Solving addiction lies in empowerment, not shame

Brighton's Recovery Walk is an important sign that stigma about addiction isn't acceptable.

What springs to mind when you envisage thousands of excited alcoholics and drug addicts gathered on the streets of Brighton? The casting queue for The Jeremy Kyle Show? Early opening at the dole office? A new Wetherspoons opening up on the seafront?

Last month, thousands of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts walked the streets of Brighton and Hove, in a collective effort to shatter stigma and promote addiction recovery. The annual event, now in its fourth year, aims to inspire, educate and celebrate while providing some good, clean fun.

When people think about drug addicts, the tendency is to imagine crazed criminals mugging old ladies or Trainspotting style scenes of debauchery, half-titillating, half-tragic. 

Alcoholics are pictured as hooligans on park benches, hollering into their Special Brew cans and peeing in the skips behind the supermarket. Or balloon-bellied, red-faced old codgers perched on grimy bar stools, tenured until closing time.

I'm 32 years old, female and I'm an alcoholic. I am one of the individuals who registered to tramp from Hove seafront to Preston Park to celebrate the journey from the flyblown depths of addiction to the sweet sanctuary of recovery.

Although I'm an honorary Londoner these days, Brighton is where I misspent a large proportion of my youth. In those days I didn't know I had a problem, even though I out-drank my friends on a 2:1 ratio and would undergo a Jekyll-and-Hyde style transformation after sinking several shots.

At college I used to minimise the amount I drank rather than brag about it. By university I was scornful of the silly students, getting giddy on cider down the union, as I attended lectures with a Sprite bottle secretly filled with gin, already addicted and dying inside.

Revisiting my Brighton haunts in quite a different state of mind, I felt a mixture of elation and sadness, as I considered how far I have come in my recovery and how much work there still is to do to make people understand addiction.

One of the purposes of the Recovery Walk is to show people that addiction is an illness, not a lifestyle choice. It's not about being weak-willed or immoral. It's a mental, emotional and physiological disorder that requires a Herculean effort to beat it.

People often confuse excessive drinking and recreational drug use with addiction, when, in reality, they are very different animals. Sadly, even those who play a pivotal role in addiction recovery rates, such as doctors, politicians and alcohol workers, do not always know the difference.

Misuse of substances can be linked to distinct demographic groups and identifiable causes, from bored binge-drinking teens to the curious coke-snorting middle-classes. High incidence of substance misuse can be linked to issues such as unemployment and poverty.

But actual addiction, where you progressively drink or take drugs in increasing amounts, whether your life at the time is doleful or dreamy, hits people somewhat indiscriminately, because it is an illness. When, on the verge of losing everything, you genuinely promise that 'this time' you will stop, and yet find yourself in the same excruciating trap, that is something way beyond a mere issue of self-control. When you pursue state-changing substances to the point of insanity or death that's an incomprehensible course of action to anyone but an addict.

But it's not just the public and policymakers that need an education. People still stuck on the terror-go-round of addiction need to know that there is a way out and that recovery is possible.

One of the problems with tutting at addicts and citing a lack of self-control is that people are too mortified to admit that they have a problem. And the shame associated with addiction is an issue that is carried over into recovery, too. Before initiatives such as the Recovery Walk, the sober brigade was largely invisible.

If you refused a drink in the pub because you knew it would take you to dark places, you would have to come up with some lame excuse as to why you weren't drinking. You were more likely to pretend you were taking antibiotics or driving than to tell the truth.

Historically, recovering addicts have been tucked away in dimly-lit church halls and not encouraged to share their recovery openly. This both perpetuated the stigma and meant that others who were suffering from substance problems had no public role models to turn to and no examples of recovery to aspire to.

As an addictions author and a Recovery Coach, I have made it my business to be very open about my own addiction and my subsequent recovery - because I know there are people out there who need to hear stories of recovery, so that they have hope that they, too, can beat this disorder.

I am ashamed of some of the things I did during my active addiction, but I am not ashamed of my illness. And I'm sure not ashamed of my recovery.

I always encourage others to be more vocal about recovery, but many are still reluctant. Thank goodness that some brave souls started the Recovery Walk, bringing together those who want to promote understanding and healing.

My fellow-walkers range from the well-dressed to the bohemian Brighton-ites, from young to old, hailing from diverse classes, cultures and communities. But the one thing this patchwork army of recovering addicts shares is their message of hope.

The walk itself is symbolic of the journey that an addict undertakes in order to recover. The people who have committed to walking together to promote recovery have turned from isolation to community, from fear to courage, from self-concern to serving others, from denial to honesty and from shame to self-esteem.

Solving addiction lies in empowerment, not shame, in openness, not in hiding away. We need to focus on the positive stories of recovery rather than beating addicts down with recrimination and blame.

After all, we were all hopeless cases once. And now we can give hope.

Beth Burgess is a Life and Recovery Coach, an author and an NLP Practitioner, as well as an alcoholic in recovery.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.