a reflection as a driver of culture, its own practice dependent upon and informed by the culture(s) we all live in. Some business, however, also sets out to exploit vulnerable consumers, and this can be seen in financial products including respectable high street names credit offers. The worst cases are exorbitant interest fees for loans and cheating old people of their savings and homes. In he case of gambling and drinks industries it appears that those most vulnerable to harm are exploited. Cheap high strength alcohol is made available for pocket money prices.

Moving towards a conclusion now, i can be argued that states like anxiety and depression are common experiences and we seek ways to escape them. Some ways are relativelt harmless but addiction brings with it not only severe life and health problems but an increase in both anxiety and depression. Addictive engagement seems to bring about a quick way of switching moods very quickly, that switch is the attraction. This isn’t the case for everybody: addiction is a complex condition dependent on many factors peculiar to the individual. But it’s certainly true that many people have felt ‘lost’, anxious, depressed, unable to concentrate as thoughts race. These feelings are not uncommon in society as a whole. Many who are a long way from clinical anxiety and addiction nevertheless live a life permeated by unease, a vague pervading anxiety. In the case of full blown addiction, this unease is intensely powerful and negative, and the only sure ‘way out’ seems to be the ‘fix’ which will lead, of course, to deeper anxiety, guilt, shame, all the impossible attributes of feeling helpless, powerless in the drive to do the one thing one desperately does not want to do.

Those of us who have known addiction or are struggling with it may acknowledge that we have not learned the coping strategies of facing everyday unease. The psychiatrist Sigmund Freud said that his therapy was designed simply to move people from ‘neurosis’ to ‘common unhappiness’. Even the happiest, most contented people have periods and episodes of unhappiness and unease, but they have found positive things in life against the negative background – family, music, donkey racing, clmbing, music, reading, exercise, volunteering, whatever. Recovered or recovering addicts lapse often because the negative unease persists, and perhaps it’s here that medication or other therapies are most important. But when people do recover they don’t become saints or bundles of joy: they slowly come to terms with the anxiety and unease that is part of the package that all humans have to live with to be alive.

12% of UK Doctors are Addicts

According to this site for sick doctors, 10% of the general population are estimated to be addicts. The figure rises to 12% for doctors in the UK. These figures refer to drug and alcohol addiction and do not include other addictions such a s gambling addiction. Both figures are probably highly surprising to most people. Addiction is certainly one of the most pervasive of all mental illnesses. The costs to individuals and those near them is huge in terms of grief and suffering; the cost to the nation runs into may billions of pounds.

Doctors and other front line health workers generally work under very stressful circumastances. One stressor must surely be that those they are helping or trying to help often turn against them, blame them, may be even physically violent. This may be true especially among addicts who ahve a tendency before they start on recovery to externalise their pain,  and blame whatever or whoever comes to hand. Doctors are often in a position where they can do little for a patient except refer them elsewhere. Often, when recovery from addiction has begun and the patient has gained some ownership of their own recovery, doctors can help with things like depression and anxiety.

However, going back to the figures at the top, if doctors themselves have such a high rate of addiction it seems reasonable to suggest that there is no easy medical ‘cure’ for addiction, no magic pill. If doctors cannot heal themselves, or not easily by use of medication, it follows they cannot offer easy solutions to anybody else. Doctors have to embark on recovery in the same ways as anyone else.

It’s the case that ‘addiction’ is classed as a ‘mental illness’, yet perhaps it’s true also that there is no straightforward and medication based treatment.

It may be that recovery is not a medical matter. Although medicine can help with the complexities of addiction on an individual case basis such as whether a comorbid mental health disorder needs treating initially or during recovery, by and large recovery takes place in non-medical contexts. 12 step programmes (AA,GA,NA etc.) is an obvious example (although as is well known, while some swear by the programme, some evidence regarding its efficacy suggests low success rates, and many people find it is not for them). Psychological therapies are used too, but accessing them can be very difficult, involving a long wait for treatment which is not necessarily successful.

A large number of people – in cases of alcohol addiction, for instance, maybe as many as a third of people – recover with no recourse to doctors, psychologists, 12-steps or any other agency. A well known example is that when soldiers became addicted to heroin fighting in Vietnam, 805 of them recovered without intervention on returning home to America where they were in the environment of family, home and friends. Inversely, studies show that drug addicts who stop using while in prison, sometimes for many years, resume upon release when they return to their old social networks. Environment in its broadest sense seems to play a big part in recovery.

£££Mental Health£££Education£££

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Mental Health and Education are ubiquitous topics for discussion. ‘Users’, front line providers, parents, academic research, government, media, politicians, campaigners, charities,  myriad social media comments are all apparent.

I’ll bring the two topics together later, but for now point out two separate commonalities to each. Firstly, a great deal, perhaps the majority, of discussion involves finance and resourcing.

Secondly, a less obvious but significant point, the impact of technology on each area. In education, the use of digital devices as an aid to learning is highlighted; less so educational preparation for the rapidly changing digital worlds that will succeed each other education anticipating great flexibility, genuinely transferable technical and critical skills, and engagement with the political and cultural dimensions of new digital environments. In mental health, there is also some movement towards using digital devices as remote devices to support users and provide diagnosis and feedback; there are also growing concerns that some aspects of digital device usage have negative and deleterious effects on mental health.

Returning to the first point, money. It goes without saying that exiting education and mental health services have worked very well for millions of people, and would be able to do even more with extra cash. Equally obvious, many people have not been reached or adequately supported by state provided services. Purpose built schools with the best of technology and architecture have sometimes not provided better education; some have closed a few years after opening. Despite a conveyor belt of government reports, mental health, even with a modest input of extra money, is still inadequately funded or recognised as on a parity with other health services.

But money is not the only issue. The quality of workers and curtailing their leaving jobs through stress, overload and poor pay are others. But the quality of each worker is important too in ‘delivery’. Undertraining, inadequate training programmes and general personal development are factors; more important are the qualities of each worker in terms of dedication, self-development, caring and endurance: these cannot be programmed.

Confounding everything are the myriad competing ‘theories’ of education and mental health. These relate to questions such as what is education for? What constitutes mental health? How best to promote mental health and education? Debates are largely academic rarifications, and are often not debates at all since adherents to this or that body of beliefs may be more interested in promotion than discussion, though this is the worst case scenario.

What is, or should be, clear is that whatever the conceptual muddles and inadequacies of historical and contemporary theoretical underpinnings, the huge impact of technological development with implications for every aspect of life has to be factored into debate over the design of services and allocation of resources.

Mental health is currently heavily involved with the prevention of disorders, the promotion of ‘wellbeing’. Health and illness correlate strongly with poverty, deprivation, housing, cultural capital, employment and educational level, although it is vital to remember that ill health is often apparently endogenous or correlated with lifestyle factors and choices among the more privileged sectors of society. Schools, colleges and universities report increasing instances of  mental health disorders among students. Education and mental health are linked in complex but definite ways.

There are more general social and cultural factors that are involved with increases in sadness, unhappiness and misery – often treated now as mental disease, perhaps inappropriately – among relatively comfortable classes of society. These factors, it is variously argued, are caused by things like the consumerist ethic, 27/7 lifestyles, the impact of digital technology and the blurring of work and leisure, even capitalism itself. To these may be added financial precarity, the huge challenges facing young people to even begin to reach the security of their elders, and the rapidly shifting political and global surfaces. Whether imagined or real, people in the past generally had ‘a ground of being’, yet these days there is no ground at all; for many there are no central meanings and values. It is not an exaggeration to integrate all this into the identifying of an existential crisis.

There are many discussions and even celebrations of ‘The Future’, a brave new world of exciting technology. Much of this is well warranted. Advances in health care, cleaner environments, colonisation of foreign planets (actually vital, according to Stephen Hawking, if the human race is to survive). Equally, a cursory glance suggests obvious downsides. Advances in war machines, increased wealth divides as  technological benefits are for the rich only, the fate of the unskilled and uneducated, and the law of unintended consequences – emergent factors from autopoetic complexity in development.

To conclude, yes more money is needed for everything. But it is foolish and one-dimensional to imagine mental health or education as discrete entities. Not only are these two connected, they are connected with myriad other issues in dynamic ways which cannot be simply modelled or mapped. Whether Artificial Intelligence improves our cognitive skills, we presently have to acknowledge that to a large extent we are making progress – as we also have – largely in the dark, quite crude in our conception of the landscape. Nevertheless, let’s not kid ourselves that money is the answer to everything. We need to factor in urgently not some distant future, but the one that’s already here in many ways. We need to imagine forward our humanity. This can be done by asking the deeper questions about what we mean by health and education.

 

Ade Johnston

 

Image: Gerd Leonhard, Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

 

 

Addiction. Mental Health. Which?

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We were enjoying cappuccino and chatting about the somewhat ambiguous relationship between ‘mental health’ and ‘addiction’. Not being experts, the questions we raised only represent the view from the bottom – or, more precisely, they only represent our own coffee time discussion.

  • Why do campaign groups big support organisations, medical and government sources seem very reluctant to include addiction as a mental health issue? Certainly they all mention addiction but it seems to us that it is put in a box of its own and not given anything like the prominence of, for instance, depression and anxiety.
  • This seems odd especially because it is well known that depression and anxiety alone are very closely related with substance and behavioural addictions. They may lead to addictions via ‘self medication’ or the impulse to escape intolerable pain; both are likely consequences of addiction. It’s a cycle.
  • We are aware of the concept of  ‘dual diagnosis’ or ‘comorbidity’ where addiction is often accompanied by another mental health disorder. We are aware too that this is well known among professionals and has been researched and discussed for decades. There are organisations dedicated to researching and promoting discussion around dual diagnosis, such as Progress and many others but in practice we believe on the ground support and awareness is patchy geographically or non-existent.
  • Give that some mental health disorders such as gambling addiction and bipolar have high rates of comorbid substance abuse we find it odd that publicity around the issue is very feeble.
  • Anti-stigma campaigns around mental health issues are to be celebrated if they are evidenced as effective. Stigma is a huge barrier to recovery, seeking treatment and engaging socially. Yet we are not aware of any ongoing, well-resourced anti-stigma campaigns relating to addiction.
  • In our next post we consider the prevalence of addiction in the UK. We are concerned that a great deal of suffering is not being as adequately addressed as it could and should be.